Are You A Driven Perfectionist In A Slacker World?

photo courtesy of Andrew Branch, Unsplash

Angela is driven. At her job as a graphic designer and communications coordinator, she works 10-12 hour days, and some weekends. Her standards for her work are well beyond those of her colleagues, including the CEO of the organization. Coworkers depend on her to keep the company functioning but also resent her high expectations, her critiques of their writing and her evaluation of their less than adequate customer service.

Angela didn’t attend college. She was raised in a seriously dysfunctional family. It’s hard to understand how she knows what she knows, unless you realize that she has a rainforest mind: A mind that learns quickly and deeply whatever it finds appealing, fascinating or complicated. A heart that feels extreme empathy for humans, animals and plants.

Coworkers take advantage of Angela. Because her work is always of the highest quality and completed in less than half the time, she’s one person doing a two-three person job. Not only that: Workmates ask her to create invitations to their kids’ birthday parties and to design the programs for their Aunt Matilda’s half-sister’s memorial. In her spare time. For free. She does it because she can and because she can’t say ‘no.’

Angela is a driven perfectionist in a slacker world.

I tell her: “Just because you’re able to do it, doesn’t mean you have to do it. You have a right to set boundaries. To say ‘no.’ To have a life outside of your job.” But her extraordinary abilities, her empathy and her early trauma all tell her ‘no’ is not an option.

I tell her: “Feel your satisfaction-sometimes-joy in finding the perfect phrase and the most striking images. Understand that others may not notice or care. Feel your satisfaction-sometimes-joy anyway.” This is the healthy perfectionism that comes with a rainforest mind. Regular people may not understand it.

I tell her: “If you feel resentment, anger or extra stressed at your job, consider allowing some of your work to be less than extraordinary. Settle for excellent. Notice if you need to excel because it gives you joy or because you have to prove your worth. Or both.” If it’s unworthiness, it’s unhealthy perfectionism. You can thank your dysfunctional family for that. Your therapist can help you detach your sense of worth from your achievements.

Well, then. If you are, like Angela, a driven perfectionist in a slacker world, take heart. Find the places where your drive, idealism and high standards are appreciated and needed. (Your favorite struggling nonprofit? Your gifted kids? Your community garden? Your elderly neighbors?) Spend time in those places.

And, your coworker’s Aunt Matilda’s half-sister? I’m pretty sure she won’t mind if there aren’t any programs at her memorial.


To my bloggEEs: Does Angela sound like you? Do you find yourself overworked and under-appreciated at your job, at school or at home? Are you a perfectionist? How do you manage your drive, high standards and expectations? How do make time to rest? And, if you’re wanting to improve your work environment , in spite of the slackers, and don’t know where to begin, try the folks at Rebels At Work for ideas and for a community of like-minds. And thank you for being here.

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

23 responses to “Are You A Driven Perfectionist In A Slacker World?”

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  1. EwaB Avatar

    since i discoverd that I am rainforest mind, and that it isnt my job to help everybody everywhere, I am cleaning house. ( in the friends department). might be a bit drastic, but I have noticed that i have a bunch of leeches hanging on for a while now, but never had the guts to get rid of them. Now I am. I dont just tell them no. I tell I am not helping anymore and it is now their choice if they want to continue knowing me. sofar no takers. they all choose to cut me loose now I refuse to be their free therapist/ decorator/ typist/ cook/ babysitter/ and so on.
    And I have to say, after the initial heartbreak about being so easely set aside by people I considered friends. I now notice how much more headspace and time I have for things I like doing.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sounds like it was a wise move to leave the “leeches.” Thanks for writing!

  2. Ro Avatar

    What you say about perfectionism driven by a sense of unworthiness, makes so much sense to me. For a long time I’ve declared that I ‘love cleaning’. My 14 year old daughter has (with incredulity) called me on it this year whilst I’ve been bedbound, saying: ‘You can’t TRULY love cleaning. I reckon somewhere along the way, you just convinced yourself that you love cleaning.’

    Hardly a surprising attitude coming from a teenager, right? The state of her bedroom floor….

    Anyway, my daughter was spot on. I haven’t /told/ her yet, of course. But the past few days some part of my crippling desire to be-the-person-I-imagine-other-people-want-me-to-be-even-though-they-probably-barely-think-of-me-in-their-everyday-lives-if-at-all-,-ever has lifted off my body.

    And as I began to ponder what life might be like once I start living it the way I’m naturally inclined and compelled to… yeah. I don’t love cleaning after all. I’m still going to do it once I can get out of this bed, because I enjoy the results. But I’m not going to harm myself with it. And I’m not going to be on hands & knees anymore, scrubbing things with a toothbrush – each movement a ‘yes ma’am!’ appeasement to all the shame-ghosts in my head. No wonder I felt so ‘great’ after cleaning; I’d fed the ghosts and they quietened down for a while!

    From now on if I notice the shame-ghosts, and notice I’m ‘feeding’ them via toil – I’m going to down tools. Down tools, and do something lovely & entirely unproductive.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sounds like a great plan, Ro. So good to see you here.

  3. Nimue Brown Avatar
    Nimue Brown

    That’s interesting. I made a decision last autumn to not work more than 5 days a week nor more than 10 hours a day because I was overloaded and getting every more ill – physically and mentally. There’s a surprising amount in this post that I recognise. It’s the people who ask ‘can you just…?’ who often turn out to be the most problematic… because that ‘just’ is never actually a small thing…

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      One thing I tell my clients is that you might have a regular response to these people’s requests: “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.” That takes the pressure off telling them ‘no’ or ‘yes’ in the moment. It gives you time to evaluate the request and then you can respond with a ‘no’ more easily. Thanks for sharing, Nimue.

    2. Beth Heinecamp Avatar
      Beth Heinecamp

      … ‘Can you just…’ Yes I’ve heard those words before. If someone has issues regarding your limitations, I finally learned that it’s not my problem, it’s THEIR PROBLEM. And Paula you’re right, I think so many of us have gifts PLUS we’re usually ultra-responsible workers, take pride in our work and so very self-motivated. If we don’t have internal boundaries (to battle our own perfectionism and too-high expectations), we certainly will struggle with saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to others.

  4. Beth Heinecamp Avatar
    Beth Heinecamp

    Angela reminds me of myself. Years ago, I was the ‘Webmaster’ for a church, a volunteer position. I jumped at the chance to get web and graphic design experience, and it went well for a long time. But I began to feel somewhat taken advantage of. The secretary would email me items for the calendar, but being super-detailed I always double-checked her stuff for errors, misspellings, etc. I also went over the top in terms of hours spent conceiving and creating logos, and other projects. It came naturally to me, the creative work, but over time I decided to pull back and not spend as much time on it. Which was very difficult because as you know so well, Paula, that feels very unnatural. It can be very difficult for women like Angela and myself to set boundaries on a professional level because of holes in our emotional selves.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I wonder, too, Beth, if, because it comes so naturally to you, if there’s also a sense of feeling like you should do it because it comes so easily?? Maybe a sense of responsibility? And, yes, the “holes.” Thanks for sharing.

  5. Jens Lyon Avatar
    Jens Lyon

    This is one of the reasons why I sometimes “played dumb” in school and would probably do it again if the situation called for it. I am a perfectionist in my own way, yet at the same time I’m enough of a slacker that I don’t want to do other people’s work for them!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Jen! Not doing other people’s work for them is not being a slacker!! It’s having good boundaries. 🙂

  6. abambarencall Avatar

    Oh my, this really hit me in the gut today. In a good way. 😉

    Thank you for doing what you do and for bringing so much loving honesty into the world. <<<<<3

    On Mon, Apr 24, 2017 at 8:29 AM Your Rainforest Mind wrote:

    > Paula Prober posted: ” Angela is driven. At her job as a graphic designer > and communications coordinator, she works 10-12 hour days, and some > weekends. Her standards for her work are well beyond those of her > colleagues, including the CEO of the organization. Coworkers depend ” >

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      You are quite welcome! 🙂

  7. suzieperon Avatar

    I had a mini rant on social media about this very issue on Facebook last week. I was lying awake at night trying to calm myself as the thoughts swirled in my mind. Why are people heedless and unthinking? Why is conscientiousness not even encouraged or demonstrated let alone mandatory. This particular episode arose from a sailing experience where I was injured by a careless somewhat bumbling crew member. It galls and baffles me but I have not the energy nor am I in the position to rouse people out of bad habits and complacency. It is a cultural endemic. I am so glad you raised the point here Paula. Us rain forest minds have a lot to fight against so thanks!!! x

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      More conscientiousness would be so nice! Thanks for sharing, suzieperon.

  8. Terri Jacobsen Avatar
    Terri Jacobsen

    “Notice if you need to excel because it gives you joy or because you have to prove your worth. Or both.” If it’s unworthiness, it’s unhealthy perfectionism. You can thank your dysfunctional family for that. Your therapist can help you detach your sense of worth from your achievements.”

    This right here is one of the greatest values of your writing, Paula, IMO. As your words resonate with your audience, your advice pushes just the right buttons. You are offering a great service to others here, and I want to personally thank you for reaching me and others who live life intensely and “perfectly” (not always voluntarily) and who have many reasons to “revisit” their dysfunctional upbringing from a safe distance.

    1. Carina Avatar

      I also found that particular segment enlightening. I found that I have often relied too much on other people’s recognition of my work, and when that didn’t happen, despite me putting in a lot of effort, felt really frustrated. I’ve also found myself willing to go the extra mile (many extra miles, in fact) just for a version of “You’re great!” from bosses or peers. In a way, it’s an acquired habit. I still remember going to my dad with my great report cards. That seems to be what he values the most in me, so it’s only natural that I should continue to derive great pleasure in showing authority figures that I can do it.

      But I’ve found this frustrating, too. Like you state in the article, Paula, being driven to excellence can lead to people using you and not recognizing you appropriately (i.e. with a good paycheck). I found myself spending 12 hours or more in front of the computer and not having the time or the energy for my family. All for peanuts. What I’m not good at is “marketing myself” and standing up for my rights. So after a year and a half of slaving my life away, I found a better position (more pay with less effort) and decided my days of martyrdom were over. I decided I’ve already proved my worth when it comes to work. I know what I can do and will do it only when I feel it’s worth the effort. I have also learned that “very good” can be better than “spotless perfect” when it comes to maintaining your peace of mind and a balanced life. And saying no can be such a liberating experience!

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Yes, that’s a good plan–the end of the “days of martyrdom!” Thanks, Carina.

    2. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, Terri. I appreciate your feedback very much!

  9. Themon the Bard Avatar
    Themon the Bard

    :LOL: I relate!

    My junior year in college, I learned the basic Life Rule: if you’re on a “project team” in college, it means one person does the work, and three get the credit. We were put on 3-person teams to research a subject and do a report. I volunteered to collate the results and turn it in. Both of the others clearly did the whole thing the last night before the deadline I set for — I thought — putting the three parts in a nice binder. One fellow turned in something with poor grammar, worse spelling, and research/thoughts about as deep as an oil slick on a rain puddle in a light drizzle. The other fellow turned in something scrawled IN PENCIL on lined paper. I threw out both, and stayed up for two nights writing and typing the whole thing — on one of those old-fashioned mechanical typewriters, no less. Tap. Tap. Tap. At 4:00 am. I was proud of the end result, and it got an A, but when I told the professor — next semester — about what had happened, he told me I should have just turned it in as-is, and he’d have sorted it out.

    Kind of a mixed message there, of course. What’s the point of a “team project” if we aren’t going to learn to do teamwork? My big mistake, of course, was not riding tight herd as a master psychologist on feral cats who really just want to party. As a college junior in physics, I had no idea how to do that. I’m a better at it now, after 35 years of work experience, but it has remained a valuable and enduring object-lesson.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’ve heard stories like this one from many rainforest-minded humans, Themon the Bard! So frustrating! Good to hear from you.

  10. Judy James Avatar
    Judy James

    Quite true Paula, I feel as though you are speaking about me in some of your statements, ” these individuals are quite complex, highly sensitive, intense, multi-layered and misunderstood…and they love learning.”

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, Judy. I’m speaking about you! Thanks for being here and for commenting.

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