How to work with a perfectionist, without it driving you crazy.
Words Dr Alice Boyes. Illustration Janelle Barone, Makers MGMT
Perfectionists have many strengths but can also be annoying and wearing. Check out these tips for better understanding and coping with the perfectionist in your life.
1. Understand what drives a perfectionist.
When you recognise what a perfectionist’s internal struggle is, it can help you to not personalise their behaviour. There are several different varieties of perfectionists. A narcissism-driven perfectionist requires ultra high standards from colleagues and employees because others’ work reflects on them. The performance of the people around them needs to reflect their inflated self-perception. For example, they think “the product we create together has to be flawless, because I need to be perceived as flawless.”
On the other hand, anxiety-driven perfectionists come in two main types. One is the overcompensator – they’re extra fussy to counteract their sense of imposter syndrome or because they’re trying to protect against what could go wrong. This type of perfectionist sees only two outcomes – perfection and disaster. Their rigidity is aimed at preventing disaster. The other type of anxious perfectionist is the avoider, who gets so hung up on meeting their own standards that they resist getting started on tasks and then take excessively long to complete them.
2. Identify and tweak your internal reactions.
Consider this scenario: Your colleague or spouse is taking a ridiculously long time to finish a single task, even though there are 10 other things you need their help with. If you are personalising their behaviour you might think “Why aren’t they contributing more? They’re fussing around with that one task and leaving me to do everything else.” Or, you’re on a team with an overcompensating perfectionist. You feel exhausted by their insistence that all the details of the project are exactly the way they want them, causing extra work for you.
When you understand your loved one or colleague is blinded by their perfectionism, you can more easily see their behaviour as their general pattern rather than it being about not caring about your workload or respecting your time and expertise. Viewing their behaviour this way won’t completely dissolve your frustration, but it will help you take it less personally.
3. Help the perfectionist stay focused on overall aim.
The irony of perfectionism is that over-focusing on small details can sometimes get in the way of doing well overall. For example, your project goes over-budget or over-time because a perfectionist is nitpicking. Or, the avoidant perfectionist holds back from making decisions e.g. when a perfectionist spouse can’t find a house to buy so you’re stuck renting.
To help a perfectionist maintain clarity, you may need to help them break down all the steps of a project, so it’s easier for them to see they can’t be excessively nitpicky about every single step. You’ll often need to set some boundaries when dealing with perfectionists, including the narcissism-driven type. For example, set some limits on how many revisions you do, and how much time you spend on aspects of projects.
Anxiety-driven perfectionists in particular often end up appreciating when other people help them contain their perfectionism with some boundaries. However, their initial reaction may be defensiveness, before they later appreciate your help more. Lastly, when one aspect of someone annoys you, it’s important to recognise what they are good at. When people feel like their strengths are appreciated, it’s easier for them to accept some limits, guidance and feedback.
Dr Alice Boyes is author of the books The Healthy Mind Toolkit (2018) and The Anxiety Toolkit (2015).