Q & A
In The Perfectionist’s Handbook, you write about perfectionism that is either healthy or unhealthy. What are some general ways we can evaluate ourselves to see which category our perfectionism falls in?
The problem perfectionists can get into is when they insist that a strategy they are using has to work. A common example is spending excessive amounts of time reviewing, rereading, and re-editing a manuscript. While there is some value to this strategy in moderation, unhealthy perfectionism drives you back to the document over and over again. Rigidity, preoccupation with mistake making, and behavior driven by anxiety are all hallmarks of unhealthy perfectionism. When you are feeling driven by curiosity, a want to excel, and a sense of flexibility and collaboration you are likely benefiting from your healthy perfectionism. Click here to take a self-assessment to learn more about your personal perfectionism profile.
What are the advantages of understanding how our perfectionism is working for us?
The most frustrating experience I hear about from perfectionists is when their perfectionism sometimes works and sometimes backfires. Particularly when they are using the exact same strategy, but it works in one context and not in another. When perfectionists are unable to sort out why this happens and seek out help, they are told to just “lower the bar”. However, it doesn’t appear that high standards are the problem. It is more a rigidity and preseveration that gets in the way. How does one go about matching their intention to desired outcomes? This is about the strategies you employ. Matching strategy to context is the key to understanding one’s perfectionism and how to get it to pay off for you more often.
The Perfectionist’s Handbook is different from other books on the topic in the sense that it takes a look at our perfectionism with a positive perspective. You write about building on strengths versus giving up all of our perfectionism. What advice would you give as first steps toward implementing change?
Begin with the perfectionism assessment on this website. It truly is important to recognize what you are doing well first. Why? Because in some cases you can borrow from those strengths and apply them to your areas of weakness. Once you decide areas you need to work on, just focus on one at a time. Don’t change too many things at once. Really have a sense that this is something you are going to commit to, and are willing to spend time on. If you do this half heartedly then put it off for another day. The most motivating thing you can do for yourself in the change process is to set goals that are achievable.
What are three questions that we can ask ourselves to help us differentiate between intentions and strategies for making our perfectionism work?
For me, the key insight in working with perfectionists is learning to separate their intentions from their strategies. “I want to excel,” “I want to stand out,” “I want to feel competent.” These intentions are not the problem. Strategies are what we do when we try to translate our intentions into desired outcomes. For example:
What is your intention? “I want to feel competent.”
What is the desired outcome? “Make a positive impact on my client.”
How am I going to go about making this happen? Devote a lot of time and energy to the project, do my research, ask for input, look for best practices models, etc.
When perfectionism goes awry it isn’t usually in one’s intentions or desired outcomes, but in the strategies they employ.
For the non-perfectionists out there, what could they learn or gain from reading The Perfectionist’s Handbook?
Everyone falls on the continuum of perfectionism. I had two goals in writing this book. One goal was to just explore what perfectionism is and how it works. I think the concept of perfectionism is interesting all by itself. The second goal of the book was to help people improve their outcomes as it relates to perfectionism. That said, I pulled from all areas of psychology when I put together the “what to do different” sections of the book. Many of these strategies are also helpful for improving problem solving skills, fighting procrastination, getting more balance in one’s day-to-day schedule, and some tips for how to get along better interpersonally at work.