What Advice Would You Give a Perfectionist?

August 10, 2011
If you are a perfectionist who is tired of feeling you always have to give 110% to whatever you do (or know of someone like that), what advice would work best for you?

You are invited to come along on my vacation that begins today:

Today we are driving up to San Francisco to meet our grandson . . . who is being driven by our son from Fortuna (northern California) down to my brother-in-law’s in Palo Alto . . . where we’ll leave our car while we fly together to Boston . . . rent a car and drive to Lexington, Massachusetts, where my daughter lives . . . walk around historical sites for a couple days . . . drive for three hours up to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, for an Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) Intergenerational program on sailing . . . enjoy five days learning to sail . . . drive back to Boston (it’s cheaper that way than flying out of Maine) . . . fly back to San Francisco . . . pick up our car and drive to northern California to return our grandson . . . visit a few other family members there . . . and drive home!

During this sojourn I have pre-scheduled three posts a week while I’m gone so that when you come here while I’m driving, flying, walking, driving, sailing, driving, flying, and driving again, you’ll find something here that may interest you.

Of course, if you are on vacation, I rather hope you don’t bother visiting here. You need to enjoy wherever you have gone, and the blog will be here when you return.


Include Your Suggestions in an Ebook for Perfectionists

In my last newsletter I said that I plan to put together an e-book for perfectionists (and those who live with them). I thought it would be a good idea to have a compilation of advice on the subject besides my “Lessons of a Recovering Perfectionist.”

So whether or not you are a perfectionist, I invite you to tell me:

  • Your definition of perfectionism.
  • The best advice you would give someone who is a perfectionist.
  • If you are a perfectionist, the best advice you’ve been given and whether you’ve taken that advice.AND, if you have a story, funny or otherwise, include that as well.

I will not use your name, or initials, unless you give me permission. But I will include your advice in the book. I won’t tell you when I expect to publish it, for that would only play into the hands of my own perfectionist, who thinks she can manage my time with a zillion projects and get them all done according to her optimistic schedule.

If you have any friends who have been able to go from practicing to recovering perfectionist, please share this project with them. I would love to know what it is that has helped others overcome the pressure to do better than one needs to do, or perhaps even can do.

To fill out the form, click on this link: Perfectionism Survey.

Since I wrote the newsletter, I’ve decided that anyone who fills out the perfectionism survey would be entered into a raffle for a print book of Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life.  If you win, I will contact you for your address.

Thanks for giving me information on perfectionism. I can use all the help I can get.

Did you enjoy this post?
Here are a some related posts from this blog, and articles from the Support4Change website:


Hiatus for a Perfectionist

May 2, 2011
What do you do when there is more work than time and you don’t want to disappoint people?

Pink Hibiscus budsPeriodically I’ve shared how I get so caught in the pull of feeling I have to do everything well, and of assuming others expect me to do everything well,  that if is hard to simply let life unfold, like these buds will unfold to create exotic flowers — but not until when they are good and ready.

That is the position I am in today. When I think about all the things I want to do this month (including attending the wedding of our oldest grandson), I can’t figure out how I can possibly write as many posts as I think you would like. Yet when I put on my recovering perfectionist hat, I know that I have several choices:

I can force myself to stay awake longer than my body wants me to so that I can meet a standard you may — or may not — have for my blog. (Think I’ll not chose this option.)

I can tell myself that readers are not going to die if they don’t find something new here at least twice a week.

I can write when I am able and as well as I can and let that be well enough.

I can tell myself that the sun will shine tomorrow no matter how many posts I write.

I can suggest that my readers come to the blog about once a week and check to see if I’ve found time to add something new.

I can suggest that my readers use an RSS feed to know when a new post is added.

I can suggest my readers check their emails for a Support4Change Newsletter (that is, for when I have time to organize one) and that the newsletter will tell you what is latest on the blog.

Okay. Have I made myself clear? Actually, I was talking to myself, not to you. I already know that faithful readers will enjoy whatever they find when they come here. Unfaithful (that is, irregular) readers won’t particularly care and will enjoy what they find when they come here.

Anyway, for today’s mini-topic (since I don’t have time for extensive writing), I’d like to share something I wrote today as a comment on the blog of a friend. We’re All Riders on This Bus was David Spero’s recent post on his blog, Reason to Live. Incidentally, he has previously written article for the Support4Change website based on his experience as a nurse with MS, which makes his blog on “Healing Stories and Self-Care Strategies For Chronic Illness, Depression, and Hard Times” based on real, and caring, experience. Here is what I wrote:

Often when we ask someone what they are good at, they will say, “Oh nothing much. I just like to talk to people, or I like to sew, or I like to cook. . . ,” or any of a hundred things that seem so ordinary. But to someone who is extremely sky, talking is a challenge. To people who can’t find the hole in the needle, sewing is extreme art. To someone who can’t boil eggs, cooking is a mystery. For everything we do well without effort, there is someone who would love to change places with us.

If I were to take my advice, I would say that if you are someone who can easily skip writing on your blog without a second thought, I envy you. If you would like to write a blog, even if not every day, perhaps you envy me. It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

What gift do you have to give? What gift do I have to give? Perhaps it’s time to realize our lives are very short and we can only live them for as long as we are given. Make the most of it. Don’t regret what you can’t do if you’re having fun doing whatever else you are doing.

That’s the way I’m approaching today. If you come back here and see these buds, to remind you that life unfolds like a blossom and you can’t make it open faster by working harder, you’ll know that I’m enjoying myself and will be back as soon as I can.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Did you enjoy this post?
Here are a some related posts from this blog, and articles from the Support4Change website:


Preventing Perfectionism in the Next Generation

June 4, 2010
If you or your partner is a perfectionist (or if both of you are), how can you help your children strive for reasonable goals and accept the inevitable mistakes they will make as normal experiences in life, rather than see them as evidence that they are not worthy as a person?

NOTE: This is the fifth and last in a series of articles on Living With a Perfectionist.

Mandala of linesAre your children headed down the path of perfectionism because your partner (with perhaps some help from you) is pushing them in that direction? These days, when overindulgent parents are extraordinarily focused on their child’s future success with high expectations and competitive pressure, they unintentionally plant seeds for a weak sense of self and unrealistically high standards. Wanting outward approval, these children are vulnerable to the delusion that wealth, meeting the standards of others, and a position of power create happiness.

How can parents prevent perfectionism and still encourage success? First and most important, make certain your children know that they are absolutely loved no matter how many A’s they bring home, that they don’t have to do anything to earn your love. Help them accept their mistakes as opportunities to learn, not evidence they aren’t good enough. Give them lots of space and time to play as they choose, without expecting every moment to be filled with “useful” activities. Encourage them to first try to figure out problems by themselves and then to ask questions when they are stumped.

To the greatest extent possible, see that your children attend a good public or private school. Beyond that, help them begin to discover the pleasure of being as responsible for themselves as they possibly can. I can guarantee you that being responsible for themselves will come sooner than you might now imagine.

When children are young, they need help getting to school on time and doing their homework. However, before very long you need to step back and recognize that waking up in time to get to school is their responsibility. Homework is their responsibility. Deciding which extra-curricular activities will enrich their lives is their choice. And selecting a career or training program is theirs to make.

Clearly you have an interest in their lives in and out of school. Knowing what’s going on and why they make the choices they make is an important part of being parents. Adding your input is obviously helpful. Discipline is essential. But in my work with adults who feel strangely empty and anxious, I often find that their parents didn’t help them learn how to stand on their own two feet and to be responsible for themselves. By giving their children everything they wanted and always being there to catch them before they fell, they didn’t have the chance to learn from their own mistakes.

Here is a small thing, but it is often a signal that children feel they must be perfect: they ask for extra time to finish a project because they couldn’t make it “good enough” within the time frame everyone one was given. They want to add more colorful pages or illustrations, even if they will only add 5 points for “artistic presentation” on a 60 point project. When parents don’t point out the unfairness of that request, and when teachers allow extra time, the child can feel “proud” of getting a good grade without recognizing that if everyone were to have more time, others would also get better grades. The extra credit was courtesy of extra time.

After all, when your children become adults and have a job that requires them to finish a report for a three o-clock meeting, they won’t be given an extra two hours to make it better. They’ll have to know what is most important to include, and what can be left out. Learning to stop at “good enough” is one of the best lessons you can teach your children.

My best friend in college did not get all “A’s” but was satisfied in doing the best she could. I felt I had to bring home the best grades and in one final exam I even cheated, I am now sorry to say, and once asked for an extension on a test, claiming I had a cold. The truth is that I had had a cold, but I was certainly over it enough that I could have taken the test. I wouldn’t have done as well as I did by having extra time to study, but getting a better grade seemed so important at the time.

Today, after a highly successful career as an educator, my friend is widely respected and has mentored many teachers and administrators and teaches graduate students. She even has a school named after her! Good grades didn’t get her there. She got there because she was resourceful, resilient, compassionate, and had a strong sense of self.

As I come to the end of my comments in these five posts on the blog about living with a perfectionist, let me say that I have wanted them, and anything else I write, to be well-written. The better I write, the more likely you are to understand what I want to say. However, if I realize after it has gone to print that I might have said something more effectively, or if I left out something I wish I had included, I won’t believe that who I am at my core is flawed. As a recovering, rather than practicing, perfectionist, I know that my value as a human being is not dependent on whether I do everything 110%.

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

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

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

What Caused Your Partner’s Perfectionism?

May 31, 2010
Understanding the origins of perfectionism makes it much easier to help your partner and to not get caught in her need to control.

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

Line mandala with circle at centerHow does a complex personality, such as perfectionism, develop? Usually it began when we decided that our parents, good souls though they may otherwise have been, didn’t think we were okay unless we met their expectations. Those expectations may have been perfectly reasonable, but we concluded that we weren’t okay just as we were — only when we performed. Come home with all A’s and one B? I’d be questioned on why I got the B.

It is nice to get praise for doing well, of course. Praise helps us know we have reached the goals someone thinks we can reach. Praise can reinforce the good feeling that comes from finishing a difficult task. All of us like to experience that sense of achievement. Winning a race can leave us feeling we’re on the top of the world. The problem is that no one stays on the top forever. Rather than accepting our new position as somewhere between the top and bottom, we feel impotent. We feel “ordinary,” an uncomfortable feeling because we sense our parents wanted us to be special.

Our perfectionism also grew out of the fact that as children we didn’t learn that mistakes were a natural and acceptable part of life. We didn’t learn that errors were to be honored because they offer a chance to learn to live comfortably  in the middle ground between success and failure — where most people live most of the time.

Does any of this help you understand your partner a little better? Perhaps now you can see why some of the traits that seemed so endearing at the beginning of your relationship are starting to wear a bit thin. You’re tired of having to watch each step you take to make certain she doesn’t get upset. You’re tired of having to be very careful when pointing out something she didn’t do as well as expected for fear she will think you don’t love her. And if she also tends to have a bit of a martyr complex, which is not uncommon with perfectionists, that can be an additional challenge.

Here are some things to consider as you decide to address your partner’s perfectionism.

Remember that it isn’t comfortable living in a perfectionist’s skin. I strongly suspect she would appreciate your help in getting past her fear of failure and in becoming more accepting of the middle ground where most people live. If you seriously give these suggestions a good try, I will almost guarantee that life will be better for both of you.

Become aware of how well you handle anger, guilt, worry, and criticism and what sets you off. What dreams do you have yet to fulfill? You can’t help your partner very easily if you don’t know how your own past might be affecting you today — and that what you do or don’t do about that has ramifications for your relationship. Knowing who you are and recognizing your own struggles and weaknesses will help you respond to the perfectionist family member with greater compassion.

Recognize the importance that shame plays in your partner’s makeup and be willing to talk about it.  If you sense that your partner’s reaction to a real or implied criticism by you or someone else is causing her distress, reassure her that she is loved, even if she hasn’t done everything as well as she, or others, would have liked. It also helps to let her know that you understand how she might react negatively because of her experience growing up (assuming you know enough about her background to recognize the seeds of her perfectionism). Unfortunately, we tend not to discuss shame and other intense emotions, as Brock Hansen, LCSW, notes in Shame and Anger: The Criticism Connection:

Talking about shame tends to evoke some of the sting of this powerful and painful feeling. Many of our basic affective states seem to have an infectious or contagious quality to them. There is a universal tendency to suppress expression of powerful affect in public—perhaps because its expression can be contagious.” [For example, terror, rage and mob violence.]

Shame and distress are similarly contagious, especially within the primary groups with which we identify: our families. When we see the posture and facial expression of shame on the face of our parent or our child, we often identify and feel the shame ourselves. . . . Shame motivates us first to hide, to avoid eye contact, and to keep quiet, though the anger response that follows may motivate us to protest. It may be that this contagious and uncomfortable response to shame, even as a subject for discussion, is part of the reason we do not talk about it.

In the next article in the Living With a Perfectionist series, I’ll give you specific things you can do to help your partner deal with this personality trait that so often causes problems for both the perfectionist and her spouse.

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

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia