ISSUE 145: Special Section

Know A Good Doctor? We Do.

Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

How to Ask for Help If You’re a Perfectionist

I’m writing a book. There, I’ve said it. So almost five years into the process, I guess it’s actually going to happen. If my book coach is still speaking to me.

The first sign of trouble came early on when she gave me a button to wear that says, “Ask me about my book!” Since then, I contact her about once a year with a plea to not give up on me and a promise that a rough draft is “almost ready.”

Then something changed. Realizing that my book-writing phobia was severe enough to require intensive one-on-one therapy, I hired a book “therapist.”

We quickly bonded, and every few weeks, I booked a session with her to work through a chunk of material. I understand the creative process well enough to anticipate periods of absolute clarity and an exhilarating high of productivity, followed by bouts of profound confusion and “stuckness.”

But I wasn’t prepared when the project kept moving along, but as an ever-expanding morass. It was like hearing your airline captain say, “We have no idea where we’re going… but we’re making excellent time.”

Our first breakthrough came about three months into the process. “I’ve noticed some perfectionist tendencies…” my book therapist diplomatically began, followed by a couple of helpful “suggestions.”

That’s when I realized she was a book therapist. She started with what every good therapist begins — an accurate diagnosis. Then she began walking the fine line between compassion and confrontation to elicit behavior change.

Technically, the process started with the formation of the “therapeutic alliance.” All that means is that I sensed two things: 1) she “gets” me, and 2) I can trust her. Both emotionally and professionally. After all, writing a book gets plenty personal. And the research findings on what makes counseling successful are very clear: The strength of the client-counselor relationship is the biggest predictor of whether therapy will be effective and produce actionable change.

My book therapist has another skill: The ability to be a) non-judgmental and b) confrontational at the same time. It’s one of the things that often distinguishes a therapist’s help from that of a friend, relative, or co-worker.

It means we are committed to our client’s progress and to doing what’s in their best interest, more than keeping the relationship going and not rocking the boat. Whether you operate in an entrepreneurial mode like me or you’re working for someone else, learning to hold the tension of those two opposites — holding a relationship with great care, yet with an open hand — is something that comes with the territory.

The trickiest part is when, like every relationship, the therapeutic alliance periodically gets tested. Sometimes it takes you right to the edge. I found myself being more confrontational than usual with a client who was herself a therapist. (Yes, therapists have therapists.) During a particularly troublesome period in her career, I was concerned she was going to get herself fired and that she didn’t see it coming. As she was leaving my office that day, I was relieved to hear her hand-on-the-doorknob comment, “I know you’re on my side.”

Thank goodness, there’s also a simplicity and straightforwardness to the therapeutic process, elegantly outlined by Brett Steenbarger, PhD. In The Art and Science of Brief Psychotherapies, he and his colleagues at SUNY identify three essential ingredients that create the conditions “allowing profound changes to occur, often within a matter of months.”

Active engagement: The use of a supportive relationship to encourage and sustain focused change efforts and promote an environment of hope and optimism.

Discrepancy: The ability of therapy to provide powerful emotional experiences that disrupt old patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior and promote the exploration of new patterns.

Consolidation: The ongoing reinforcement and rehearsal of the new patterns so that these become internalized as fresh parts of the self.

Fortunately for my book therapist, I’m not in complete denial about my condition. Unlike the first time I remember being accused of being a perfectionist. Incredulous, I responded as only a true perfectionist would, “You have got to be kidding! You have no idea how much I let slide!” End of discussion.

It could have been worse. Once when scheduling an appointment, I happened to mention I’d be out of town for some continuing education. I was shocked when my client like me would never admit to needing additional training. “You’re supposed to already know it all,” she said.

Yet we do seem to have our own tortured-reasoning, Western version of “Physician, heal thyself.” This well-meaning adage now seems to imply not just that a) we need to be aware of our own need for healing and b) be willing to attend to it. On top of that, we fully expect ourselves to somehow bootstrap our way into it single-handedly.

My personal turning point began to pivot around two questions:

If you buy into the efficacy of counseling so much that you enter the profession, why would you not seek it for yourself when the need arises?
Instead of diminishing you, won’t your personal counseling experience make you better at what you do professionally? Not just in terms of increased expertise, but also increased empathy?

Here are some of my favorite face-saving ways even perfectionistic professionals can seek help:

1. Use an excuse.

According to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, unhappy couples wait an average of six years before getting help. Unfortunately, it’s often too late by then. That was the case with my seven-year “starter marriage,” which began during college and continued a few years beyond.

Our one-and-done marriage therapy session in promptly segued into a solution all three of us agreed on — divorce. I now had an excuse to justify beginning therapy, in the form of a divorce recovery group. Fortunately, the group was led by an excellent therapist, who made it easy to slide me into individual therapy, too.

Given my rather dramatic family history, it’s not like I didn’t know all along I could use some help. I just needed a pathway to begin the journey. Saying, “I’m going through a divorce, so I’m in a divorce counseling group,” was very difficult, but ultimately doable, more doable than saying, “I’m desperately unhappy in my doomed marriage, so we’re in marriage counseling.”

2. Call it something else.

When I worked in HR for a Fortune 500 company, I was in a high-rise full of perfectionists and superstars. Any counseling I did with executives and professionals was called professional development. Counseling with groups was referred to as consulting or organizational development. I did my master’s practicum in counseling psychology at an executive outplacement firm to practice career transition management.

I mentioned earlier that therapists have therapists. We have our own words, too: professional development, continuing education, case consultation, or supervision.

Call it by whatever name gets you to do it, whether it’s consulting, coaching, professional development, personal development, or “talking to someone.” Yes, there are limits, and you do have to draw the line somewhere. Someone contacted me once about acting as a “spiritual guide,” which seemed to roughly translate to “free counselor.”

3. Blame it on someone else.

This one is easy. “I’m going to counseling because my spouse/partner/kid/stepchild is having problems.” (No need to mention the “with me” part.)

Need to convince someone to join you in counseling? Try this interesting variation my supposedly less-psychologically-sophisticated husband used on me about six months before our wedding:

Him: “I think we need to do some pre-marital counseling.”

Me (as head jerks around): “What?”

Him (repeating): “I think we need to do pre-marital counseling.”

Me (after long pause): “Why?”

Him: “I think I need it.”

Me (relieved): “Oh… okay.”

Duh… We were both coming out of long-term marriages and dealing with serious parental alienation with our children.

Smart guy. Smart(er) me for picking someone like him this time around.

Here’s the ultimate irony: My book is solidly in the self-help genre, and the central message is… “Here’s how to get other people to help you.”