The Problem with Perfectionism

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Confession time: I am a recovering perfectionist. I am striving to embrace my human imperfection because I have come to realize that is the only path to meaningful fulfillment in life. And I am recovering because I know my struggle with perfectionism is lifelong. The seeds of perfectionism will always be waiting to sprout inside me, if through self-doubt and self-unkindness, I water them and provide them with fertile soil.

Reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly helped me realize what a tremendous burden my perfectionism was—and more importantly, why it had developed. Perfectionism is a form of armor against vulnerability. And vulnerability is scary. But it’s also necessary. Without vulnerability, there is no true love, no vibrant joy, no great adventure. Afraid of judgment or ridicule, I wielded perfectionism like a shield. This is especially harmful because I am a writer. I exist in the creative arena. To create anything meaningful, vulnerability is necessary.

One of my biggest epiphanies as a creative came to me in the middle of the night. As a self-professed night owl, I’m prone to midnight epiphanies, and so I wasn’t surprised, though I was moved by the awakening this realization stirred.

It went something like this: There is no such thing as a perfect book. The best of books has its critics. What one reader loves, another loathes. The best we can strive for is to create a story that moves someone, to stir human emotion, whether joy, sorrow, hope, sadness, excitement, or passion. Or, perhaps, all of these.

This seems obvious, but perfectionism is sneaky. It has its tricks to convince us otherwise.

This dawning was liberating. It freed me from the sharp briars of perfectionism. It renewed my joy in the creative process. It doesn’t make writing easy, but it does make it more enjoyable, more exciting.

Brown opens her book with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that I think can serve creatives and recovering perfectionists well:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So, onward I march, flawed and imperfect. Fumbling and failing all the while, I strive forward, toiling at the page, living the life of a storyteller. Starting next year, I will be sending my stories out to editors and agents, daring greatly.

This week I started the second draft of Oak-Bound. The plan is to incorporate my critique partner’s suggestions and a few changes of my own I want to make and then send it to my husband for his feedback. After that, I’ll make some more changes and hopefully by January, it will be ready for submission. I also want to start the next draft of Spellfire’s Kiss this month and try to get that ready for submission early next year.

I’ll share another quote from Theodore Roosevelt that I think can serve creatives well:

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Or, as Buffy more succinctly said:

“The hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”

Be brave. Live deeply. Dream wildly. Create passionately. Embrace imperfection.

What about you? In what areas of your life have you struggled with perfectionism? How are you daring greatly?

denise signature

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9 thoughts on “The Problem with Perfectionism

  1. Oooh, love this post. Perfectionism is something I struggle with, too. One thing I’ve started doing to move past that is remind myself how my favorite characters are always deeply flawed, not perfection personified. So, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself when I make mistakes, since that’s the version of me I’d adore, if I came across myself in fiction. (This probably sounds really silly, but it actually has helped calm me down and put things in perspective, heh.)

    Anyway, glad you’ve found a way to escape perfectionism, and that it has brought more joy to the creative process for you, as a result! The epiphanies you had, and all the quotes you shared, really resonate with me. Wishing you all the best as you dare greatly and send those submissions out into the world! ^_^

  2. I, too, am a perfectionist. It makes some days a real challenge and also makes it hard to play well with others, because even if you are playing (or in most cases, working) with another perfectionist, you all see the world differently. You also butt heads a lot, such as is the case with my son.

    Anyway, I guess as with any illness, the first step to recovery is recognizing the problem.

    Best wishes!

  3. Great post. I love the quotes from Roosevelt. I struggle with perfectionism. It’s kept me from trying new genres, entering contests, submitting stories for publications. It’s even kept me from starting a novel. I’m in the mindset that the first draft has to be the best. No other drafts matter. But I think that’s more about not putting forth the effort than anything else.

    I’m trying to break the shackles of perfectionism. It’s paralyzing to me. I have to get in my head that there will always be critics. That there will be someone who will say that I have no business being a writer. As hard as that might be to hear, I can’t let that deter me from what I want to do.

  4. I am also a recovering perfectionist. I’ve come a long way, using baby steps. Having children went a long way toward curing me – given a choice between perfection and their happiness – their happiness won every time.

    In writing, I look at the first draft as just getting the bones of the story out there. Then revision is the process of excavation and sculpting the body and details….

    Or something like that.

    I will be sending you another email with the “missing” chapters of Spellfire this week. Can you tell me which is the last one you have?

  5. Not only a recovering perfectionist but… well, I think I still need to stand up in the group session and say “I am a perfectionist, and I need help” (did I just do that?)

    Sometimes I wonder if all the hype about “fixing” one’s self is to hide the fact that there is no fix. It’s all distraction to hide the flaws. I don’t know. But I’m glad you’re finding your connection to your better (and truer) self, Denise, and accepting that you can’t please everyone, but hopefully, with enough acceptance you can finally please yourself.

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