Can’t let go of that typo you made in that report? But you should. Detaching from those obsessions will save your career … and your sanity.
Alicia is a 28-year-old lawyer who admits spending hours writing up a 500-word letter for a client isn’t all that uncommon for her. “I would probably spend two to three hours just drafting that letter, making sure that each word was correct,” she says. “Then I’d print it out, edit by hand, re-do and re-print it and continue doing that to make sure that everything was perfect, whether on my screen or on paper.”
If she’s ever asked a tricky question in a meeting she doesn’t know the answer to, Alicia admits that not having a response causes her stress levels to soar. “That ’s the kind of thing that I would continue to be stressed about for a week.” Alicia is without a doubt a dedicated employee, but she’s also a self-confessed perfectionist, something that goes beyond stressing over detail or performance. The world of a perfectionist is where exacting standards are the norm — there’s no room for error and making a mistake can often equate to a complete catastrophe.
WHAT DEFINES PERFECTIONISM?
Most people are perfectionists to some extent butit ’s when it manifests into a full-blown obsession that it starts to become a hindrance. Psychologist Jacqui Manning (thefriendlypsychologist.com.au) says perfectionists genuinely believe that they’re not allowed to make mistakes. For most of us, a stuff-up is easily forgotten; however, for a
perfectionist it incites feelings of anxiety and an inward response such as a racing heart or feeling sick.
This pattern of behaviour can start in childhood. Manning says a perfectionist might have been criticised in hurtful ways when they were a child or valued not for who they are but for their performance. It might also come from observing parents’ habits — if a parent is a perfectionist it can become a learned behaviour in the child.
The pain that stems from making a simple (yet easily fixable mistake) can reinforce a perfectionist way of thinking. “They feel the pain, then they work hard and manage to achieve their goals so that sets up their thinking that the only way that the pain will go away is if they get everything right,” explains Jacqui.