Perfectionism is a mental disorder. Too strong? How about an affliction. Actually it is an anxiety disorder commonly called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. People think of OCD as repeating things over and over, such as washing hands, cleaning, checking things. Perfectionism is the repetitive pattern of always trying to get things exactly right – no flaws, no mistakes.
The folly in perfectionism is that it is unachievable. And if achieved, it is rare and fleeting. Think of a baseball pitcher. In every game he or she strives for perfection, but how often is a perfect game accomplished: no runs, no hits, no errors? The majority of very good pitchers never have a perfect game.
To shed perfectionist tendencies ask one fundamental question: Does my perfectionism cause problems in any significant aspects of my life – relationships, work, mental well-being? Most perfectionists are difficult to live with, work with or work for. Moreover, the quest for perfection is very time consuming. It is impossible to make a profit in a business if everything has to be perfect. It is hard to relax as a perfectionist because there is always something else to be done or done better.
When good is good enough. One way of lightening up is to deliberately make a mistake or leave something out, or edit a document two times fewer than normally. Then see what the consequences are. The cure for phobias (a specific anxiety disorder) is desensitization, meaning, exposure to that which one is afraid – elevators, snakes, heights. But in this case it is amorphous – perfection. In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig explored the nature of quality. How do we know if something is high quality or low quality? In terms of the perfectionist, the activity that is the focus of one’s obsession must be perfect. But what is perfect? By whose standards is it perfect? Does a golfer have to hit 18 holes -in- one to be perfect? Or will winning the Masters do?
What if you supervise a perfectionist? You have to direct thatperson to be more productive; to increase his or her output orvolume of work. Once a perfectionist employee of mine said, “I will not compromise my standards.” I said, “They’re not your standards, they are mine.” She said, “If I work faster I will make mistakes.” I said, “I can accept mistakes, I can’t tolerate the backlog.” In that particular case, the quantity of her work increased and she still didn’t make any mistakes!
The intellectual exercise for the perfectionist is to first recognize that it is a disorder not a virtue. It is an ideal, not a goal. And, like being in control, it is largely an illusion.
L. Michael Tompkins, Ed.D is a licensed clinical psychologist and organizational consultant who resides in Sacramento, California