Mental Health

5 ways to survive a hypercritical boss

May 2, 2013: 11:42 AM ET

You'll never change anyone's "controlling perfectionist" personality, but you can avoid letting it make you miserable.

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FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: How do you handle working for someone who constantly rips apart everything you do or say? I was really excited to get hired eight months ago at this company (I've always wanted to work here), but my dream job has turned into a nightmare. The reason is my boss, who is never satisfied with anything. At first, I thought it was just me, so I tried harder and harder to please him. But after a while I realized that, when I do a task exactly as he requested it, he still tears it to shreds and leaves me feeling like an idiot.

I'm apparently not the first person to get this treatment from him. A colleague told me I am the ninth person to hold this job in the past six years, because my predecessors all quit. I'd rather not do that, but he's stressing me out so badly that I can't sleep and dread coming to the office in the morning. Help! — Desperate in Dallas

Dear Desperate: Yikes. First of all, accept the fact that this boss is not going to change. "People with a personality type we call 'controlling perfectionist' are impossible to please, so don't be fooled into thinking that, if you just try hard enough, you'll win his approval," says Alan Cavaiola, a professor of counseling psychology at Monmouth University who co-wrote a whole book about this, called Impossible to Please: How to Deal With Perfectionist Coworkers, Controlling Spouses, and Other Incredibly Critical People.

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For what it's worth, your boss is probably a very unhappy guy. "Controlling perfectionists grew up feeling inferior themselves," Cavaiola says and, in a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome, "they adopt the worldview of whoever criticized them incessantly as children, usually a psychologically abusive parent.

"These are people who are miserable," he adds. "And misery loves company." That doesn't mean, however, that you have to let this boss make you as unhappy as he is. Cavaiola recommends five strategies for coping:

1. Don't take his constant carping personally. Easier said than done, of course, but bear in mind that eight people before you quit this job, so clearly the problem is not you. You'll be much less stressed if you can keep some emotional distance. Practice reminding yourself that this is just the way he is. Rather than absorbing his wrath (and feeling "like an idiot," as you say), try to let it bounce off you.

2. Never respond to his rants in kind. "Stay cool, calm, and collected," Cavaiola advises. "Some controlling perfectionists take pleasure in getting other people riled up, so lashing out or being defensive just makes them worse."

3. Get positive feedback from other sources. "No matter how many hoops you jump through, it will never be enough for this person," says Cavaiola. "Trying to deal with this in isolation will eventually destroy your self-confidence." So get support elsewhere. Cavaiola recommends finding a mentor or two, inside or outside your company, to give you the encouragement and constructive criticism you're not getting from your boss.

"You also need someone you can vent with," such as a mate or a friend, "as a sounding board and a reality check," he adds. In fact, Cavaiola and his co-author Neil Lavender, who are both practicing shrinks, decided to write Impossible to Please (and a previous book, Toxic Coworkers) because they found themselves playing this role for so many of their patients with hypercritical bosses.

4. Don't suffer in silence. "Let someone else in the organization know that you're unhappy with how you're being treated," Cavaiola suggests. "Ask that the information be kept confidential, and don't expect any action in the short term. But chances are good that you're not the only one having problems with this person. If enough people complain, decision-makers may take notice." Which brings us to No. 5 …

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5. Don't give up. "Over time, controlling perfectionists tend to rankle many people both above and below them, and to burn bridges, which sets the stage for their leaving or being let go," Cavaiola observes. "So hang in there. Maintain your focus on your work and try to outlast him."

If all else fails, since you've always wanted to work for this company, don't quit (yet). Start looking around for somewhere else you could move to within the organization. The odds are pretty good that just about any other manager in the place would be better than this one.

Talkback: Have you ever worked for a controlling perfectionist? How did you handle it? Leave a comment below.

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