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