Perfectionism can give you a headache

This time last year I was working on a politically sensitive in-house project. To tell you more about this project would be indiscreet…OK….I was managing the rollout and results reporting of an internal staff survey. And if you know anything about these types of surveys, you’ll know they are always politically sensitive. The things employees say about their workplace under a blanket of confidentiality are rarely music to the ears of management.

Going into this project I knew things could get rough but I seriously thought I could calm the waters with a hefty dose of my perfectionism – a practice well-honed over years of PR consulting to difficult-to-please clients. I dotted every ‘I’ and crossed every ‘T’. I left email trails everywhere. I cc’ed people in like it was going out of style. To the people who hired me for the contract, I justified and re-justified the reasoning behind why I had done things a certain way in a bid to avert any storm over the outcomes that might be gathering on the horizon.

Looking back now I guess I thought that my bordering-on-obsessive work behaviour would enable me to leave it all behind when I walked out of the office door in the evening. But no – in true perfectionist form I brought it all home in my head. Worries about delivering the ‘perfect’ project (while knowing I would somehow cop the blame if things went pear-shaped) gave me a headache. Well, a worse one that I had already.

My family didn’t escape the effects either. Like an untethered hose my obsessive concerns and behaviours would suddenly spray anyone within a 10 metre radius over stupid stuff like the growing pile of washing or if the dog our children had talked us into getting had been walked in the past week (by either one of said children). Not pretty.

When the storm finally did hit, all of my perfectionist’s pointing to dotted Is and crossed Ts, all of my thinking ahead, email-trails and butt covering stood for nought. I still had to endure some pretty uncomfortable management scrutiny about the why’s and wherefore’s of the way in which my project had turned out. And I still had a headache.

According to this article perfectionism is “a valuable lens through which to understand a variety of seemingly unrelated mental difficulties, from depression to compulsive behaviour to addiction.” While these conditions might be “seemingly unrelated” to the naked eye, the causal link between perfectionism and serious psychological dysfunction hardly requires a giant leap of imagination for someone like me and many other (mostly women) that I know.

You might think I am suggesting here that being a perfectionist is a waste of time because it doesn’t avert storms at work or home and if unchecked, it can lead to more serious psychological issues like those mentioned in this article. Well, I’m not. I agree with Dr. Jeff Szymanski, author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook that telling a perfectionist to relax or ‘lower the bar’ on their expectations is like asking them to cut off the hand they write with! And in any case, some perfectionist tendencies like attention to detail, covering all the bases and setting high quality standards are much prized and highly encouraged in workplaces around the globe. In fact, it’s those things that actually made it easier for me to stand my ground under a barrage of questions.

Truth is there’ll always be a client or customer who’s unhappy about something, a boss that is not always as constructive as they could be, or even a family member who isn’t pleased about what’s on the table for dinner. Trying to be perfect won’t change that. The trick is to put one’s essentially healthy perfectionist tendencies to good use without letting them create more or bigger headaches – for you and those around you.

And if you have a perfectionist on your team, Dr Szymanski has a few tips on how to get the most out of them in this Harvard Business Review Blog – ‘How to give feedback to a perfectionist’. While this article centres on the work environment with a bit of creative tweaking these suggestions would work just as well at home too. And I should know, right?

All the best.


  1. Ros says

    Thanks for your refreshing and honest words, Jenny. As a closet perfectionist and sometime control-freak myself, the hardest thing to do is admit that all your perfectionism doesn’t actually make you a perfect person – at work or in life. So thank you for being brave enough to tell this story! I agree that just because we will never be perfect doesn’t mean we should give up trying. We just need to remember to take “be perfect” off the ‘to do’ list.

  2. says

    While I definitely haven’t had a headache for many years to go with this “affliction” I can definitely relate. I also think it’s really cool how you point out that being a perfectionist is part of who you are, and while most would prefer to change that about themselves, trying to force someone to change is definitely not the way forward. Age is a great way of making people relax, but being a perfectionist isn’t all bad! Results, back-up, etc… are all evident as you say!

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