The suprising ways perfectionism sabotages you.
When I was growing up, I experienced my home life as a rigidly controlled and orderly setting. At any given time, one could open a door, closet, drawer, cupboard or shoebox and find pristine neatness. There was a right way to do everything, and a right time for everything. Consequently, there were more wrong ways than right. In summary, we didn’t “going with the flow” or allow for flexible outcomes. The standard was really high, and to me felt unreachable. For a long time, I used my home life as the definition of perfectionism. Reasonably, I concluded that I must not struggle with perfectionism because this demanding level of order choked the life out of me. It still does. For a naturally spontaneous, free-spirited, people-oriented type, this way of living is torture. There is no way I struggle with perfectionism, I thought. I was wrong.
Often perfectionists are misunderstood as just ultra-high achievers. However, those who struggle with perfectionist thinking and behavior experience high stress, low life satisfaction, and are extremely critical (of themselves, but also often of others). They hone in on the flaws, set unrealistic standards, and struggle to bounce back from disappointments or setbacks. Because of their strong resistance to failure, perfectionists procrastinate, avoid taking risks, and react defensively to outside criticism. Not exactly the kind of behaviors one finds in high performers and accomplished people. It’s easy to see how perfectionism sets one up for unhappiness, low-success, and a trail of relationship problems.
A true, all-around perfectionist is pretty easy to spot. But sometimes perfectionism touches just a particular area in someone, rearing up in specific situations, in certain areas, and with predictable behaviors. Most likely, your perfectionism doesn’t completely define you. Perhaps your perfectionism gets in your way in some very precise places. What is your “Perfectionist Type”? While these descriptions are somewhat generalistic, they provide a starting point for understanding how perfectionism presents in you.
The Commander: This perfectionist type jumps to action when the atmosphere feels urgent or important. She focuses on controlling the situation, including the uncontrollable elements like what other people think, feel or do. These types take charge of others, delegate tasks, and set expectations and deadlines in a reactive way rather than a cooperative style. Rapidly changing their approach or plans, they can appear irrational or inconsistent. When identifying problems, they blame others quickly and feel an urgency to implement solutions. As they push their perfect, solutions, they create stress for everyone. The good news is, once the problem is solved Commanders quickly return to normal.
The Performer: This perfectionist type rarely believes he measures up when doing things for others. Their standards for self in their natural setting are usually reasonable; they can prioritize, adjust, and manage setbacks. However, when anticipating that others will be evaluating their efforts or performance, all reasonability is thrown out the window. This perfectionist over-works, over-spends, and over-does it, even when those around him comment that his effort or product is more than good enough. Even with reassurance or praise, he doubts that others are being completely honest and creates excessive anxiety with self-doubts. When he uses his talents and abilities “out of the limelight”, he experiences great satisfaction, but when people are present, perfectionism ruins his joy. No amount of admiration or appreciation satisfies, and he misses out on enjoying his success.
The Deliberator: This perfectionism type believes there is always a way for everyone to win. She will wait, ask questions, research, confer with others, ask more questions, and resist offering her opinion as she works to find the perfect way. Her unrealistic expectation is that everyone should equally win and be happy. She procrastinates, avoids taking action, and loses opportunities. She can seem wishy-washy as she changes her position based on her perception of how others feel. She may cautiously proceed and even achieve success, but to her it is a loss because of her impossible expectations of finding a way to make everyone win. The world misses out on many of her ingenious ideas and remarkable skills because she wanted to avoid conflicts and disappointing people.
The Inspector: This perfectionist type emerges whenever there are details, especially details that tap into his expertise. The forest gets lost in the trees, as he meticulously scrutinizes details, data, and the “way it’s done”. This type will double and triple check, noticing even the slightest problem. The bigger picture fades in the background, and those around him do, too. They sweat the small stuff, because the small stuff needs to be perfectly accurate. Demanding and critical, he becomes increasingly persistent in his high standards. He has a hard time letting go, accepting less than the best, and becomes very independent. In exasperation, these types will give up and quit rather than accept something most people would be quite pleased with.
Don’t be discouraged if you see yourself in one or two of these descriptions, because if you look very closely, you'll find some absolutely wonderful traits mixed into those types! The Commanders are brave and willing to go against the status quo and popular opinion to make great things happen. The Performers have a talent for seeing what will excite, impress, and influence others, and passionately pours heart into their work. The Deliberators are an advocate for other people’s ideas, needs, and feelings and have little concern for accolades or getting the credit. The Inspectors have the ability to go deep into a problem and do the analytical work that most people would find exhausting; they are smart, creative, and aren’t afraid to slow things down.
We can overcome the perfectionism that holds us back from being our most successful, productive, and joyous self. Whether you see yourself in one trait, a blend of two, or perhaps in all FOUR, it’s worth the effort to make the mindset and behavior changes. You’ll sleep better, enjoy your accomplishments, overcome your failures, relate better with others, increase emotional wellbeing, reduce your blood pressure, and have more time for what you love. The first step is always awareness. Pay attention to when your perfectionism type rises up in you and what that looks and sounds like. Be kind and patient with yourself and acknowledge your successes as you work to overcome perfectionism, no matter what type you are. You aren’t the only Commander, Performer, Deliberator or Inspector in the room!
Would you like to understand your perfectionist type more? If you’d like to uncover more about your personality, motivators, and communication strengths and learn how to appreciate yourself and others better, DISC personality consulting and coaching is a great tool for transformational growth!
Were you in the Clean Plate Club? Did you power through that horrendous college course instead of dropping? How inspiring are these phrases: never give up; finish what you start; go the distance. We learned the importance of finishing as kids and we teach it to our own kids. Yes, I believe that when one commits to something, it is important to stay in it and at it until the end. But sometimes we can’t see when it’s time to be finished. So, how do we know the difference? Over the past few years, God had been trying to tell me to let this one rather BIG thing go. I was fighting to stay invested, but God was directing the river’s current to take me somewhere new. I was enthusiastic and ready for this new venture. I was taking risks, wading deeper and investing myself whole heartedly. I was all in! Yet, I was also chained to this one thing – this good, helpful, worthwhile thing. Obligation and commitment and good intentions were weighing me down, and I was choking in the water. I was slow to “get” the message that it was time to quit.
One reason we miss the signal it's time to let it go is that intrinsically it seems wrong, especially if the decision will affect people. Inconvenience, discomfort, and disruption aren't usually fun, and people often interpret this as "personal hurt” inflicted by your choice. We keep working well past quitting time. We remain in the wrong place because if we don’t, something will change for someone. We make their comfort our responsibility. Sometimes people will tell us it’s our job to keep their lives constant and orderly. I have heard this from others and believed it myself. This was one of the reasons I couldn’t see that God was encouraging me to let it go.
It’s hard to quit because God calls us to endure. Christians are patient, long suffering, and live sacrificial lives. Here is my second reason I couldn’t quit: I was afraid to trust myself. I questioned if I could accurately know my own motives. What if I was being selfish? What if my exhaustion was from “working from my own strength” and I needed to rely more on God? Perhaps I was being double-minded. Later, I recognized that my exhaustion was from working from my own strength and reaching my own end. God wanted me to come to the end. He wanted me to recognize the crossed finish line.
How do we know if we are quitting too soon? What if it's more like, "ending earlier than expected"? Perhaps it’s a role you agreed to perform in, but there isn’t an end in sight. It may be a ministry you started or a career you’ve pursued. It could be a relationship, too. You may have poured your time, money, and heart into a God-sized vision and wonder if stopping now makes you a quitter or a finisher. I wondered too. I hung on another year. I adapted. I asked a close friend for insight. It was my topic of conversation with my professional coach. I waffled, questioned, felt guilty, and more and more like a failure. I didn’t know how I could know for sure if God was saying, “Let this go.”
I didn’t find my answer easily. Before I remembered that God’s will for me isn’t complicated, rigid or shrouded in mystery, I made a mess of mistakes. I was afraid that I was abandoning my own party. But in reality, I was overstaying my welcome. And I felt like the person enduring that overstaying house guest. I also felt like the house guest who is so very ready to go home. I was impatient. I was irritable. I was growing resentful. I felt stuck. I was checking my watch. I didn’t recognize myself. Five years ago, I had super-human patience, an easy-going and positive spirit, and contentment in serving. I once was invigorated by the work. Why was I so stressed, anxious and exhausted?
Back in the early 2,000’s I ran the Chicago Marathon. The last two miles were tough, but I knew I would reach the finish line. When I did, I slowed down to a walk and exploded with relief and joy and celebrated completing 26.2 miles! I didn’t keep running past the finish line another 46 miles. That would be dangerous as well as crazy.
One way we can determine if we have continued running past the finish line is by paying attention to the health of souls. What does that look like for you? I started asking myself if my impatience, irritation, resentment, and growing sadness came from my own choosing or from somewhere else. I started listening to God’s voice and listened expectantly. He spoke to me through my circumstances and through some deep hurts. He used an encouraging email from someone who affirmed my now current direction. He showed me His truth through a client. He spoke through my loss. I kept seeking him, and he kept speaking to me. I realized that when I was working with God, I had grace to handle much. When I kept working after my quitting time, I was pushing from my own strength, and that strength had run out. I was well past running on fumes. I couldn’t even run on Dunkin. Have you been there?
There were two reasons (that I mentioned) that prevented me from believing I could finish early. I had accepted a job for myself that was impossible to do. I couldn’t shield anyone from challenges, discomfort, or change. And if someone translates discomfort as hurt, that doesn’t mean I harmed them. The same goes for you. You and I can move on, finish early, or even quit. I also had doubted myself and God’s gracious, non-complicated, never-ending love for me. I could never be loved less by God, even when I quit. I could never be loved more by God, even when I run myself ragged. His yoke is easy and He wants to talk with me and show me His ways.
This was a hard-learned lesson over many years, and it would be wonderful to have a quizlet or “five easy steps” to show you how to know when it’s ok to quit. If I had discovered the formula, I could have written a book with an accompanying journal. If our Christian life could be worked through with formulas, we would have little need to spend time talking and listening with God. Sometimes it’s time to keep going, to lean on God’s strength and go the next step one day at a time. I am there now. Maybe you are there, too. Sometimes it’s time to recognize the finish line, lay down the burden, and rest in God’s peace and timing. I am right there now, too. What is God saying to you?