I believe that writing is like any other artistic creation. A piece is never really done until the artist says it is—and any artist who shoots only for perfection often doesn’t even start, much less finish their art. That’s why I can agree with Mark Zuckerman who has said, “Done is better than perfect.” But lately I’ve seen a number of other bloggers and writers complain on Facebook and their blogs that they are appalled at the poor writing, grammar and spelling that gets posted on the Internet these days. And I have to admit that a part of me, the perfectionist part of me, squirms a bit when I read that. Maybe because I know without question that my writing isn’t perfect, comments like those spark feelings of doubt or guilt around the merit of my work. So what is it about perfectionism, by a person who doesn’t believe she is a perfectionist, that has the power to make us question our gifts to the world?
These days there is an enormous amount of research in the study of perfectionism. While all of us would likely agree that striving for excellence in all our actions is a good thing, an obsession with perfection can grow incrementally until out of control. Professor Tracey Wade of the School of Psychology at Flinders University in South Australia defines “unhealthy perfectionism” as “high standards combined with brutal self-criticism.” Harvard psychologist and author Dr. Jeff Szymanski describes perfectionism as a phobia about making mistakes. That fear then paralyzes those afflicted and then often keeps them from doing anything they can’t do perfectly. This of course can then lead perfectionists to the thing they fear in the first place—failure.
A great example is the workaholic who spends hours every week attempting to complete projects. Even though setting high standards for themselves and their work can be a big benefit, if they obsess about the work so that it never gets completed (or started!) that in turn interferes with all their other work, which snowballs the problem. Common areas of identified perfectionists are:
- Those with eating disorders (anorexia & bulimia)
- People with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorders)
- Over-exercisers who can’t miss a day of exercise even if they are sick or injured.
- Black and white/all-or-nothing thinkers
- Chronic procrastinators
- Those who routinely “should” on themselves
- People who are overly critical and constantly find fault with themselves and others.
- Tend to experience periods of depression and high anxiety
- Those tense, stressed out and easily irritated
- Chronic worriers
Perfectionism research also identifies three types of perfectionism. These traits can overlap considerably and are often practiced all at the same time. They are:
- The self-blaming perfectionist. This person often sets unattainable, rigid and unrealistic expectations for themselves. Even when they accomplish a great deal, it comes with a high cost. And they always see their flaws much larger than their strengths.
- The taskmaster perfectionist. This person allows their rigid and unrealistic expectations to extend to everyone around them—families and loved ones as well as peers and co-workers.
- The conforming perfectionist. This person believes those around them, including society, expect them to be perfect. This expectation comes mainly from the need to please.
When reading through the information about perfectionism it’s fairly easy to see that an underlying motive is one of control. Wanting to make everything perfect, with nothing out of place and no possibility of mistake, seems to be a control issue. I think author Anne Lamott nailed it when she said,
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
Perhaps the most helpful advocate of a un-perfectionist lifestyle is author Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. Brown says, “Perfectionism is a defensive move. It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.”
Brown is also clear that, “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval.” She goes on to say, “For some folks, perfectionism may only emerge when they are feeling particularly vulnerable. For others, perfectionism is compulsive, chronic and debilitating—it looks and feels like an addiction.”
But when and where does perfectionism come from? According to research about 50% of it is hereditary. It’s speculated that the rest of it comes from our family and culture. Dr. Alice Donner, author of Be Happy Without Being Perfect believes that women carry the brunt of it. She explained that a recent study reports that men routinely worry about three things every day—family, money, and job. On the other hand Donner says, “Women fret about a dozen things, on average: their kids, their kids’ social life and after-school sports activities, the house, their husband’s job, how much they volunteer, the clothes they wear, and the makeup they wear. You name it,” Donner said, “women worry about it.”
Donner also believes that a big part of the problem comes from the media and other women. Donner says, “The message women get every single day is ‘you are not okay the way you are.’ The message I want women to hear is that you are fabulous the way you are.”
What can we do?
- Learn to breathe and relax
- Practice visualization and/or meditation
- Find the humor in the situation.
- Practice gratitude.
- Challenge your thinking when it is clearly wrong.
- Prioritize what is really important to you.
- Practice mindfulness
- Stop trying to impress others
Ultimately though, Brene Brown believes that if we want freedom from perfection we have to, “make the long journey from ‘What will people think?’ to ‘I am enough.’” Brown believes the solution is to practice, “shame resilience, self compassion and owning our stories.” To do that we must, “…claim the truths about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, and the very imperfect nature of our lives. We have to be willing to give ourselves a break and appreciate the beauty of our cracks or imperfections. To be kinder and gentler to ourselves the same way we’d talk to someone we care about.”
Like I said before, I don’t normally think of myself as a perfectionist. Instead I’ve been plagued by the idea that I care too much about what others think of me, especially in areas where I feel most vulnerable—like my writing. But it’s possible instead that this thinking is related to a deep-seated belief in perfectionism. By unconsciously striving to be more perfect, my own self-criticism is reflected onto others with the mistaken belief that those “others” are doing the judging. While all the time I’ve been putting the words in the mouths of others, feeling the sting of what they say, and then blaming myself for caring what they think. Talk about a double-whammy!
Anytime any of us are hoping for the approval of others, be they loved ones or strangers, we can be certain that perfectionism is involved. Of course perfectionism sounds better than “caring too much what others think,” but make no mistake, at our core we are hoping to deflect the judgment, shame and possible rejection that we sometimes secretly suspect we deserve.
I think everyone in every walk of life is susceptible to perfectionism but those of us who routinely share our creativity with the world must be particularly cautious. That is because if we let our fear of being judged or criticized stop us, our art will never be shared with others, and a primary meaning in our life sacrificed. It would be far easier never to expose ourselves and stay safe and sound in lives much too small for our souls. But at what cost?
At the same time I think it is important that we stand as encouragement for everyone who is attempting to share their gifts with the world. Plus it might be wise to acknowledge that the criticism we share with others may just be our own voice of perfectionism. Finally, it’s probably SMART to remember that good enough and done are better than perfect.