Reading that title might have you scratching your head. What is tricky about perfection? What could possibly be wrong with it? Surely it’s a good thing to try our best and strive to improve. And indeed, conventional wisdom tells us that if we write the perfect book, have the perfect social media presence, and conduct the perfect marketing campaign—success will be ours!
But perfection isn’t that simple and there is a difference between striving for excellence as a way to do our best versus chasing the illusion that any human creative endeavor can be perfect. Striving for your best work is vastly different from holding yourself to impossibly perfect standards.
Perfection is the trickster god of virtues because it fools you into thinking it IS a virtue. That it’s an indicator of how much you care, how hard you work, how dedicated you are. But in reality, perfection is often not about any of those things. It is an unattainable, unreachable illusion and in pursuing it, we often kill or destroy some of the most human and joyous experiences available to us.
Perfection insists that we perform our lives rather than live them. That we allow external measures to shape and control our happiness rather than our own lived experiences, and therein lies its peril.
Some hints you might be a perfectionist are:
- If you are filled with great ideas but never quite manage to get them down because you know you can’t do justice to them.
- If you simply cannot give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft.
- If you find yourself polishing the same three chapters over and over again and never get any farther in the book.
- If you find yourself researching or world-building for YEARS in order to get everything right but have not actually written any parts of the story yet.
- If a lot of your self-talk includes words like: sub-standard, lacking, idiot, loser, fail, disappointing, unworthy.
But wait! Even if you got through that list and didn’t see yourself, you’re not free yet because overachieving is a form of perfection. (Remember that Trickster God of Virtues, thing.) So you might also be a perfectionist if:
- You do every. single. possible. thing. promoting your book to the point of physical, emotional, and financial exhaustion.
- You are a workaholic—never allowing yourself to fill the well or take a vacation or delegate a task.
- You are on such a hamster wheel of deadlines and contracts that you no longer even enjoy your work and your creativity is on life support.
This kind of perfectionism is often rooted in a need to exceed expectations and be above reproach. It is one, I might add, that writers are especially vulnerable to because there is such a degree of luck in any writer’s success and we feel we must do everything in our power to earn and justify it.
So what’s a perfectionist to do??
Well, here’s the good news. As writers, we’re very good at drilling down to plumb the depths of our characters and find their deepest, hidden truths. If we try this with perfectionism, we quickly find some surprises.
As we start drilling, it becomes clear that perfection is about meeting expectations and measuring up. It’s about avoiding disappointing people or not wanting to risk censure or judgment. Which brings us to perfection’s deepest core truth—Fear. Fear of being vulnerable or unworthy or unlovable. Fear of humiliation or shame.
Perfectionism is the belief that if we hit each stepping stone just right, we will be worthy of love that we fear we don’t deserve without earning it by being perfect. That if we are perfect enough, we will avoid the pain that life, relationships, writing, or a career in publishing will bring. The problem is, we will also avoid the joys they bring as well.
It’s hard to feel deeply satisfied about stretching ourselves creatively and achieving something wondrous and unique if we are focused on perfection, because perfection is a goal we will never attain. Worse, like fool’s gold, it is so bright and shiny that it can make the hard won, genuine achievements of our lives feel as significant as dust
So many writers find themselves on this quest for elusive perfection even though we know that fear puts a stranglehold on our ability to create. We want so badly not to offend our readers or have them hate our books (or worse—us!) and we think if we write a perfect book, we can avoid the pain of that. But that is an impossible task—reading tastes and people’s own experiences simply add too much to their reading experience, and the exact things one person loves will be the exact things that make someone else hate it. And even though we KNOW that, we also secretly think if we find the secret to perfection, we can avoid that pain.
How do we combat perfectionism?
Once we realize perfection is just a fancier, better dressed, and more socially acceptable version of fear, it becomes easier to dissect.
The roots of perfectionism are often found in some of our primal childhood fears—ones we probably don’t even realize we have. At this point in our lives they only exhibit as undefined anxieties or phobias, which I think perfectionism is a kissing cousin to.
Here is probably a good place to note that while it’s likely that our perfectionism is rooted in childhood, it is often NOT AT ALL in proportion to the degree of misery being caused. But the truth of being human is that even the most happy of childhoods is filled with ‘necessary losses’.
Every single one of us has wounds and scars and false beliefs from childhood. Even they aren’t related to traumatic upbringing, our child minds can latch onto them, creating a distorted worldview as they try to make sense of the world. The trick now, as adults, and, more importantly, adults wanting to create art of some kind, we need to trace the threads of perfection back to our specific childhood fears and misbeliefs so we can snip that thread and let it go. Once those unspecified, unspoken fears are named and confronted, they can be recognized for the powerless boogeymen they are.
Again, I cannot reiterate strongly enough that such roles were not instilled upon us for negative reasons. It can be as simple as a parent who did poorly in school, focusing slightly too much attention on their child’s academic gifts, convincing the child that’s why they matter.
Or a easily bored child always being told to go do something productive can internalize that message so that even as an adult, they can never allow themselves to relax or take a vacation.
The mother who, in order to justify her decision to be a SAHM, vows to raise the perfect child, unwittingly instilling a sense in that child that they must indeed be perfect,
Or the child who intuits their parents needs and fills them, feeling safe and loved by their praise of their sensitivity, which in turn can become internalize a belief that their role is to please others.
How do we break this perfection habit? There are a number of ways to do this. I suggest trying all of them.
- Separate the work from the end result, and then separate that from your self.
- Ask yourself if your quest for perfection is feeding your ego or your soul. (Tip: The soul needs feeding, egos not so much.)
- Focus on the process—whether it is joyful or satisfyingly difficult—and not our achievements.
- This one is a toughie, but—step back and try to begin to deconstruct your own need for perfection. Play the “what’s the worst that can happen” game. Here are the instructions:
Pick a thing you are certain must be perfect. And then imagine it is not. Ask yourself, what’s the worst that can happen?
If I write a first draft that isn’t perfect—what will happen?
- I will have proved I’m a terrible writer. (perception)
- I’ll hate myself for being horrible. (shame)
- I will have exposed how presumptuous I was to even attempt such a thing. (unworthiness/humiliation)
- If others ever found out, they would point and laugh at me and I would be humiliated. (vulnerability)
A more productive—and true—way to frame that same scenario would be:
- I will realize I am a beginner.
- I will have a better understanding of where I am on my creative journey.
- I will begin to realize how very much there is to learn about writing and set my expectations accordingly.
- Now that I understand all this, it will be easier to find an appropriate support/critique group to grow with.
Okay, here’s another one.
What if I step off the hamster wheel that conventional wisdom tells me I MUST stay on in order to achieve publishing success? (Note: stepping off the wheel can take many forms—asking for a deadline extension, reducing your promotional load, or simply agreeing to write only two books a year instead of four.)
- My sales will plummet. (performance/expectations)
- I will stop getting contracts. (respect)
- My readers will forget about me. (love)
- I will be a failure. (unworthiness)
- Worse, I will have brought it on myself by not following the established rules. (shame)
- I might have to work in another field. (loser)
- I will be a loser and humiliated and everyone will think less of me. (vulnerable)
If you let go of perfection, another truer way this could play out might be:
- Maybe the actual effect I have on book sales is smaller than my publisher’s.
- It’s possible my next advance will be smaller, but I’ll have a more realistic chance of earning out. Or maybe I’ll have to write the next book on spec again.
- My readers could conceivably wait for my next book, especially if we stay connected through one or two social media channels.
- I will have learned that I cannot do everything and have to concentrate my efforts on what I can actually have the most control over—the writing.
- Many writers have full or part time jobs, which can be a healthy way to take the financial pressure off the writing.
- I will have put my health and soul work first.
- I will have generated the white space needed to create my strongest work yet, which in turn could completely erase my first four concerns.
It can be very easy to convince ourselves that OUR quest for perfection has nothing to do with pleasing others or fear but is something we do for ourselves. A drive to achieve lofty goals or to be the best, pursued only for our own personal satisfaction.
But even then, if we ask ourselves why gently enough and often enough, we will often find that we have developed or internalized a message that in order to matter, we need to be the best. That without the trappings of success or the patina of great talent, we are not enough.
Which brings us to the often hard, but hugely rewarding parts of being an adult. We get to decide what our own truths are. We get to rewire our thoughts and perceptions so they are in line with what we truly believe or what is in fact a healthier way of understanding the world and our place in it.
We get to cast aside the perils of false perfectionism and allow ourselves to be fully—imperfectly—human and embrace life in all its glorious imperfection.
Can you identify anything that has you stalled due to the need to be perfect? Can you pick one and walk it through the steps above? What does it boil down to? [Note: If you’re having a hard time identifying anything, look at some of the things that make you most anxious. Oftentimes those anxieties are an indirect expression of a hidden drive to be perfect.]