Adam was your typical overachiever. He had an inner drive to be perfect in everything he did. From his career to his hobbies and even down to his exercise regimen, he was always “all in.” Adam worked that philosophy until eventually it cost him nearly everything he had…

Adam’s Story

Adam grew up in small coal mining town to two hard-working blue collar parents. The oldest of 5 children, Adam watched his parents struggle to make ends meet at every turn. From failed businesses to juggling multiple jobs, it seemed like they were always just keeping their heads above water. Throughout his childhood, it was preached to Adam that the only thing that mattered was perfection in everything he did. Adam was expected to set the standard for his siblings and anything less than perfect was not tolerated. Driven by a fear of failure and a hunger to please his demanding parents, Adam graduated top of his class in both high school and college and was a two star athlete. Upon college graduation, Adam took the most challenging and demanding opportunity available to him – investment banking. On day one, Adam was paired with a demanding boss that drove him relentlessly and refused to tolerate anything less than perfect. Adam was a machine. In a typical week he logged more than 100 hours at work, regularly sleeping in his office rather than going home. Adam thrived and was seen as a rising star.

Somewhere in this chaos, Adam found time to meet and ultimately marry his wife, Beth. Three years later Adam and Beth welcomed their first child into the world. Four years after that, they had added two more children for a grand total of three and were living a financially comfortable life with Beth at home and Adam continuing his grueling pace.

The Conversation

On a rainy Sunday night, Adam got home from another marathon day at work (yes, it was a Sunday) and Beth was waiting for him at the kitchen table. In a solemn tone she said, “Adam, I can’t keep doing this anymore. It seems like I don’t know you at all… and I know you don’t know me. Something has to give.” Adam, sensing a challenge, replied “I know we can fix this. Give me an opportunity to change things.” Adam quickly began juggling his schedule to be home more on the weekends, and most weeknights. When he was home he was always busy doing something. He picked up a few new hobbies he could do with his kids so there was always a project consuming the kitchen table every night. On the weekends, in hopes of being more active at home and setting a good example, he began training for a triathalon. Adam never felt better. He was home more with his kids, his health was in great shape, and he saw Beth more than he ever had.

One day Beth surprised Adam at the office and they went to lunch. Over lunch she announced her plans to get a divorce.

The Dysfunction

Adam’s fatal flaw was his greatest strength early on – his drive for perfection in everything he did. Like many of us, Adam’s self worth came from doing many things perfectly. In Adam’s mind, there is no room for anything less than 100%… anything less than perfect. Don’t be fooled; this is a sneaky dysfunction. It starts off as a strength and differentiator. We get recognized as “all stars,” “renaissance men / women,” and “high potentials,” but as life becomes more complicated, this particular dysfunction prevents us from setting healthy boundaries and saying “no” to demands that threaten the most important things in our lives. In the end, the dysfunction often costs us the most important relationships in our lives.

The Treatment

If you can relate to Adam, you aren’t alone. Some of the best people I know struggle with this particular dysfunction. That being said, there are some specific things that you can and need to do if you want to take the “dys” out of this version of “dysfunctional.”

  • Don’t be afraid to say “No” – I promise you won’t die.   Being able to say “No” is the key to regaining control.
  • The “good enough” principle is your friend – perfection is your enemy. If you cringed when you read this line, that’s a sign you are suffering from this particular dysfunction. Sometimes “good enough” is all you really need to do.
  • Don’t put yourself in the center of all of life’s demands. Prioritize life’s demands and order your priorities accordingly.
  • Being present at home is not about “doing” – it’s about “being.” Practice just being fully present with those close to you and simply listen.

With some effort and some intentionality, this is one dysfunction that even the greatest perfectionist can manage. But be wary. If you wait too long, it may be too late to fix what’s broken – how ironic.