Dealing with a Perfectionist
When I first started working for Jim (not his real name) as an administrative assistant in his customer service department, he was looking to me as the answer to his dreams. I had excellent references and loads of office experience. I had a good reputation as a hard worker as well as a good manager and organizer.
Jim was a sales vice-president for a manufacturing company. After putting up with an abysmally disorganized assistant for years, he decided to fire her. He was ready for the perfect replacement - me. We were the only two people in Canada working for an American company. Jim was on the road most of the time, so I was often alone in the office with no one to help me.
I had never done customer service, but desperately needed the job. The girl who was fired (talk about awkward) trained me, but I was lost. She was in such a muddle that she would explain step "E" and then Step "B" and then Step "A." It took me a while to figure out the A - Z process I was supposed to follow when ordering the companies’ products, maintaining inventory, and filling orders. I soon discovered that she had done the job from memory, so I did not have reliable procedures to follow. The inventory was an unreadable scrawl in pencil. The job itself was so complex it took a week to train me.
So there I was, plunked in the middle of a very busy job that was going to take some time to organize. I did not even have vital information on the buyers I was going to be working with such as names, phone numbers, and special shipping instructions. I had to go through old invoices to get the information I needed.
I convinced my boss to buy a special customer service software and started plugging away at documenting our customers. It soon became clear that Jim had been dreaming of the moment for years when I would sail in and fix everything that was wrong.
At first my boss was ecstatic about my work. When I made some mistakes common to newbies, he started to change. On the surface he was outgoing and friendly - a stereotypical driven salesman. It soon became clear that the job he had done for many years was an obsession with him. He would even have me forward his phone to his cell after hours so that he would not miss calls from customers who in areas that were several hours behind us. He knew the business inside out. He could not tolerate anything less than perfection at his precious workplace.
Even his wife became involved by coming in when his customer service person was on vacation or sick. He seemed oblivious to the challenges I was facing. He expected me to know everything right way and there was very little learning curve allowed.
Jim's dissatisfaction grows
Jim soon became dissatisfied. In other jobs, it was normal for me as a new person to make some mistakes and omissions. Not here. If I didn't know who to fix the fax machine or how to do customs paperwork, he was extremely frustrated. He would make needling comments like, "I thought you knew all about standard office procedure" or "Why don't you know that? Everyone knows that. It is just common sense."
I became increasingly nervous. I was a fly under a microscope, waiting for the spider to pounce. To make matters worse, the company was being taken over by two companies that split the current company in two. On top of doing my job and gathering the information I needed to function, I was dealing with issues with the new companies and helping the old company close its books.
I started working late to take the pressure off, but matters because worse as I struggled with fatigue. I was so keyed up that I could not sleep at night. I tossed and turned, worrying about possible mistakes or things I had forgotten to do.
I started having spells of anxiety that went on for days. I could not enjoy anything. I realized that if I kept on feeling fearful, I would make myself sick. I had had a lot of negative messages when I was growing up that told me I was stupid and incompetent, and they barked at my heels now like rabid dogs. I had to stop beating myself up for not doing a good enough job. I was trying my hardest and that should have been good enough.
I realized that I was imposing Jim's unrealistic expectations on myself. If I continued to do that, I would be as frustrated, anxious and miserable as he was - and physically sick. No paycheck was worth that kind of price. I decided to confront Jim about his verbal abuse.
"I don't like the way you talk to me," I told him, citing the comments he made.
He was incredulous. "But you aren't doing a good job and don't know the things you should know," he answered.
It was obvious that he felt justified in his behavior. Why? Because I was not perfect. I was dealing with a full blown perfectionist. Nothing I would say would make him change his viewpoint. It was time to reassess how his perfectionism had hurt me, and look for another job.
How I dealt with it
I have accepted myself as a flawed human being who would make mistakes and fails now and then. I felt content that the job I was doing was good enough, and was determined not to let Jim's perfectionist destroy me.
I stopped working overtime and booked a needed eye operation so I could finally take some time off. I started using my vacation time to go to job interviews. I exercised and made a conscious effort to forget about work after hours.
The Performance Review - sort of
After I worked there for six months, Jim decided to do a performance review. We had such a busy morning that it was lunch time before we could meet. When we did get together, I could tell he was ready to tell me what a lousy job I was doing.
Every time he started to talk, the phone would ring. Since he demanded that I be totally devoted to his customers, I had to answer it time and time again. I couldn't help wondering if God did not have a sense of humor about this situation and inspired customers to call at what was normally a quiet time.
He finally had to reluctantly let me go for a very late lunch. Very little was said about my performance after that.
Nothing I could say could pull Jim out of his perfectionism and give him a realistic expectation of what I could do in this job. For the sake of my own sanity, I had to find another position that was definitely not customer service.
Lessons learned from this experience
I realized that when Jim criticized me, he was trying to control me. Somewhere in his twisted logic, he may have thought that his bullying would make me perform better. The opposite was true.
I felt stupid and incompetent, so I made even more mistakes. Jim was oblivous to my feelings as he tried just about everything to make me perfect or punish me for being imperfect.
This experience taught me that many things drive people's need to be perfect.
Power and control: Perfectionism gives these demanding people a sense of power and control over their environment, and consequently their lives. This is just a fake state, however. No one really has full control over life. As perfectionists grow older, they become more anxious because they just do not have the energy to keep all the balls in the air.
The need to feel OK: Perfectionism give people a false sense of security that everything was going to be OK. The problem is that people are flawed and are going to make mistakes. Perfectionists may be compensating for a deep-seated low self-esteem.
Anxiety: Some people may use perfectionism to ease their sense of inadequacy. The less perfect things are, the more anxious they feel.
Fear: Jim's motivation was not only control, but fear. If orders weren't perfect, we would lose customers. If I made a mistake, it will make the company look bad. He seemed to drive himself to the breaking point just to appease customers. He looked like a heart attack victim in the making.
The toxic effects of perfectionism
People who pursue perfectionism is angry, nervous, and frustrated. They can't relax and enjoy life because they are constantly trying to cover up or compensate for their inadequacies instead of accepting them. As they age, they have less energy, so their negative emotions escalate.
Perfectionism hurts people around the perfectionists as well. Jim's attitude really hurt my self esteem and made me anxious and fearful. I have seen mothers who are so obsessed with keeping a perfectly clean house that they neglect their children in their drive to feel in control of their world. Their poor children act out and are brats just to get mom to stop scrubbing and give them some attention.
I spent 9 months at that job. My work problem actually resolved itself quite well. After the corporate takeover, the two new owners decided to lay me off. Two months later, I got another job. I had interviewed for a job four months earlier where I was one of two people up for the position. The other girl got the job, but soon after went on sick leave. I was offered the position. I did not even have to use Jim as a reference.
As human beings, we are flawed. We make mistakes. That is normal. When we can accept ourselves, we can be happy and content with being “good enough,” and not perfect.
© 2014 Carola Finch