The Perfectionist’s Guide

I was the oldest child and loved to force my younger brothers into driveway summer school sessions, complete with my lessons and requiring them to finish whatever homework I gave them.  As you can imagine, they “adored” these opportunities (insert their collective eye rolls here), and it was some of the first of many times I was called bossy. That phenomenon has continued throughout my career, social service, and relationships. 

I have always had an insatiable drive, passion, and excitement for life. However, it wasn’t until adulthood that I learned not everyone could relate, and my passion could feel excessive to those around me. I was shocked to learn that not everyone thrives in the art of possibility and making things happen.  

I wouldn’t trade my wired-for-action brain for anything, but I have repeatedly learned, usually the hard way, that my mind is often bigger than me.  It is hard to keep up, and while it’s not shocking that I have found myself exhausted and burned out more times than I would like to admit publicly, it has not been for lack of trying to figure out the best way to deal with myself.  

Over the years, I’ve read a ton, learned from the crash and burn experiences to which I really should be an expert by now, and made a variety of adaptations along the way. As a result, I’ve redefined my success by trying to do less and fiercely protecting myself from burnout. It’s an ongoing dance I do as a perfectionist in progress.

It is not often I find a book that I feel was written specifically for me, but The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and Power by Katherine Morgan Schafler did it.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of it and will most likely have to read it a couple more times over the next few years to process all of it.  

While the book has a focus on women, it applies to anyone that knows they have perfectionist tendencies but aren’t entirely sure what that exactly means, why it happens, have always been led to believe it was a bad thing and would benefit from strategies to maximize the gifts that lie within perfectionism. 

As I read this book, I wrote: “Bam,” “Damn.” “She’s calling me out” over and over in my notes.  Morgan Schafler gave me names to many relatable behaviors, a road map to better understand myself, and strategies grounded in research to help unlock some of my biggest anxieties.

katherine the perfectionists guide

Highlights for Me:

Five types of perfectionists

Morgan Schafler has created five types of perfectionists (intense, classic, Parisian, procrastinator & messy). I wondered if she should have a 6th option for me… all of the above perfectionist. She developed a quick quiz to figure out your type. I took the quiz and strongly connected to the procrastinator perfectionist with tendencies of the Parisian and messy perfectionists. The further I got into the book, the more I felt the procrastinator perfectionist was me to a T.

  • Intense perfectionists– Hardcore laser-focused on a goal and will do whatever it takes to get there, even if their standards are in the impossible range. 
  • Classic perfectionists– She doesn’t say this, but when I think of type A, I think of classic perfectionists.  She describes them as “highly reliable, consistent, detail-oriented,” but they can struggle with meaningful connections.
  • Parisian perfectionists– Strongly driven by connection with others and can have people-pleasing tendencies.
  • Procrastinator perfectionists– Great at preparing and using impulse control but struggle with starting or finishing out of fear it won’t be perfect. 
  • Messy perfectionists– Unlike procrastinators, they love starting with unbridled ideas and energy but struggle to maintain momentum when the excitement wanes. 

Perfectionism isn’t a bad thing

The author challenges the social norms and narratives that perfectionism is inherently a negative quality.  She hijacks the narrative back and reminds us that not everything is a problem needing diagnosing and treatment. So rather than pathologizing perfectionism, she encourages us to embrace the critical strengths and gifts that come with being highly driven and ambitious. 

She also draws the critical distinction of gender experiences as perfectionists. Men are expected to be unapologetically ambitious and driven and do not face the male equivalents of the shame-language women face for the same perfectionist behaviors, such as “hot mess, bossy, mom guilt, resting bitch face, strong-minded.” 

Balance

One of the biggest “oh shit” moments I had was when Morgan Schafler challenged a word I have come to love and have given a lot of power to… balance.  

Her argument is so relatable for most of us. We say balance as if it’s possible, only resulting in one more thing we aren’t getting right.  So the cycle continues as we chase some imaginary finish line, “If I can just get this done or maybe when this changes… I will have an idyllic balanced zen life.”  

Damn. The more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. I’m not sure if I was picturing myself in a perpetual meditative state where I flawlessly could still have the same responsibilities, obligations, and passions without losing my zen.

She nailed it. The longer I hold onto this understanding or vision of balance, the longer I hold myself trapped, waiting for something that doesn’t exist.  The magical unicorn called “balance.”

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Punishment contributes to numbing

A complete mic drop moment in chapter five happened to me when I read, 

“Punishment doesn’t work. When you punish someone, that person doesn’t learn how to change; they learn how to avoid the source of the punishment.  If you are the source of your punishment, then you learn to avoid yourself by numbing out.”

I’m still not sure she didn’t write this book with me in mind.  Morgan Schafler uses overeating, overspending, overworking, substances, and mindless social media scrolling as a few examples, but anything we do to prevent ourselves from having to feel or deal with can be numbing.

We all numb at different times for different reasons. If we were never explicitly taught stress management or coping skills, our minds will find something to numb with instead.  

Imagine if schools all moved to skill building to manage stress, cope with life, feeling identification, emotional regulation, communication, and problem-solving, amongst many others, how different we would experience life as adults.  

We use punishment when we do not have the skills to teach others, including ourselves, how to navigate the most challenging parts of life.  This book needs to be a must-read for every educator, administrator, parent, corporate leader, HR professional, judicial system professional, legislator, and elected officials, to name just a few.  

We must do better for each other but, most importantly, for ourselves; otherwise, we will continue to perpetuate cycles of dysfunction.

Adaptive vs. maladaptive perfectionists

Admittedly, before I read this book, I was confident this would be another book that reminded me I was doing everything wrong and that if I followed some impossible steps, I would be a better person. 

I’m not totally daft, so I already knew long before this book that I was a lifelong perfectionist. Nevertheless, I proceeded with caution as I started to read because the last thing I needed was someone reminding me, the epitome of a perfectionist, that I am, in fact, imperfect. 

Within seconds of reading, I found ease in knowing a fellow perfectionist had written this book. I was excited because she came with a far more intuitive approach that reimagined the unilateral, negative lens many of us have always viewed as perfectionism.

I had never considered perfectionism a positive, more or less my superpower, until the book challenged me.  It eloquently taught me that perfectionism could be an adaptive response that I use to be my most authentic self (insert mindblown emoji here.)

According to the author, adaptive perfectionists embrace control of their self-worth. Their efforts are driven by optimism and reward-seeking, whereas maladaptive perfectionists are trapped by fear of failure. Adaptive perfectionists have a growth mindset and don’t feel the same gut punch with setbacks because they see “setbacks as experiences as opportunities for growth and learning.” 

Reflecting on a younger version of myself, I know I spent more time as a maladaptive perfectionist. I was on a journey of proving myself and desperately seeking to be loved, so every setback felt crushing. 

I’d love to say I’m a wholly transformed, 100% adaptive perfectionist. However, depending on the moment, I know I can fall back into maladaptive perfectionist tendencies, though this book has enabled me with more strategies to maximize my adaptive perfectionist.

Strategies galore

I’m so grateful for the tremendous amount of learning and research packed into this book but even more appreciative of the abundance of concrete strategies to use.  

For instance, as perfectionists, we tend to overthink everything. It becomes a vicious cycle when we start ruminating on everything we often cannot control, only creating an abundance of stress.  

I can relate to this as a parent with young adult children. I frequently worry and get stuck obsessing about every what-if scenario and can drive my kids bananas trying to overprotect them or what they call being “extra.” 

The author meticulously illustrates the science behind why we do what we do and the evidence base for why her proposed methods are effective.  She has put tremendous effort into building a solid research foundation supporting every idea, claim, or strategy asserted.  

In a world where people blindly follow anything they see on social media, research and science have to be what drives our understanding of the world and ourselves.

This phenomenal book is deeply grounded in research but written very relatable and witty.  It is a book I will read again because there was so much packed into it, and like a movie, I will see new things each time. The author beautifully constructed a powerful tool that will benefit more lives than she will ever know.  

No one can hide their suffering better than the highly functioning person.

Quotes I can’t stop thinking about

  1. “Managing perfectionism by telling perfectionists to stop being perfectionists is like managing anger by telling people to “calm down.” Never in the history of the world has this approach worked, yet we continue to barrel through on this dum-dum quest to get perfectionists to fall in love with average.”  
  2. “The push for increased balance is not a response to the state of women’s health; it’s a response to the state of women’s power.”  I will never be the same again after reading this.
  3. “No one can hide their suffering better than the highly functioning person.”
  4. “I saw perfectionism for the power that it is, a strength I wanted to reclaim.”
  5. “People hold themselves back because they’re afraid to fail, but when you learn to extract meaning from the process instead of outcome, you can’t fail.”
  6. “Why do we single out perfectionism as a negative marker in women?”
  7. “The difference between what we struggle with and what we’re challenged by lies not in the task itself, but in the amount of support we connect to as we engage the task.”
  8. “Connection is the ultimate arbiter of mental wellness.”
  9. “Simple isn’t easy.”
  10. “…the unlock to thriving isn’t managing our time; it’s managing our energy.”
  11. “Productivity is rapidly becoming the dirtiest word in wellness.”
  12. “You are not on the earth to complete tasks and then die.”
  13. “When we say we want closure, what we really want is control.”
  14. “Restoration is the eighth wonder of the world for perfectionists.”

Book: The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and Power by 

Author: Katherine Morgan Schafler 

Author Background: I earned my Bachelor’s degree in psychology at UC Berkeley before obtaining two Masters from Columbia University, one focused on clinical assessment and the other on psychological counseling.  Additionally, I completed post-graduate training and certification at the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy in NYC.

My clinical experience began at a residential treatment center in Los Angeles. My work focused on helping individuals and families process and move forward from trauma and abuse to create a life that was not dictated by the past. After moving to New York City for graduate school, I continued my clinical work and training at The Dean Hope Center.  I completed my graduate fieldwork at a private practice in midtown and went on to work at a rehab center in Brooklyn.  As a rehabilitation counselor, I ran group and individual sessions centered on addiction issues of all kinds – food addiction, drug and alcohol addiction, attachments to drama and negative people, etc. Simultaneously, I began to build my private practice part-time and eventually made a full-time transition. A few years into my private practice, I joined the team at Concern, an EAP program designed to bring therapy and resources to organizations across the country.  As a therapist through Concern, I was hired as an independent contractor to work on-site at Google, New York. 

Release Date: 1/17/23

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Jennifer Ulie, Ph.D.

Jennifer Ulie, Ph.D.

2x Founder, CEO, Motivational Speaker, Author, Teacher, PhD, and Geek about holistic health and evidence-based practices to help people unlock the best parts of themselves again. Follow @mymensana.

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