Healthy perfectionism: an asset, not a liability

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Trash Can paper IMG_4799I’m a perfectionist. In fact, I consider my perfectionism to be one of my most valuable attributes. Books like Overcoming Perfectionism and Perfecting Ourselves to Death tell me I should stop trying to be a perfectionist. As a psychologist specializing in obsessive compulsive disorder, I have worked with many patients specifically on giving up perfectionism. But I have come to realize that negative views of perfectionism didn’t ring true to them, or to me.

I believe that the intention of most perfectionists is to do things well. To excel. Recent research shows that those scoring high on perfectionism scales have higher standards, and under certain circumstances have better outcomes. That’s certainly what I strive for, as do the patients I work with. So I’m not giving up my perfectionism. I just need to make it to work for me, not against me.

The key is to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism. Let’s start with an example of perfectionism with good intentions that goes awry (unhealthy perfectionism):

Jen is a vice-president of legal affairs at her company and in charge of writing up the annual report for her division. Her boss asks her to show him rough drafts so he can review the content of the annual report as it is being compiled. But Jen doesn’t like to show people her rough drafts; she worries that people will think that is the best she can do and her boss will think she’s careless if he sees mistakes. As a result, she tells herself that her boss really doesn’t want to be bogged down with each iteration of the report and only brings him into the process at the last minute, right before it is supposed to go to print.

Jen is shocked when her boss criticizes her, especially since she’s received excellent reviews about her department and her past reports. From her perspective, the task got done, it was done well, and her boss should not be angry because she saved him a lot of time and energy by keeping him from reviewing drafts.

Jen starts with the intention of putting out a superior product. The problem is that she confuses an excellent product with a mistake-free product. Sometimes this really is the case. Employers may receive 100 resumes for one position and are looking for a reason to toss a resume. That one typo you overlooked may be what gets your resume consigned to the circular file. One typo on a resume is not the same as one typo in a 100-page report. In Jen’s case, she didn’t trust that her boss would review her rough drafts as just that: rough drafts. Instead she tried to keep him from seeing her “mistakes,” overlooking the fact that he was more interested in content than typos. If she had stuck with the intention of putting out a great annual report, and collaborated with her boss, her perfectionism would have actually worked for her rather than against her.

Here are some ways to separate healthy perfectionism from its unhealthy version:

Characteristics of healthy perfectionism:

  • Striving for high but achievable standards that result in feelings of satisfaction and increased self-esteem
  • Matching your time and energy to tasks that match your strengths and interests
  • Having a sense of what you value and what your priorities are and devote the lion’s share of your time and attention to these areas
  • Reaping payoffs from your efforts that are greater than your costs

Characteristics of unhealthy perfectionism:

  • Repeatedly setting goals for yourself but never achieving them
  • Constantly competing to be the best at everything in order to avoid feeling like a failure
  • Giving into the feeling that all mistakes are catastrophic
  • Getting stuck in believing that a particular strategy must pay off

Unhealthy perfectionism can be a hindrance. Healthy perfectionism, by comparison, can pay off for you and your business. Putting perfectionism to work for you means knowing when to flex, shift strategies, and adapt, always keeping your eye on what actually works rather than what you think should work.

Jeff Szymanski, PhD, is the executive director of the International OCD Foundation in Boston, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, and author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook (Wiley, 2011).