5 Tips for Perfectionists About Getting Along With Others

How to stop perfectionism from ruining your relationships.

Posted Oct 16, 2018

 Sarah Shaffer/Unsplash
Source: Sarah Shaffer/Unsplash

Perfectionists can be quite controlling.  In many cases, this controlling behavior is anxiety-based. How so? The perfectionist wants a perfect outcome and worries that other people won't hold up their end of the bargain to the extent necessary to achieve this. 

The downside of acting controlling is that it can cause stress in interpersonal relationships, which can also be hard for the perfectionist to cope with.  After all, wanting to be perfect often includes wanting to always be perceived positively by others.  What can you do?  If you're a perfectionist, try these tips for smoother relationships with teammates of all kinds, whether they're colleagues, friends, or family:

1.  Appreciate Diverse Strengths

A perfectionist thinks "I want other people to do this right.  I want them to do it my way."  Doing it right and doing it my way are synonymous. 

When you're a perfectionist, some traits you think of as weaknesses might be, in some respects, strengths.  For example: 

  • Someone who doesn't care as much about details may be able to complete projects more quickly and keep laser focused on the big picture.
  • When someone has less concern with always following rules to the letter than you do, this can have advantages (and of course disadvantages sometimes as well).
  • Working less hard can sometimes be a strength, for instance, if it results in being less prone to burnout, injury, or irritability.
  • Being less conscientious and failing to follow through can be a strength if whatever is being abandoned isn't particularly important.
  • People who aren't as devoted to one domain of life (e.g., a career track) can bring unique knowledge to a team from their other life experiences.

If you're willing to learn from others strengths, you can sometimes learn how to achieve more overall, while being less perfect in some respects.  When someone approaches life and work differently from you, try to identify and learn from their strengths, including those you'd typically see as weaknesses.

2. Let Other People Pleasantly Surprise You

Perfectionists often get anxious about how other people might behave. Their experience of life is that other people aren't as diligent as they are.  They expect other people to disappoint them and let them down. 

Instead of this, try taking the approach that other people might pleasantly surprise you.  Left to their own devices, other people often come up with creative solutions or ideas that aren't how you would've handled something, but their way might be just as good or better than you expected.  Sure, this won't always happen, but it will happen some of the time.  Enjoy it when it does.  Consider when it's worth letting go of the reins slightly to see what other people come up with.

3. When You Don't Strongly Object to a Suggestion, Take It (Without Nitpicking)

In my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I write about how one of the ways strong relationships are built is when the two people in the relationship allow mutual influence.  In other words, you take the other person's suggestions, and they take yours.  This is a principle that comes from research on couples by Dr. John Gottman, but the idea applies to all sorts of relationships.  Allowing others to influence you can be hard for a perfectionist, since perfectionists are by definition prone to nitpicking.  Try adopting the general rule of thumb that if someone you respect makes a suggestion and you don't feel strongly against it, you'll just go with it and not nitpick.  Not only does this help relationships but it will also help you personally grow.

4. When You Have the Urge to Be Controlling, Pause First

When it comes to changing behavior, it's important that you learn to recognize when an urge to react a particular way has been triggered, before reacting.  Try briefly pausing whenever you find yourself wanting to nitpick, complain, takeover, micromanage, reject someone else's suggestion, etc.  You might find this easiest to practice by starting with your emails.  When those urges arise in response to an email you've received, delay replying for a few hours so that you create mental space in which you can consider responding differently from how you usually would.   This suggestion also applies to any situation in which you have a document to review.  Consider pausing, taking a brief from the task, doing something else for a while, and re-reading your comments before sending.   Look for anywhere in your comments about the document where you've nitpicked or pushed back, where doing so isn't particularly important and it would be better from a relationship-standpoint to let it go.

5. Recognize That You're More Resilient Than You Think

When other people don't do things your way, it might make you upset and angry, but you'll probably get over it more easily and quickly than you think.  By far the best and fastest way to feel more relaxed about other people doing things their way is to practice letting them do that and experience for yourself that you're able to cope.  Again, this is not to say you won't find it upsetting and anxiety-provoking when tasks aren't done to your standards, but you'll generally find that those emotions dissipate more quickly than you expect.  A general psychological principle is that people tend to underestimate their capacity to cope with negative emotions and overestimate how long strong negative emotions will last. 

Want more? I've participated in two recent audio interviews in which I talk about perfectionism, specifically, about how perfectionism affects women at work and how perfectionism is linked to self sabotage.  Some highlights from the latter interview are summarized in this PT post.

References

Boyes, A. (2018, April 2).  How Perfectionists Can Get Out of Their Own Way.  Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/04/how-perfectionists-can-get-out-of-their-own-way

Boyes, A. (2018, May 11).  How to Collaborate with a Perfectionist.  Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/05/how-to-collaborate-with-a-perfectionist