Raise your hand if you’re a self-identifying perfectionist.
Now, raise your hand if you’re a closet perfectionist, passing off as Type B or laid back, but secretly freaking out unless everything is JUST SO.
Or maybe you are pretty chill, but when it comes to your creative life, you freeze because the sentences never come out as beautifully as you’d like them to.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of perfection, we’re all occasionally guilty of letting fear of failure (the obvious result of not being perfect) sway our decisions and actions. Especially as a creative person, perfectionist tendencies can be stifling, if they’re not nipped in the bud.
I often notice that when my writing time feels like work, or I avoid a project I’m supposedly excited about, it’s because my inner perfectionist has wormed its way into my brain.
Perfectionism can ruin the feast of creativity, or worse, it can prevent creativity from ever taking root. Creativity is meant to be joyful, something to look forward. Writing does, sometimes, feel like work, and especially during the editing process or when you’re writing on a deadline, that’s normal. But the process can and should be one of deep exultation and wonder—storytelling is a natural human urge, a way to locate ourselves amid chaos; it isn’t meant to be perfect, it’s meant to be human.
Here are 4 telltale signs perfectionism is slowing you down:
You never finish anything
Procrastination and/or abandoning projects are sure signs of lurking perfectionism. If you never finish anything, it probably has nothing to do with your merit as a writer, and everything to do with fear of failure (you can’t fail if you don’t play).
You’re terrified of sharing
This was, and still is, my biggest obstacle. The vulnerability involved in sharing creative work can be paralyzing. If you’re consistently allowing the fear of sharing to hold you back, that might be your inner perfectionist holding the reins.
You’re hyper-critical (of everything)
If you can’t find anything good to say, about your own work or others’, that’s a sign that you’re burnt out and/or expecting too much. Expectations are tricky: Yes, you want to hold yourself accountable to achieve your goals. But when expectations get so big that they supercede your ability to work, that’s a bad thing.
The brain is a powerful asset, but if you give it too much control, it can ruin the fun. Mostly it does this by overpowering intuition and squashing excitement by pointing out every.little.thing.that.is.or.could.be.wrong.
If you’re having trouble starting a project, or maintaining momentum, here are some suggestions for bypassing your perfectionist tendencies and getting shit done.
4 Ways to Tame the Beast of Perfectionism
I’m currently reading Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play, and it’s illuminating. In it, she writes, “The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play.” Think about that in the context of your creative life. Creativity must be sustainable in order to thrive. And for something to be sustainable, it must be built to survive. How do you build a thriving creative life? With play! Play allows the mind (home over that pesky, overthinking brain) to let go. And once the mind has let go, that deep well of ideas and excitement can bubble.
Try it: Pick an activity you enjoy (running, yoga, chess, gardening, collaging, drawing, etc.) and allow yourself to get lost in it. Don’t pay attention to time or accomplishment, just enjoy the act. Observe your mood before and after; how did playing influence how you feel about writing?
Explore the process.
When I’m really in my own way, I find it helpful to read about other writers’ processes. (Here’s a cool place to do so.) When something—like, say, physically drawing a timeline—appeals to me, I do it. Some ideas stick, and others fall by the wayside, but usually I’m inspired enough by others’ habits that I can hunker back down with my own stories.
Try it: Pick an aspect of another writer’s process that you find fascinating and give it a try with your current project. See what this opens up for you. You may not keep the technique around long-term, but who knows what it might jump-start!
Enlist a friend.
It is so helpful to have a friend who you trust to read and encourage your work. Note the word encourage. This friend may or may not also be your critique partner, but the key to this tool is ENCOURAGEMENT. Ask for this friend to share with you what they love about the piece you’re having hard time with: what do they want to hear more about, what gets their pulse going as they read? When you’re stuck and struggling with perfectionist tendencies, criticism rarely helps. Encouragement, however, does. If you don’t have a friend you feel comfortable sharing your goals and process with, consider joining a writing group or meetup, or taking a class.
Try it: Ask a trusted friend or editor to read something that you’re struggling with. Be clear that you’re not looking for criticism, but that you’re looking to feel enlivened about your work. Ask them to point out what they love. Sometimes all it takes is another person’s eyes to really see what’s there and working.
Ask yourself if you really want to do it.
When I have an intention on my to-do list for several weeks but repeatedly avoid accomplishing it, I give myself permission to remove it from the list for a little while (this, of course, does not apply to required projects). After a week or two, I revisit the intention: do I still want to write that short story? Am I still so sure I want to put together a collection of lyric essays? If the answer is a resounding yes, I bring it back into circulation. If the answer is no, then I allow myself to let it go. Trust that if a project is meant to be it will come to fruition. Don’t force it. Remember, this writing thing may not be easy, but it’s supposed to be FUN.
Try it: You know that goal you’ve had hanging around your neck forever? Give yourself permission to remove it from your docket. Make a note on your calendar to circle back to it in a week or month. If you find yourself suddenly chomping at the bit to work on it, that’s probably a sign you really want to do it. But if you’re relieved to have it off your shoulders, take that as a sign. It’s okay, really, to let ideas and intentions go. Usually, once you release yourself from a project that isn’t feeding you, something new and exciting can fill its place.