Friend or Foe: How to manage perfectionism.

August 31, 2023

A smart emoji next to the mispelt title 'How to be Perfec'

Have you ever been told that you’re a perfectionist? If so, chances are the title was thrown out there with a negative spin to it. "You’re a perfectionist," translating to, "You’re uptight, demanding, controlling, and fussy."

Yikes. Sure there are some downsides to perfectionism, but is it really all that?

The colloquial definition of a perfectionist is this:

A perfectionist is someone who wants everything to be perfect all the time and who gets upset when they aren’t.

Basically, being told you’re a perfectionist is a way to shut down the conversation. It’s a way to try to win at a disagreement, without necessarily addressing the root cause of conflict. And to add insult to injury, we might believe the accusation and agree with the negativity associated with being a perfectionist.

But this definition is incomplete. Perfectionists aren’t toddlers that want their juice box at the exact moment they want it with the straw inserted just so and it better be apple juice or else. Perfectionists are intelligent, ambitious, interested, interesting people who are thirsty for more (juice, or otherwise).

So before we run off to try to quash our perfectionism and be okay with being mediocre, consider this: what if your perfectionism exists to help you and those around you?

Being a perfectionist means that you have an innate desire to test the limits, to push the boundaries, to ascend. It is a trait that can be a gift – giving us the determination to see tough things through, from brushing our teeth every day to not giving up in the face of uncomfortable conflicts.

Further, this can-do spirit cascades out beyond an individual. Perfectionists are the members of our communities who remind us not to underestimate ourselves and that we owe it to ourselves to strive for more.

Perfectionism isn’t perfect, but it’s also not all bad.

'Practice makes perfect' sign with 'adaptively' slipped in before 'perfect'

In Katherine Morgan Schafler’s book, The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and Power, she discusses how research splits perfectionism into two branches:

  • Adaptive perfectionism: The use of perfectionism to your benefit in a healthy, learning-oriented, and constructive way.
  • Maladaptive perfectionism: An unhealthy, destructive form of perfectionism.

Adaptive perfectionism has many benefits, including better self-esteem, higher levels of work engagement and psychological well-being, and lower levels of perceived failure. While maladaptive perfectionism manifests as procrastination, rumination, defensiveness or avoiding conflict, adaptive perfectionists focus on taking action to find solutions, all the while doing it with more optimism and less anxiety.

Can we start to see that the prevailing dialogue about perfectionism is solely focused on the maladaptive kind?

It makes sense that our collective lens tends to narrow when discussing complex topics. As humans, we like things to be simple so that we can make sense of them. But an incomplete view of perfectionism robs us of the opportunity to embrace who we are and to use our strengths to their fullest. Perfectionism, when managed with care and tact, is a powerful energy that can bring us all closer to peace, fulfillment, and resolution.

Picture this: your in-laws’ 30th anniversary is coming up and the occasion deserves a celebration, but party plans are a multi-headed beast in such a large extended family. As a perfectionist, planning is your forté (and not being the planner is a stress worse than the work itself). You have a clear vision of how to string up the balloons, lay out the cheese board, and organize the living room seating – but Niece, Sister-in-law, and Husband have strong opinions that they’ve brought to the table too. Niece thinks the balloons ought to be helium; Sister-in-law staunchly believes that both Brie and Camembert are needed. And Husband doesn’t care about seats because he’s going to be DJ Dad and get the party grooving.

As a maladaptive perfectionist you might roll your eyes at these ideas and, if your fellow party planners don’t get the message that your way is obviously the best, then perhaps you’ll kick over a chair, pop some balloons, and stomp off indignantly – withdrawing your help altogether and crossing your arms in the corner. In effect you’ve avoided dealing with the conflict head-on and stubbornly stuck to your stance, without offering options for a path forward.

But as an adaptive perfectionist, you would discuss the logistics of helium with Niece, put aside the issue of your sister-in-law’s unhealthy obsession with soft-ripened cheeses (you can deal with that later), and remove a couple of foldout chairs in the negotiation of the evening’s schedule with your spouse-turned-DJ to make sure the speeches are made before the beat drops. You understand that there are many ways to achieve the shared goal of celebrating people dear to everyone involved, and you have the agility and optimism to know that it’ll all work out well enough.

Practice makes perfectadaptively perfect in this case, rather than absolutely perfect.

Here at Mediation Services, we believe that you can solve your own problems. Our work is to support you in your personal and professional journey of understanding how your role in relationships can bring beneficial outcomes – whether in your family, community, or workplace.

Hop into one of our online on-demand courses or sign up for an in-person training session so that you can unpack your strengths for the betterment of yourself and those around you.

Perfectionism is just one of the superpowers that we have to tap into!

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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