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Putting Perfection Paralysis in its Place

The start of a new year is supposed to feel like an exciting new beginning. We have the opportunity to shed old habits and rewrite our old narratives.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to do different, be different, think different, and make different habits, we can often slide right on back into our old ways.

There are a number of reasons for this. For starters, old habits have the warm comfort of a broken-in pair of slippers, no matter how badly they serve us. But we also slip away from our plans for change because we expect perfection from ourselves. And then when we’re less than perfect, we see it almost as permission to go back to the old ways, since we can’t possibly make changes without perfection.

Shielding Yourself From Fear

Perfectionism is actually all about fear. I often struggle with perfectionism myself, particularly when it comes to my fiction writing. Every single reason for my perfectionism has to do with my own fears about myself:

  1. I don't think I deserve to have a voice. Who am I to think I can do this?

  2. What's in my head never matches up with what comes out on the page. How will people respond if they can’t see exactly what I mean?

  3. I am an avid consumer of other people's writing, and I notice when it's not perfect— so I worry that other readers will notice when mine is not perfect.

  4. Every story that has ever been told has already been told, so what's the point in me writing mine?

  5. The eventual heat death of the universe makes all human endeavors ultimately pointless. (I'm only partially joking about this one).

If I don’t allow myself to write unless what comes out is “perfect,” then I don’t have to subject myself to the possibility that I don’t deserve to write or that I will be misunderstood or criticized for what I write or that I will be unoriginal. By simply thinking of myself as having “high standards,” I get to pat myself on the back for it, rather than face the fact that I’m actually afraid.

What’s Fear Keeping From You?

I know that my insecurities and neuroses about writing fiction are hardly unique. You can’t swing a library book in a coffee shop without hitting a dozen would-be writers who similarly never write anything because it’s not “good enough.”

But we all have actions and dreams and wishes and plans that we avoid by expecting perfection. Perhaps you decided to eat right and exercise this year, but then decided “the hell with it” after a weekend bingeing the news and takeout from your couch. Maybe you were going to get your money in order this year, but have already stopped tracking your spending, so you’re just letting go of your expectation of being on top of your finances.

Any number of potential lives you want to live are being closed off to you because you’ve only given yourself permission to change if you can be perfect. But you don’t have to be perfect: you just have to be you—and commit to trying to find what works for you.

Maybe that’s deciding that you don’t actually want to write fiction or eat healthy and exercise or organize your finances. There’s something very freeing about realizing the thing you’ve always thought you wanted isn’t something you’re actually interested in. Then you can let go of the guilt when you stop trying for perfection in something you don’t want. If the way you’ve always been living works for you, then you don’t have to change it.

But if you really do want to make a change and are simply held back by your fear-based perfectionism, it’s time to change your mindset. The fear won’t go away, unfortunately. But there are some great ways to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Embrace Your Individuality

One of the best pieces of trivia I ever learned was the fact that telegraph operators in WWII could be distinguished from each other by their "fist," which is their transmission style when typing out dots and dashes. Spies were actually able to determine which telegraph operator was which based on each one’s fist, despite the fact that tapping dots and dashes seems like it would be entirely lacking in individual expression.

I learned about this years ago, and I’ve been coming back to this factoid over and over again, because it tells me that we are all unique individuals with unique styles, no matter how mundane the activity is. The fact that an operator’s fist could be distinguished from all other operators’ fists made me realize that I have a voice that is unlike anyone else’s who has ever come before or will ever come again. (And this, my friends, is one of the reasons why I LOVE trivia. You never know what piece of trivia will inspire you).

This also tells me that there is no one way to do anything. Finding the individual solution that works for you should be your goal. The way you make it work doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s strategy—and in fact, it can’t! No matter how you decide to go about doing something, it will reflect your unique way of doing things. Even if it’s just how you tap out S.O.S.

Happy Accidents and Skipping the Boring Parts

After 25 years away from it, I decided to start drawing again when I was 36. I draw for fun and relaxation and just because it makes me feel good, so I don't struggle with perfectionism there. And because of that, I've become very comfortable with the fact that my drawing may not look like the object or artwork I'm copying, and that's okay. My drawings just need to look like themselves, and there really are "happy little accidents" a la Bob Ross when it comes to drawing. Sometimes, my favorite part of one of my cartoons comes about because I made a mistake.

You never know what will emerge because of something you commit to doing poorly. If it doesn’t matter if what you’re doing looks like the “model” version, then you can discover things that work for you along the way.

(Case in point: this young man's stripy pants, which were not part of the plan.)

I also learned from drawing just to skip the shit I don't want to do. I was drawing a building across the street from my art class, and there was a column part that was going to be hard to draw, so I just didn't do it. And it didn't matter!!

With my novel, there was a scene that had kept me from moving forward for 3 or 4 years because it was going to be boring and I didn't wanna do it, so I just skipped that bad boy and did some "time passed" magic to get to the next scene, which I did want to write.

(Case in point: I skipped coloring in this young magician’s jacket because I couldn’t figure out how to differentiate it from his pants—and I actually like the white coat even better.)

If there’s some aspect of your life change that sounds boring/awful/terrible/horrible/no-good/very bad, then what happens if you just don’t do it? Skip ahead to the parts you’re interested in instead of feeling beholden to following any particular sequence of events. So, if you want to improve your finances but dread the idea of tracking your spending, then skip it. Find some money strategies that do sound exciting, like setting up automatic savings, or letting your bank alert you to your balance on a daily basis. You are a grown up and you officially have the right to skip ahead to the stuff you want to do.

Embracing Imperfections

Perfect is boring and unsettling. Anyone who has ever experienced the uncanny valley (by watching The Polar Express, for instance) can attest to the weirdness of seeing something perfect. Imperfect is a lot more comfortable, not to mention beautiful.

That’s why noticing imperfections does not keep me from enjoying stories and good writing. Imperfections are going to happen, because we're human. I can recall seeing Toni THANKYOUVERYMUCH Morrison on a news program stating that she reaches for a red pen anytime she sees her own work—even years after it had been published. There is no such thing as perfect in any human endeavor, not even from the greatest of our artists. So, let’s enjoy our imperfections rather than hide from them.

Just Do It

Yes, every iteration of the human condition has been told already. And yes, others have already done whatever it is you want to do. And yes, your specific plan is not new. So what?

You’re the only you there is, so if you want to tell your story or change your story, the only way to do so is to do it. Why not?

The Resolution at the End of the Universe

The universe is going to end eventually, so why NOT write my shitty novel if it makes me happy? (Not that I think my novel is shitty, although it might be—it’s just that I have some perspective about how I want to spend my limited time on this rock).

Something funny happens when you realize this is all temporary: you feel freer! While I’d prefer not to think about the eventual destruction of the universe and all we know, there’s something really liberating in realizing that ultimately none of this matters. That means we can create our own meaning and take as many tries as we need to get things right and there is certainly no one grading our performance or looking for perfection.

If it doesn’t matter if we get our new habits right the first time, then we can let go of our fear that we’ll fail. Because it doesn’t matter if we fail. The only thing that matters is what’s important to us.

And what’s important to me is leaving a legacy for my kids. I want them to be able to hold a little piece of my soul when I'm gone, and the best way to do that is to do the work that is meaningful to me, which is writing.

Figuring out what’s important to you, what you’ll hold onto as time well spent—even in the face of complete universe annihilation—can help you forget the perils of perfectionism and follow the path that best fits you.

And that’s far better than spending your time afraid, guilty, and anxiously searching for perfection.


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