I am a hardcore perfectionist. A simple email usually takes me at least fifteen minutes to half an hour to craft. My brain edits and corrects everything I write and say. Weighing everything, judging everything I do as either success or failure. If I’m going to do something, it has to be done perfectly or not at all. Not a very practical way to live life.
While there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in my work and giving it my best efforts, perfectionism often prevents me from even doing the work. A paralyzing fear, close companion to perfectionism, haunts everything I attempt to do. I don’t try to do well on things for me. No, I do it because I’m afraid others will judge me and find me lacking.
This fear has caused me to give up many dreams in the past and has delayed many others. Writing is a big one.
I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. But rather than work hard and believe in myself, I listened to outside voices that told me a) you can’t make a living at it, and b) you have to be perfect in order to get published. Both are lies that are disproved by successful authors all around me. However, instead of writing, I started studying writing to avoid having to write. (Really productive, I know.)
Studying the craft isn’t a bad thing, but my obsession with having to know how to write the perfect book led to over five years of work with little progress to show for it. Turns out there isn’t a perfect way to write a book. (Hundreds of craft books that give contradictory advise later, I finally am getting this.) It’s trial and error. It’s trying new things and seeing what works. It’s learning to recognize weak areas as I write, then studying how to make them stronger while practicing.
Writing, unlike a math equation, doesn’t have one perfect solution. It is believing in my story and my characters enough to write a messy first draft and then make it stronger. It’s making a big mess and then learning from it. Not something a perfectionist like me handles very well.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled to put words on paper, or paint on a canvas, or take that college class in something new and scary. Or deal with failure without feeling like a failure.
Here are a few tricks I’ve started using to help me, and my inner perfectionist, to appreciate the progress I’ve made and not let the fear paralyze me. Maybe one or two may help you. 🙂
- Set time limits.
This is a huge one for me. Like I said, I can spend a ridiculous amount of time crafting a short email. My need to make everything perfect has often led me to frustration for not accomplishing much in my day. Setting limits on how much time I can give to a task or project helps with this. It means I have to focus and get something done, not obsess over its quality. The time crunch helps muffle the inner editor and when the time is up, I have to be done and move on to the next project.
2. Focus on and accept what I can do.
This means accepting that the efforts I put toward something are good enough. I can’t be everything to everyone all of the time. If the time I have to write is only half an hour a day, use that and celebrate the progress I’ve made. Same goes for every aspect of my life. Rather than worry over what I should do, I’m trying to focus more on what I can do at this time in my life. It won’t be perfect. I will say no to things. People may judge me and try to guilt me into things, but I know what I can do. And that’s plenty for now.
3. Look beyond me and this moment.
Why am I doing what I’m doing? Is it for fame or fortune or to win awards? (If that is your motivation, go for it!) But usually, I find the real reasons I write or do anything is deeper. To help others. Self-expression and creativity. To challenge my abilities. If I find I can’t find a deeper reason for doing something, I question whether it really needs to be in my life right now. It’s okay to say no and cut things that aren’t adding value.
Another key question is will people really care if it’s not perfect? When I take dinner to a friend who needs a little help, she doesn’t care if the seasonings are a little off or the corners are a little burned. She’s grateful for the thoughtfulness. Same with writing or any other endeavors. If I put in my best efforts and am passionate about the reason behind what I’m doing, people will see that and not the minor imperfections that may be there.
Wanting to do a job well should always be strived for. But life is too short to waste it trying to be perfect and fearing I’m not. Because, truth, I’m not. I make messes. Mistakes. I trip. Fall on my face. Life is messy and I’m finding that is the beauty of it. Out of some of the darkest and messiest times come some of the greatest achievements.
Keep exploring. Keep making mistakes and learning. Keep climbing.
How about you? Has fear of failing or making mistakes every kept you from doing something you really wanted to do? How have you overcome fear and perfectionism?