“So, who are the perfectionists in the room?”

I asked this question to a group of data analysts and accountants at a Stress Teflon workshop we did with a multinational dairy company recently. Two-thirds of the hands shot up towards the sky.

In the world of data analytics, attention to detail is a great attribute to have, and it was evident that the “perfectionists” in the room drew great pride in their “i dotting” and “t crossing” ability. They spoke with pride about how annoyed they would get if someone used the wrong font or didn’t format the reports correctly. The little things mattered a lot, and that’s what you want in a job when mistakes can cost millions.

Perfectionists wear their personality trait like a badge of honour. “I’m a perfectionist” they say with great pride (puffing out their chest under their beautifully ironed shirt). They love order and are fantastic at the detail of life while finishing things off correctly.

The problem is, it comes at a cost. Being a perfectionist is causing people an enormous amount of stress. Being able to spot the error on a profit and loss spreadsheet is really important, but applying the same detail to the arrangement of your cutlery drawer is perhaps not the best use of your time.

Here are some ways that perfection can cause toxic stress:

  • It can be paralysing. Waiting until things are perfect before moving on to the next activity can be paralysing and decrease your effectiveness.
  • It distorts priorities. If the cleanliness of your house is your number one priority, the home may not be the most relaxing place in the world.
  • You can spend too much time getting the little things perfect and miss out on the big picture.
  • It’s unattainable. Perfection as a goal is unattainable and while it is great to strive for it, not ever reaching it can be stressful and disappointing.
  • It’s overwhelming. “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!” the problem with this way of thinking is that perfectionists take on too much and get overwhelmed, exhausted and resentful that no-one else can “do it properly”.
  • People will disappoint you. Imposing your perfectionist tendencies onto others will lead to stress, disappointment and resentment when others let you down (and they will let you down).

So, what can the perfectionists of the world do?

How can we embrace the benefits of attention to detail without the toxic stress of perfectionism?.

  1. Embrace uncertainty. Knots in your stomach and a racing heartbeat are not things you need to eliminate. Uncertainty can be stressful, but embracing it will make you tackle challenges and grow ways you never thought possible. The rigidity of perfection makes creativity and innovation much more challenging and may prohibit you from finding better ways to do things.
  2. “Pick your perfect”. Perfectionism is a habit and a choice, not a permanent character trait. By consciously “picking your perfect”, you choose the things where perfectionism is beneficial and use it, while assessing the places where pedantic habits are not helping and letting things slide a bit more. If perfection is a habit, so can being chilled and relaxed. Like all good habits, it needs balance and can take a bit of work at first.
  3. Find the yin to your yang (or the opposite). A perfectionist will gravitate to other perfectionists and feed each others need for order. Try embracing the opposite, my business partner is the complete opposite to me, and together we are greater than the sum of our parts. She crosses my tees, and I make her more relaxed and able to see the positives in alternatives. We both have immense amounts of respect for each other and don’t expect the other to be any different to how they have always been. Embracing someone who is the opposite can give perfectionists another view of the world and provide balance.
  4. Anxiety is OK. When disorder gives you heart palpitations and sweaty palms, you will naturally look for ways to reduce anxiety. Most perfectionists do this by creating order. The formula then becomes disorder = stress = bad. The answer to this is to decrease discomfort by creating order. Discomfort is where growth comes originates and often the anxiety of disorder can be where new ideas are born. Accept the anxiety as a sign that you care and look for ways to get comfortable with discomfort.

Being a perfectionist has some significant advantages, and we need to find a way to utilise those benefits without creating toxic stress. Stress is good for you when used correctly. The secret is being self-aware enough to know when your perfectionist tendencies are helping and when they aren’t.

(Did you spot the three spelling mistakes in this article?)

Please share this article with someone who you know is a perfectionist.

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