What does a perfectionist look like? Bo Derek in the movie “10” will always epitomize a man’s vision of what a perfect woman should look like. Movies and television are great ways for us to explore the physical boundaries of fantasy.
The pursuit of perfect physical attributes will continue to keep plastic surgeons wealthy. But what about those of us who live with the personality of a perfectionist? There are no plastic surgeons to reshape the way we think, or react with others.
However, there are ways we can learn to cope.
The Iron Lady
Watch Meryl Streep play former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming film, “Iron Lady.” Thatcher earned the moniker “iron lady” because she had a strong moral compass of what was right—and wrong—in the world. She was a perfectionist who stuck by her strict standards and took hard lines against policies she felt did not work toward the greater good.
The movie, already touted as an Oscar front-runner, is an intimate portrait of Great Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister. Thatcher ran a tight ship and was one of the 20th century’s most famous and influential women.
Margaret Thatcher is an example of a principled leader who places a great deal of worth on integrity. Perfectionists are orderly, want the job done right, and pursue a vision of perfection. They have a strong sense of right and wrong, and in pursuit of perfection, their worst nightmare is that they might get it wrong.
What is A Perfectionist?
I’m the sort of person who believes that mistakes can provide a great learning experience, but perfectionists have a difficult time giving themselves permission to be wrong. They look around and see everything that isn’t done right—and they resent it. This can turn into self-loathing and self-mutilation if it gets too far out of hand.
Remember Natalie Portman’s descent in the movie “Black Swan.” A perfectionist can feel anger when things don’t turn out as well as they feel they should.
This is an extreme reaction. Most perfectionists are merely content to point out the incompetence and disorganization they see around them. Because of this, they can be very judgmental—on themselves and those that work with them.
How Does A Perfectionist Think?
Perfectionists see themselves as just trying to do the right thing with as few errors as possible. They are attracted to things that work for the greater good and projects that will help them become better people. That’s why they get critical when they see lax standards in either themselves or others.
Here’s how to tell if you work or live with a perfectionist: They . . .
- Don’t look for shortcuts; they want the job done right.
- Like schedules and lists.
- Have a relentless eye for details—like bad grammar and spelling.
- Do not have warm people skills.
- Take great pains, and then give them to others.
- Want work done to a standard, and will tell you what it is.
- Notice incompetence and this BUGS them.
Stephen Covey of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People writes, “Our security comes from knowing that correct principles do not change. We can depend on them. Principles don’t react to anything. They don’t get mad and treat us differently. Principles are deep, fundamental truths . . . they are rightly woven threads running with exactness, consistency, beauty, and strength throughout the fabric of life.”
Do you notice how many times the word “principle” comes up? Stephen Covey cares about quality and he loves a good plan. He is a perfectionist.
How To Spot A Perfectionist
Behavior may be the same for a variety of people; it’s the reason for the behavior that distinguishes us.
Let’s use an example. Leaders and thinkers always prepare for a meeting. Why do they want to be prepared? There are several reasons, and they depend on our personality types:
- Achiever—want to look good.
- Risk-adverse—reduce fear of failure.
- Domineering—in control
- Analytical—have all the information.
- A perfectionist, however, would want to be prepared so everything runs according to plan.
I’m an achiever and I feel comfortable comparison-shopping for standards that will make me look the best. For a perfectionist, however, there is only one moral standard, and that is moored to authority, plans, and principles.
Listen to Them
Perfectionists are remarkable leaders because they feel that they lead by moral example and inspire others to live the same way. As an FBI counterintelligence agent, I discovered that many foreign spies were perfectionists. How did I know? I listened. Here are some typical comments they would make:
- I’m a serious, no-nonsense type of person.
- I follow my conscience.
- I feel like I’m living with a judge inside my head – one that is harsh and judgmental.
- I believe that right is right and wrong is wrong—that’s all there is to it.
- I don’t understand why so many people have lax standards.
- I have to do it, or it won’t get done the right way.
How To Motivate A Perfectionist
Hillary Clinton is a perfectionist. I’m certain that you know several others. Here are some tips to help you motivate the perfectionists in your life to perform at their best:
- Combine strong values with a vision of high standards.
- Show integrity.
- Arrange feedback from people they respect.
- Create and maintain structure and clear channels of authority.
- Provide accountability and guidelines—they thrive on it.
- Provide appreciation and recognition.
- Set limits on their responsibilities so they know they won’t be blamed for a mistake.
- Attract a perfectionist as a new client by helping them to find ways to justify their actions—they do not change their minds easily.
- Provide them with everything so they know what is required—they really need the rules.
History is full of perfectionists who left their comfortable lives to do something extraordinary because they felt it was a higher calling. Their talents are well worth our time and effort to uncover.
Do you think you’re a perfectionist? What tips do you have for motivating others like you? What are your greatest strengths?
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LaRae Quy is former FBI Agent and Founder at Your Best Adventure
She helps clients explore the unknown and discover the hidden truth in self & others
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