How to Live With a Perfectionist Without Going Crazy

June 2, 2010
Once you accept the fact that your partner or close friend is a perfectionist, what do you do about it?

NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of articles on Living With a Perfectionist.

Mandala of trianglesOkay, you haven’t really been sure, but now you know that someone with whom you have a close relationship is a perfectionist. Now you understand the hidden struggle your perfectionist has in feeling she must meet high standards in order to simply be consider “okay.” And now you also understand why she became that way. Nevertheless, you want to be able to live with this person, or accept her when you are together, without having those high standards come between you.

So what do you do about it?

Acknowledge your perfectionist’s accomplishments

If you are proud of what your perfectionist partner has done, say so. Withholding praise because she needs it so much won’t make her less anxious. And as she makes progress in working to overcome her perfectionism, be sure to tell her that you appreciate her efforts. Becoming a recovering perfectionist is a long journey. Recognizing she (and you) have made progress opens the door to progress in the future.

Imagine you are planning a picnic and suggest she keeps it simple. You realize she has resisted the urge to bake another batch of cookies, or stop at the store for the perfect accompaniment to the meal. When the picnic is over, say something like, “Honey, that was a great picnic. I enjoyed just being with you and taking time to relax. I hope you enjoyed it, too.” This gives her the space to accept your definition of a “great picnic” and to know that you enjoyed it even without the extra cookies or gourmet crackers.

Model an open response to criticism

It is hard for almost anyone to accept criticism without an emotional response. And when shame and anger have long been the dominant emotions in reaction to criticism, there is a tendency to minimize whatever truth there may be in the other person’s opinion in order to avoid feeling those uncomfortable feelings. So it wouldn’t hurt for you to learn how to listen without anger or denial when others point out positions that oppose yours. Also, learning calming techniques, like yoga and meditation, can be helpful for both of you.

Be clear and concise when expressing what you need: Remember that your perfectionist does a lot of guessing what you, and others, want from her. If she has to ask, that means she hasn’t been able to discover your goal by herself. Therefore, make certain that she knows what you want — and that you don’t want more than that. Let her know that if she can’t do what you want, you’ll still love her. If she needs help, you’ll be glad to assist her.

Offer your opinion clearly and without anger

The benefit of being in a relationship is the opportunity to learn from the other person. Yet you may tend to store up resentments or be reluctant to comment honestly on a project that has turned out poorly in the fear that your comments will trigger her shame and anger, or that you will slide into old arguments.

However, if you are unwilling to address issues important to you and don’t stand up for yourself, you will unintentionally leave her with the expectation that, first of all, you expect 110% performance from her and, second, that you don’t think it’s possible for her to change. On the other hand, if you are direct, open, honest, kind, and respectful, she will find it easier to lower her standards.

For example, assume that you are going on a trip and are afraid she will bring more clothes than she can wear. Also, if fashion is not your cup of tea, you may not even notice if she dresses in the latest style. But you won’t get very far if you say, “It’s stupid to bring more clothes than you can wear in one week. Who cares what you look like?” You’ll get much further with, “I would appreciate it if you would only bring enough clothes to fit in one suitcase. Not only will we save money on air fare, but it will mean less luggage to carry. Besides, you look good in everything. Just bring the basics and have fun.”

Present your point of view as simply your opinion, one version of the truth.

Always remember that she is sensitive to whether someone presents himself as an “authority” who is going to tell her what to do. When she convinces herself that you are trying to be the boss, putting her in a subservient position, she will be angry (though she’ll cover it up very well) and find ways to discount your opinion. This means that it is important for you to discuss your issues and the ideas you have for resolving problems in the relationship when there is enough time for both of you to openly explore your different points of view and find common ground.

Help her set a reasonable time frame in which to finish a project

Unrealistic expectations for finishing a job have tripped me up more times that I can count. Sadly, when I’m in my perfectionist mode and am not through in the time I said I would be, I feel I have somehow “failed.” The only failure is in my estimation of how long the job needs for completion. With my standards, I fail to realize that I can only get the job completed in the time I give myself if I have absolutely no other responsibilities, feel energized all day, have no interruptions, know how to do everything before I begin, and my computer doesn’t break down.

Address the fear of abandonment

All of us, from time to time, may be afraid that our spouse will find someone who is more handsome, wittier, and accomplished than we are, and whose qualities may cause our spouse to view us in less flattering light. Assure her that you will always be there — if you honestly intend to be — and that you are committed to making the relationship work. The more she is assured of your love, the easier it will be for her to lower the standards she feels she must reach in order to keep you from leaving.

Forgive yourself and your partner

There is no relationship in which everyone doesn’t make mistakes. We all need to learn how to forgive. This is especially true when a person has been raised in a home where there is a strong belief in a judgmental God. Fear that one has made a work or social faux pas is far different than fearing one may fail in the final judgment.

In this regard I am blessed in being raised by a Lutheran minister, so I was taught that I was saved by faith, not works. Although I have since left the church and followed a spiritual path of my own, I am not burdened by the fear that I may not be interpreting scripture the “correct” way. Today I believe there are many paths to truth and I am glad I’ve learned how to forgive myself by letting go of the expectations and demands I had placed on myself that I should have been able to do something I hadn’t known how to do. I’ve also learned how to forgive others for not being able to do what they didn’t yet know how to do.

As I often tell my clients, no one wakes up in the morning with the intention of making a mess out of his or her life. We all do the best we can with what we know at the time.

Learn to laugh

A spouse who laughs and hugs his wife when the gourmet dinner she worked on all day is a disaster sends a message that he can still love her despite her failed attempt at perfection. I can guarantee you that if you develop a sense of humor —which is one of the contributions my husband makes to my recovery from perfectionism — it will make it easier for her to resist the need to excel when excelling isn’t necessary. Laughing with her, not at her, will lighten the ground between extremes in her life and in yours.

Encourage counseling

The more strongly a perfectionist has been criticized as a child, the more any perceived criticism or negative comments will trigger shame and anger. In fact, in some cases it may be almost impossible to accept criticism as anything but an attack or the threat of attack. Further, if your partner was repeatedly abused in a family where no one offered comfort and understanding, she may need much more help than you can give her. Her belief that she doesn’t deserve to be loved by someone, even a wonderful person like you, may translate to a belief that anyone with whom she falls in love won’t be able, or willing, to love her back.

You may see yourself as the knight in shining armor who has been placed on this earth to comfort, encourage, and protect your perfectionist partner. That’s not a particularly bad goal. But remember that you may have a few flaws in your character as well — okay, let’s be honest, you aren’t perfect either. An objective person may be able to help you sort out the characteristics within you that get hooked by your perfectionist, and help you see the traits within her that get hooked by you. These traits may or may not have nothing to do with perfectionism.

On the other hand, with a little counseling you may discover that you, too, have some hidden perfectionistic tendencies, which may just be why your partner’s perfectionism bothers you so much. In that case, you can help each other become recovering perfectionists.

In the next, and last, article in the Living With a Perfectionist series, you will learn how to prevent your children from developing this common but difficult personality style.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to read the rest of
the Living With a Perfectionist series.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

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