“The problem is…………I’m a perfectionist”

I am coaching an increasing number of millennials, as they make their way up the corporate ladder, or as their start-up begins to grow and flourish, and I am often confronted by a variation on the assertion that:

“Well, the problem is, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and it is making me anxious and unhappy”

Often the statement is dropped in to a conversation, as a bald declaration of fact, and something that they, and everyone else, is just going to have to live with.

A reply of “Well, just don’t be…” from me has not turned out to be very helpful and is certainly not very good coaching, so I have been doing some work on the extent to which “perfectionism” is a thing and, if it is, whether there is anything perfectionists can do to make work more satisfying for themselves, and happier for everyone else.

And, of course, perfectionism in psychology is a real thing. In fact, psychologists have not only identified a condition called “Perfectionism”, they have described three manifestations of the condition:

  • Self-Oriented Perfectionists have very high standards, evaluate themselves remorselessly and may avoid taking on difficult tasks for fear of failing. They find the “good enough” culture of work bound by tight budgets and strict deadlines excruciating. There is also evidence that self-oriented perfectionists fail to learn from their mistakes as they find it so hard to confront them.
  • Other-Oriented Perfectionists set unrealistically high standards for others and pursue them unceasingly without seriously considering their effect. This perfectionist exists in a state of constant frustration at the shortcomings of those around them and everyone else suffers a combination of frustration at the demands of the perfectionist and a sense of failure at their own shortcomings.
  • Finally, the perils for Socially Prescribed Perfectionists are becoming increasingly dangerous as they are the people who find themselves under enormous external pressure to be perfect in every way and always take the view that others are constantly evaluating them critically. This is the group most challenged by the projection of seemingly perfect lives onto “Facebook” and “Instagram” and, at work especially, “LinkedIn”. Evidence is emerging that all social media users are made to feel inadequate in comparison to the projection of “perfect lives”, so the dangers for socially prescribed perfectionist are that they are left feeling utterly inadequate, fraudulent, anxious and completely unable to fulfil their role at work.

In its most extreme forms, labelled “maladaptive” or “neurotic” by psychologists, perfectionists can become increasingly negative, intolerant and anxious, which can easily form a downward spiral towards depression. So the objective for someone with perfectionist characteristics is to become an “adaptive” perfectionist, someone who strives to do well and gains satisfaction from their achievements, but can also tolerate a degree of failure and imperfection without resorting to harsh self-criticism or intolerance of others.

Whilst adaptive perfectionists are focused on doing things right, they also retain a sense of self-worth independent of their performance, are able to remain relaxed whilst striving to do their best and are motivated to receive constructive feedback, aware that it will include some criticism. Unlike maladaptive perfectionists, adaptive perfectionists seem to be able to accept a degree of failure and criticism, and use it to feed their motivation to perform better the next time.

So, what is to be done? How do you prevent the slide from adaptive to maladaptive perfectionism?

Well, one of the ways is to use some simple “thinking” techniques to keep events in context and in perspective. You can use these on yourself, your colleagues, your reports or your boss.

We all have a tendency to overgeneralise, to jump to conclusions and to find support for our pre-existing positions with little reference to the facts.  Perfectionists are particularly prone to such thoughts. I call them “inhibiting beliefs” and here are a few simple examples:

  • “I have to get that promotion, otherwise I will be a complete failure”
  • “My team never meets its deadlines”
  • “If I don’t win this piece of work, I am going to be sacked”
  • “I cannot bear to be in the same room as him”
  • “My manager never asks for my opinion”

We all have a propensity to wallow in these sorts of “inhibiting beliefs”, almost enjoying a morbid satisfaction in their unfairness, or their confirmation of long held prejudices.

I propose that you confront these sorts of “inhibiting beliefs” with questions and challenges which introduce some shades of grey and help to provide context, objectivity, realism and a degree of proportionality; questions such as:

  • What would your best friend say to you about not getting the promotion?
  • What are you doing to help the team make its deadlines?
  • What will this “failure” look like in a year’s time?
  • Do you have to like everybody you work with? Can’t you survive together professionally?
  • How can you actively manage your manager to develop a more constructive relationship?

By introducing a sense of perspective and some modifying thinking, it might then be possible to develop some useful and constructive actions, such as seeking feedback from the failed promotion and calmly deciding whether it is worth another attempt,  whether another route to the top is more realistic, or whether to actively seek to work constructively with a colleague you do not personally like.

This isn’t rocket science, but it is good cognitive behavioural psychology and it might just help you or the perfectionist millennials in your team to remain “adaptive”, and to use their adaptive perfectionism to be the best they can, without ruining their own lives, and making everyone else’s life a misery.