February 17, 2013

How to Help a Perfectionist

Being a perfectionist is stressful but it can also be very hard on the people in the life of the perfectionist as their demands on themselves often leak out and have a great impact on those who are involved in their life-spouses and partners, children, co-workers and employees.

The perfectionist feels like they have failed or at least failed to meet enough of their own standards much of the time and this feeling gets projected out to those around them.

THE MANY SHOULDS OF LIFE

A perfectionist always feels that something must be done a certain way, that there are social laws that are immutable. I should make my bed everyday, I should respond to every email within an hour, I should make straight A’s, I should weigh X amount of pounds, I should cook full meals for my family every night, I should make flawless presentations, I should call my mother every day. The list is endless. This easily translates in the person’s mind into things the people around them should be doing. If your life is connected to a perfectionist you may be living with a tyrant.

THE TYRANNY OF PERFECTIONISM

Whether the perfectionist in your life is your boss, your office mate, your romantic partner or spouse or a parent the impact is very similar. The perfectionist always feels driven to meet standards which are extreme and difficult and they will work hard to make sure you are trying to reach those standards as well. The intensity of their internal engine can flow out to make them angry and unhappy with you as no matter how hard you try you are unlikely to meet their expectations.  Perfectionists are tyrants, never satisfied with themselves and never satisfied with you.

HELPING THE PERFECTIONIST IN YOUR LIFE

If the perfectionist is an employer or supervisor you have few tools to help the other person change but you can lessen the impact on yourself by recognizing that their dissatisfaction with your work has more to do with them than with your own performance. When criticized, try not to be defensive, respond by saying, “I did the best job I could do, I can always try to do better but I am working to give you the most effort and the best outcome.” The goal is to minimize the stress on yourself by realizing that your failure to please or satisfy has much more to do with the other person than the limitations of your work. In a tight job market few can easily change jobs so if you have to live with a tyrannical boss try to reduce how much their criticism affects you.

A perfectionist at home can be helped to see how their behavior is interfering with their life and yours. Perfectionism is a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and it does seem to be a heritable trait. Many times someone who is highly perfectionistic will have grown up where one of their parents was also a perfectionist. They may say, “well that’s how Dad taught me to do things” or “that’s how I was brought up” or “my Mom always did it that way and that’s just how I think it should be.” Of course no parent has the absolute method for living a correct life and by tapping in to the resentment your perfectionist felt about their parent’s demands, you may gain an entree in to helping them to change their standards.

Reframing and relabeling is an important part of helping the perfectionist see the impact of their thinking. “No, honey don’t worry about getting everything done before our guests come, that’s just your perfectionism.” By repeatedly pointing out what the perfectionist is doing in a supportive,non-critical matter of fact way you help them to see how difficult they make things for themselves.  If the tyrant in your life gets angry or hostile don’t allow the bullying to work for them. “I know you feel that we always have to do laundry before we go out and have fun on the weekend but it’s a beautiful day and I won’t let your perfectionism to destroy this opportunity for me and the kids. If your perfectionism makes you feel you have to do that, I’m sorry but I’m going to do something fun.”

A perfectionist lives with an endless list of internal rules. Don’t allow those to be your rules also.  Family members often go along to avoid the anger or the distress that will result in the one making the demands. Experience should teach you that there will just be new rules coming along in a never-ending sequence. Bullying requires cooperation in the household-don’t participate. The goal is to help the perfectionist see that they are only making themselves unhappy while others are enjoying life. This approach requires time and repetition to be effective. The goal is to help the perfectionist to see how their efforts cause them to be happy so that they are willing to try to change. Even small steps-don’t make the bed today, don’t help with homework today, order dinner, leave the work until tomorrow at the office-will help to break the compulsive need to do things an absolutely specific way. Each time a change is made the compulsion lessens taking the perfectionist one step closer to living a more joyful and freer life.

9 Responses

  1. B says:

    I want help with my perfectionism. It is crippling me. I’ve been this way for over a decade now…

    • Recognition of the problem is a big step. I think people are probably born with perfectionist personalities. Please get professional guidance to help you bring it under control. Thank you for speaking out.

  2. yanyan says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of related articles regarding this issue as I have been facing this kind of situation now. I am happy with my partner but the thing is he always compare the things that I do within his own set of rules and standard. End point is that I will make mistake and he always ends up telling me “I told you so and it’s because you are not thinking”.

  3. the other side of perfectionism says:

    This article has some good points but I think it misses some of the other manifestations of perfectionism. Such as those of us who are paralyzed by perfectionism and the depression it can cause

  4. kathy says:

    The perfectionist seems to me to be unable to live in the here and now! They’re always looking for what’s wrong, being judgmental. I delight in my imperfections because I accept them. My passion is to live the moment in the moment – the joy of the present. I’m much happier than when I worried whether people liked me and if my actions pleased them. In other words, I sing like no one’s listening and dance like no one’s watching. And to be honest, by other’s standards, my singing and dancing are far from perfect. But … those moments are my pure joy. Happy trumps perfect every day!

    • A person with OCD wants to be this way but isn’t capable of it. There really is an internal demon driving them that they can’t control. They can learn how with cognitive behavioral techniques and for some people SSRI medications are very effective. A perfectionist is always worried, it’s how they are wired and without conscious effort and accepting that it’s a problem, it won’t change.

  5. Tiptoeing Around The Tyrant..... says:

    This really hits home. My mother is a perfectionist, and a bully in the house, a person who’s entire day is spent following the rules / ‘shoulding’ on herself and everyone around her. If only she would even be open enough to try some of your techniques with, she gets extremely defensive and shuts down immediately if anyone disagrees with her, or tries to make her aware of a different way of doing things. At this point, physical distance seems to be the only way to get away. What does all of this really do for a person? Are they kept so busy failing within themselves that it is their way of controlling how they fail with others? I say this because sometimes she reminds me of a bipolar person I know who refuses to take their meds, but self-medicates with alcohol because that way they get to be in control. Great post. I don’t know that I can use your suggestions with family members, but if I can apply it to myself so I’m not a dragon with my kids I have a chance at breaking the pattern.

    • This is an issue I hear about frequently. Some parents can be quite abusive in their demands. Reasoning with the perfectionist rarely works, it takes some stonewalling, some power plays. Children have no power so they are the most victimized by a parent’s perfectionism. If it is a two parent household the other parent must step in to protect the children.

      And yes, perfectionists feel like chronic failures and it is this anxiety which drives them. No amount of effort in themselves or the people the bully will relieve that anxiety. Treatment is really necessary.

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