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Posted by on Jul 31, 2013 in Educate, Elevate, Empower, Woman on the RISE | 0 comments

Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist – Anne Riley

Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist – Anne Riley

Confessions Of A Recovering Perfectionist

I am a recovering perfectionist.  My descent into this disease started early in life.  I had my first experience with it in the 4th grade, when I stressed out about my first ever research report for geography class.  I was assigned to write about India.  I didn’t know anything about India. And I knew less about research reports. I dug in anyway, determined to succeed.  While my classmates were out playing kickball and cavorting on swings, I drowned myself in the “I” encyclopedia and thick books from the library.  I spent nights and weekends in a stupor trying to solve the perplexing mystery of fitting thousands of years of history that I did not understand into a perfect form.

My solution?  Volume.  I would impress my teacher with facts, more facts than she would know what to do with.  And I did.  My paper came in at fourteen pages, nearly five times the requested length.  But I got an “A.”  I mean, an “A+.”  That sealed it for me.  Perfectionism was worth it.  It made me miserable, kept me awake at night, and often made me hard to be around. But for those few sweet moments of success, it was worth it.  I was hooked.

The stakes rose higher when I had graduated from college with my accounting degree and took a job as a payroll accountant in a processing plant in Portland, Oregon.  It was the 1980’s and Oregon was suffering from a deep recession.  I was newly married, pregnant, and thrilled to find a job at all. I wanted to prove to my new bosses that they would not be sorry they had hired me.  After a few weeks of processing the payroll, I began researching the documentation behind all of the payroll items. I wanted to make sure I knew every detail.  I immediately discovered that the pension contributions were being calculated incorrectly.  I carefully determined the correct amounts. On the next payroll cycle, I adjusted the pension amounts of hundred of workers, resulting in an increase in the withheld taxes and a reduction in net pay.

Oops.  The excrement hit the fan.  A parade of workers lined up outside my office and demanded to know why I was cheating them out of their hard earned pay.  I explained my calculations. The workers were not mollified. It wasn’t long before the owner of the company was standing inside my office, demanding an explanation.  Double oops.  I showed him the documentation that explained how the pension deductions were supposed to work.  I showed him the previous calculation. I showed him the correct calculation.  I showed him the adjustment. He nodded his head as if he understood.

The next thing I knew he was huddled in his office with the boss of the local union, trying to prevent a riot on the processing floor. When the door opened two hours later, I was told in no uncertain terms to reverse my ‘correction.’ I was mystified.  I knew my calculations were right. But everything had gone unexpectedly wrong.  The workers got back their hard earned pay.  And I, luckily, did not get fired.

These two experiences show that, like many traits, perfectionism can be a double-edged sword.  It can be positive and lead to great success.  But if carried too far, it can lead to frustration and even inhibit success.

Perfectionism is a trait that lies deep at the heart of a person. I don’t believe it can be easily changed, or switched off, like so many of my past bosses ‘asked’ me to do. Nor would that be desirable. The trick to successful perfectionism is in moderation.  Ha!  How is that for irony?  Perfectionism is, by definition, extreme behavior.  All you need to do is moderate your extreme behavior! But this is exactly the needle that one needs to thread to make perfectionism become an asset and not a liability.

First, as usual, let’s start with a definition.  Perfectionism.  There are many descriptions, but these common behaviors are most associated with perfectionism:

1. Expectation of performing at a high or excellent standard

2. Refusal to accept less than a high or excellent standard

3. Belief that a high or excellent standard is attainable.

Whether perfectionism is positive or negative depends not on the definition but in the behavior of the perfectionist.  These guidelines identify healthy and unhealthy attributes of perfectionism.

Characteristic

Positive

Negative

Perfection is

Something to strive for

Something to demand

Satisfaction derives from

Striving for perfection

A perfect result

Acceptable outcomes

May not always be perfect

May only be perfect

Perfection is

Not always possible

Always possible

Lack of perfection

Motivates you

Frustrates you

View of Others

Not everyone is perfect

Imperfect people are substandard

Self Esteem in the face of imperfection

Still intact

In jeopardy

Detail orientation

Attentive

Obsessive

Ability to Persevere

Yes

Beyond the normal range

The difference is a matter of degree.  The same underlying sense of perfectionism exists, but the negative version is taken to a further extreme than is useful or helpful.

I firmly believe that a person can move from negative to positive perfectionism.  Like anything worthwhile, it may not be easy and does require a new way of behaving, but it is not impossible.  And better, it does not force you to eliminate this trait, only modify it so that it fits the world you live in.  Here are some techniques that may help with this transition.

Embrace Perfectionism.  If you are a perfectionist, accept it.  Don’t deny it.  Don’t make excuses for it.  Accept it. Next, take a critical look at your perfectionism and make an honest assessment about whether you have some or all of the negative attributes.  You cannot fix something if you don’t know it is broken.

Add Relativity. We’re not talking Einstein here, but we are talking about you and your definition of perfection.  What you think is perfection, isn’t.  It is just your definition of perfection.  Others may disagree with you. Before starting an activity, do a little research. Ask others, especially a boss who has assigned you the work, to offer her definition of perfection for you. Or read up on the subject. The Internet is a great tool for this.  There are a myriad of opinions, but it doesn’t take long to find the common elements on any subject.  With a little research you can develop a reliable definition of that high standard you can accept as ‘perfection.’ Once you widen your view and see how others view an activity, it may help you to change your approach.

Work to your strength. There are two types of perfectionism.  You like to concentrate deeply on a few subjects. Or you like to cover a broad area in less detail.  Rare is the person who can do both.  And if you think you are one of those rare ones, but you often find yourself frustrated and on the verge of burning out, you aren’t.  So choose. Determine which way you work best, and then work to your strength.  Unfortunately, in the real world, this is not always easy.  Most of us are being pulled in many directions, and even though we want to do a few things well, we often find ourselves with too many tasks and not enough time to do them. If you are a deep and narrow perfectionist, check with your boss as to what level you can go on a project.  Or if you are a parent who wants to be involved in your child’s activities, limit the number of activities so that you can participate at the level at which you feel most comfortable.

Lengthen you perspective. Sometime perfectionism looks a lot like impatience.  You want to get everything done perfectly. Right now.  It is often this self-induced demand that perfection be immediately achieved that causes frustration.  Instead, form a longer view.  List all of the things that define perfection for a particular task.  Then spread them out over time.  Then double the time frame. Look for perfection in the steps you take, not just in the final outcome. Seeing perfection build slowly can be just as satisfying as focusing only on the end result. 

Widen your perspective. When you spend an inordinate amount of time doing particular tasks, you are limiting your ability to do new and different ones. In a work setting, this can cut you off from opportunities to advance. I know you don’t want to hear this but you cannot do everything.  Really.  You can’t.  You get 24 hours a day like everyone else.  But being a perfectionist, you do have an advantage.  You can get a lot done.  And if you can balance the quality with the quantity, you can succeed where others don’t. But you will need to widen your perspective.

Look at all of your responsibilities as a single group, rather than individual tasks that each need to be done perfectly.  View perfection as the performance of all the tasks together. Set priorities for each of the tasks. Then work through a given number, say two or three of the priorities for one task, and then move on to another.  Keep iterating through your tasks in this manner until you run out of time.  When you stop and look back at the totality of your work, you will find that you did the most important things in a number of different areas.  And you may even find that some of those less important priorities on those task lists are not even necessary and may be eliminated. And that means you are now able to add new tasks.  Voila, you have widened your perspective, accomplished many things in many areas, and left room for new opportunities.

Think systematically. Sometimes prioritization is nice in theory but just doesn’t work. I am an accountant, and sometime I would have a large project that required me to be 100% accurate.  Detail after detail after detail had to be correct.  I remember some pretty late nights.  My boss would tell me, “You don’t need to do all that work.” But I knew the tax or accounting reporting requirements, and I knew that I did indeed have to do all of that work. I was stuck. Exhausted. Near burn-out. Frustrated that I could not get to other tasks.  But I also learned, when I started feeling this way, to realize that there had to be a better way.  And I began to systematize my thinking and to develop ways to reconfigure these projects so they could be done more efficiently.  When things settled down, I implemented those systematic changes.  I bought software that would automate the most time intensive part of the work. I scheduled review tasks to be done quarterly rather than annually. I hired a temp during the busy season to keep up with the paperwork. What happened when those busy weeks arrived the following year? The work went smoothly, the stress level was greatly reduced, and the quality and quantity of the output remained high.

Aristotle is most famous for asserting that “all things in moderation,” is the key to a successful life.  I think he was right.  Even a trait like perfectionism, whose core characteristic is, by definition, extreme, can be successfully implemented as long as it is tempered with a longer, wider, and more systematic perspective. If you suffer form perfectionism as I do, I encourage you to try these techniques.  And I wish you nearly perfect days ahead!

{Editor’s Note: Anne Riley, Author of Elusive Little Sucker,  is a Featured Contributor for Women Who RISE. You can read more of Anne’s work, and learn more about this tenacious author, on her website, www.annerileyauthor.com}