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.


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.


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.


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.