September 7, 1995 in Features

Chasing The Ideal Perfectionists Leave Wake Of Troubled Relationships In Their Obsessive Quest For Utopia

Nancy J. Kim The Bergen Record
 

Dana Gilligan does not alphabetize her spices at home or her files at work. Indeed, her organization system is ostensibly chaotic but inscrutably functional.

Nonetheless, she is an admitted perfectionist who says she sometimes pushes her husband and her employees to the edge through her perfectionist tendencies.

Practice may make perfect, but perfectionists can make work life hell - everyone’s, including their own. They make neither the ideal boss nor the perfect underling. Ultimately, they isolate themselves from others who suffer their tyranny.

Perfectionism - that compulsive drive to do more, do better, and do it flawlessly - is an insidious ailment that can trigger woes, both physiological and psychological, from chronic migraines to clinical depression.

A long-term study on the subject, carried out by a Michigan consulting concern, showed that people who manifest such behavior are riddled with a host of conditions.

“I herniated a disk about six years ago. It happened when I sneezed,” recalls Gilligan, who owns Bookends in Ridgewood. She visited a chiropractor, who told her that she had been carrying stress in her back, stress that had accumulated from operating in constant overdrive.

Migraines, followed by gastrointestinal disorders, are the most common health problems plaguing perfectionists, according to the 10-year study by Human Synergistics in Plymouth, Mich., though Gilligan enjoys a perfectly healthy head and stomach. Her back is the rub.

“You can think of it as a silent disease,” says Edgar Johns, vice president and director of research and development at Human Synergistics. Hypertension and cardiovascular problems are among the more serious physical consequences of a pathological drive toward flawlessness.

Being a perfectionist is no picnic. Working for one has its own set of problems. If you’ve ever been trapped under the thumb of one of these overzealous taskmasters, you have but one option, perhaps two:

“Quit or go crazy,” says Joseph Gibbons, a human-resources consultant at Towers Perrin in New York.

If you are in the position of managing a perfectionist, keep in mind that such people need specific deadlines. Without an exact time frame, they could extend a project indefinitely to meet the rolling standard of perfection.

Moreover, they have difficulty delegating tasks because they don’t believe anyone else is capable of handling the job.

Perfectionists may be their own worst critics,

but some are harder on others than they are on themselves, says Ann W. Smith, a therapist and author of “Overcoming Perfectionism.”

To boot, they tend not to take criticism well.

Gibbons says the reaction to criticism is either denial or overcompensation for the fault.

In the latter case, “they take it too seriously.”

“For example, tell them they don’t smile enough, and all of sudden they start smiling all the time or at inappropriate times.”

Experts concur that the problem with perfectionism is that, initially, it results in positive feedback. In the workplace, perfectionists are perceived as leaders and role models. Those who have yet to suffer the negative consequences of their perfectionism proclaim that they get more done than anyone else.

But unlike those who can accept an honest effort, the perfectionist is obsessed with performance. Whereas most people can accept inevitable failures along the way, the perfectionist is devastated.

On the outside, perfectionists may appear fine, but inside, they’re a wreck, says Smith.

There’s a myth out there that the majority of chief executive officers are perfectionists.

“I’d say that CEOs are among the more balanced executives,” says Gibbons. “They’re fairly reasonable, good managers, and politically able.”

He says the stereotype results, in part, from a characteristically American tendency to make excessive demands of their leaders.

When asked if he is a perfectionist, Robert Iverson, founder and former chief executive of Newark-based Kiwi International Air Lines, flatly says no.

“Most would not describe me as Type A, but Type B,” he says, adding that managing means “managing toward a specific goal.” Perfectionists don’t have concrete goals because the goal is always more and better.

And rather than force people around him to do exactly as he does or exactly as he thinks something should be done, Iverson likes to “allow people to be as creative as possible.”

There’s an ironic flip side to the perfectionist persona. There’s not just the ever-striving, list-making perfectionist. Consider the procrastinating perfectionist, the one who never finishes a task for fear of criticism.

Dr. Richard Carr, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, says such individuals may suffer from clinical depression.

“People’s lives become miserable from their inability to complete tasks,” Carr says. “It can become devastating.”

Anxiety is common among all perfectionists.

“They’re chronic worriers,” says Carr, who notes that perfectionism is a component in several disorders, including social phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.

So what’s a perfectionist to do? First, admit that there’s something wrong with the behavior, Smith says. (“Once they stop defending it, there’s hope.”)

Gilligan nixed therapy, choosing instead to rely on her husband, Walter, for informal counseling. Laid-back and easygoing, he works in the shop with her and serves as her foil.

Also, every morning Gilligan practices tai chi, a meditative form of exercise that helps ease the stress in her back.

Certainly, perfectionism is not endemic to the American workplace. But perhaps there’s something in the pioneer ethos that says the sky’s the limit, which fans the flames of perfectionism.

“Sometimes good is good enough,” says Gibbons, adding: “It sounds terribly un-American.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email