I am a reformed perfectionist. Not completely. I’m not perfect at it. See? I’m reformed.
Perfectionism is a nice idea, alluring even. ‘Do your best’, ‘aim for the stars’, ‘give it your all’. The problem is that these goals are completely unquantifiable. How will I know if it was my absolute best? Is this the stars or the moon? Maybe I could have done a little bit better. And that’s the insidious nature of perfectionism, you could always have done better.
Perfectionism is a black hole of neediness.
Your best is never good enough. Because ‘good enough’ isn’t in perfectionism’s vocabulary. Unlike ‘die trying’ which I’m pretty sure is. And perfectionists are always disappointed, always. And speaking from experience, they also tend to be paralyzed by fear most of the time.
Example: In my former life, I re-wrote a prologue more than 100 times. That’s not an exaggeration, I’m being conservative. Imagine that, over 100 times, on a manual typewriter. All for two pages of text, at best. Perfectionism sells itself as the ideal, the apex, what you could be if all the stars aligned. But it’s a silver-tongued enemy, holding you back, and down, and out.
Your inner perfectionist will tell you that anything less than full, unbridled perfectionism is lazy, unacceptable and just plain wrong. Don’t listen! Let your passion be unbridled, allow yourself to actually jump into a project rather than agonizing over it and make mistakes fearlessly. People boast about being perfectionists, but deep down, they all know that perfectionism isn’t a friend, or even a frenemy, it’s an albatross around their neck. Because guess what? You could write a prologue 100 times or you could write a whole novel in half the time.
But even reformed perfectionists need a plan. Here’s how I battled perfectionism and won:
1) Realize that perfectionism is the antithesis to happiness This takes time. But whenever you feel perfectionism rise within you, take a moment. Remind yourself of why you have chosen not to see your life and your efforts in this way. Know that if you throw everything at a project, invest your heart and your passion and your mind, you will be entirely secure in the outcome no matter what.
2) Indulge in guilty pleasures Sometimes, us reformed perfectionists need to indulge in certain behavior. I used to alphabetize. It’s therapeutic. All our books, DVDs in a happy perfect order. Because thankfully books and DVDs are not human and they really are that simple. Unleash all that perfectionism in bursts of activity if need be. You’ll be pleased to know that I no longer alphabetize. My bursts of perfectionism are limited to the occasional spring clean.
3) Keep Your Eye on the Prize Perfectionists of have a nasty habit of not getting anything done. If everything is so perfect, why are they so ineffectual? Because a perfectionist starts with the goal of folding the laundry and ends up re-organizing the entire wardrobe, re-folding everything and possibly even moving the aforementioned wardrobe into a better position. Don’t fall in to the trap. Develop a finite goal and stick to it. Trust me, it’s a lot quicker too.
4) Make Mistakes and Like It Mistakes aren’t the problem, being paralyzed into inaction is. Re-frame in your own mind how you relate to mistakes. Don’t think of them as something to be avoided. Mistakes are opportunities. And not in the unrealistic, fake I-am-in-prison-but-it’s-a-good-thing-because-I-get-all-this-free-time kind of way. In the way that anything worth doing risks a mistake (or several). You cannot truly be passionate about something unless you’re wiling to get something wrong. You don’t learn anything by standing back on the sidelines. You learn by knowing that when you fall down, you’ll find a way to get back up again.
5) Perfectionism Isn’t a Personality Trait Seriously. It’s not. Perfectionism is a coping mechanism for unpredictability. It introduces all kind of comforting control. You are not changing yourself by renouncing perfectionism, you’re taking the first step to discovering who you are without armor.
Taking the Plunge
Perfectionism is a habit. A bad one. And change doesn’t always come easy, or overnight. It’s a choice that will be made a million times over. But it is liberating, and it is worthwhile. Start small, set goals and stick to them. Don’t allow relapses into perfectionism dissuade you from your chosen course. Alphabetize at will. Allow yourself to make mistakes – you might finish a book, you might uncover a hidden talent or you might stumble upon something even better – the ability to surprise yourself and others. Reform yourself. Go ahead. I dare you.
The ideal of writing is to be thoughtful, memorable, meaningful and evocative. Perfectionism is an epic deception – promising the pinnacle of achievement and offering only self doubt, procrastination and inaction. The secret to changing it is simple. Don’t stop being a perfectionist. Start being passionate. Start taking risks. Start discovering who you are. Do you want to be great? Then stop being perfect.