Perfectionism is an odd trait. On the surface, it sounds like such a positive thing – who wouldn’t want to be a little obsessive about perfection? Why wouldn’t it be a positive trait to be focused on making sure every element of a thing ends up just right? Unfortunately, perfectionism is usually a pitfall, and almost always symptomatic of another problem entirely.
We’re all perfectionists in some way or other. I know universalities like this are rarely true, but this one really is. I’ve met lots of people in my life, and if I really think about it, all of them wind up qualifying as perfectionists. Another common term for someone who is a perfectionist is “control freak.” Some other, less common term for someone who is a “control freak” are “someone who wants to be in-control of their life,” “someone who wants life to make sense to their worldview,” “someone who really cares about things, even if that’s their reason behind avoiding control,” or, “someone breathing.” You could see how this trait becomes universal when one defines it so loosely. I learned these loose interpretations of the term in therapy sessions.
In said therapy sessions, I also learned several reasons for the sort of pumped-up need for control that contributes to the personality of a perfectionist. For some people it’s a feeling of not being in control of their life, plain and simple. For others it’s a lack of self-confidence, or low self-esteem. For outliers in the realm of perfectionism, their lack of feeling in-control of things in their life throws them into a spiral of negative thinking that makes them relinquish too much control in their life; they tend to spiral out of control because the only thing they can control is not being in control. Few of these scenarios lead to positive results. I should know, I’ve been most of the above individuals at different points of my life. Sure, sometimes perfectionism is revered –mostly in view of artists who spend their time tormenting themselves over creating the perfect composition, the perfect novel, the perfect expression of something otherwise inexpressible. But there’s a secret about these famous perfectionists: the best ones wind up with their masterpieces only after an entire lifespan of countless revisions, and the worst of them probably created significantly less great art than they might have produced if they’d just stopped obsessing over every last detail for a while.
What does all of this mean to me as a customer support expert?
For a lot of us, our perfectionism doesn’t necessarily touch our careers. But for the rest of us, it can lead to several problems. Perfectionism often stems from fear, and fear can keep us from doing a lot of thing, including sometimes addressing difficult problems with customers in the correct (read: human) way. It makes us rigid and robotic, or overly polite, or not polite enough. It turns emails that could be fun and friendly and accommodating into robotic, shrill, and scripted messages. Maybe our perfectionism even keeps us from taking chances, doing things that would benefit our companies, or furthering our careers. In any case, it’s not good.
As I have a problem with perfectionism myself, I don’t currently have a ton of strategies for helping others combat it. Mostly I just keep the idea that not everything has to be perfect rolling around in the back of my head so that I don’t stand in my own way. That said, what I can offer you are a few actions I take to combat my perfectionism. Maybe they’ll work for you, too:
1. Pick up a hobby that you’re bad at (or at least one that allows you to make mistakes).
2. Fix something that’s broken.
Broken things are like kryptonite to perfectionists. My wife and I live in an old, pre-1950 house, so I’m surrounded by broken things all the time, and they used to shoot my stress level through the roof every time I found a new one. Then I fixed something in our house for the first time. After a full year of living in this house, I am now fully capable of repairing all individual working parts and seals of a toilet, and I cannot explain to you how therapeutic replacing the fill-valve in our guest-bathroom toilet without anybody but YouTube’s help was. After I fixing each successive element over the course of the year, I felt like I had just finished three consecutive sessions of the aforementioned therapy. I felt powerful, I felt smart, and most of all I felt relaxed. Just as broken things are a perfectionist’s kryptonite, knowing that you have the power to fix broken things is to a perfectionist what the One Ring is to Gollum: precious (and oddly calming).
3. Write humorously, write often.
The first step is journaling. Write about your life in as loose and humorous a fashion as you can muster – give yourself a chance to stop taking things seriously and joke about your stresses. It might not work for everybody, but sometimes it works for me. It works for emails, too. Sometimes when I catch myself writing a particularly rigid email to a customer, I stop myself and write from the heart like it’s a goofy letter to my closest friend. For instance, just this week I wrote an email that went something like this:
Dear [redacted], hope your day has been dope on a rope,
[boring content of message]
Thanks for your help on this, you are great and powerful. You make great sandwiches – your mayo to lunchmeat ratio is perfect, and everybody likes you for it. And remember, you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and, doggone it, people like you!
Of course, only about a third of this email made it to its recipient, because I have to be at least a little professional. But even if I had to edit some (read: most) of my more obtuse brain-spillage out of that email, it wound up being a more organic, friendly, and engaging message than it would have been before I just wrote what I was trying to say before thinking about “the right way” to say it. It’s a common rule of writing, actually, that everybody should be familiar with: content first, finesse second.
There are tons of way to fight perfectionism, usually specific to the person trying to battle it. The only sure thing is that there’s no right way to do it. If you’re concerned with finding the “right” way to fight your perfectionism, you’re doing it wrong. So learn to do something you find difficult, and put as little pressure on yourself as possible when learning it. Quitting is okay. Fix something broken, and ask for help if you need it. Don’t use spellcheck on your blog posts about prefectionissm. All these things are helpful, but the most effective strategy of all is just to step back, take a deep breath, and remember: nobody expects you to be as perfect as you do.
That’s probably true, anyway.
Love and support,
Customer Support Expert and Master Toilet-Repairman