We’re all battling demons when we set out to write, but the biggest demon of all is Perfectionism. All those other ugly monsters that sit on our hunched shoulders and drill into our heads are nasty too, for sure, but this one’s their Daddy.
His destructive power comes from our mistaking Perfectionism for Ambition. Mistaking his bullying for motivation. Believing that being a perfectionist means setting High Standards for oneself, and Working Hard to reach them.
All this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Perfectionism is NOT about Ambition.
It’s about Worthlessness.
A perfectionist holds unrealistic definitions of success and failure, believing only extremes really count (such as overnight bestsellers and superstar writers, versus complete failures and obscure nobodies). They are so fixated on the idea that ONLY complete success matters, and all else is failure to some degree, that they become blind to the fact that the gray area is HUGE and encompasses 99% of all active writers.
Perfectionists are so obsessed with the fear of failure (which always follows them, since it’s nearly impossible to plan and work for that 1% of stellar success) that they become paralyzed. They constantly overplan, overthink, overprepare, second-guess, change their minds, backtrack and “correct,” then change their plans again, because they can’t face the possibility that their efforts might not lead to absolute success. That they might just be another writer, instead of THE Author.
Obviously, their efforts are just that: EFFORTS, not actual WORK that leads somewhere. The constant overplanning and backtracking leads nowhere. Their wordcounts don’t add up to a body of work, but instead form a huge personal slush pile of rejected, less-than-perfect material.
Perfectionists often belittle ordinary tasks (such as planting their butt in chair every day) and admire serendipity. Talent and luck weigh more to a perfectionist than workmanship and diligence, and exceptional “overnight” successes mean more than the common, incremental ones. Perfectionists fail to understand the long, complex process that leads to success, believing they ought to reach success effortlessly because they’re talented, or destined for it, and difficulty to do so is perceived as a sign that they’re in fact NOT talented and destined for greatness but UTTER FAILURES.
Most perfectionistic writers never finish. Most never publish. Most never publish a second novel. Most never find the strength to face their audience and its reactions, because anything less than perfect means total failure and worthlessness.
That is no way to lead a creative life.
That’s no way to live, period.
Perfectionism is NOT about High Standards.
It’s about unrealistic, unachievable standards.
Perfectionists live with constant, excessive criticism of their talent and output that’s not based on any objective criteria (that they’d liberally apply to others as well), but on the “gut feeling” that they simply suck.
They see any acceptance and pride in their output as a weakness preventing them from reaching their true potential. Because no story is ever perfect (there’s always one more dialog line to sharpen, one more sentence to optimize) feeling PROUD of their work is akin to self-delusion. If they are “blinded by pride” (what most normal people would call “happy to have finished something”), they might not see the hidden defects in their work, and if they don’t see the defects they might publish something sub-par, something IMPERFECT, and that will make them less than a total success, which means they are a total failure and essentially worthless.
This distrust in the feeling of accomplishment even goes as far as mistrusting anyone who praises their work, believing they must love it because they don’t see all those tiny imperfections, which makes their point of view and their appraisal unworthy. Their praise becomes worthless, and the perfectionist continues to dread their own failure and worthlessness.
Perfectionists also overidentify with their output. Any criticism directed at their work is taken personally, a straight blow to the heart. Because they’re so used to the Inner Bully telling them they’re worthless if they’re not perfect, they assume external criticism is a validation of that feeling of worthlessness.
Perfectionism does NOT run on Discipline and Motivation.
It thrives on Bullying, Self-Punishment and Fear.
Because anything less than perfect means failure, perfectionists often suffer from severe performance anxiety. It doesn’t just mean they’re scared to publish or even talk openly about their work, but they’re scared to sit down and write. Agonizing over every sentence, deleting it again, staring at the blank screen feeling incapable of producing the perfect start to a new scene, the perfect comeback to a character’s accusation, the perfect description of a new setting, etc. can easily grow into full blown Writer’s Block(TM). Perfectionist writers are notoriously prone to become blocked as well as spending a decade or more on their debut novel.*
*I spent 5 years (taking a break of 1.5 years) writing my “perfect” first novel, until I finally understood the source of my constant backtracking and self-bullying, and stopped tinkering. I published The Deep Link knowing it’s not perfect, accepting it’s never going to be perfect, feeling almost as if I’m exorcising it so I can finally MOVE ON and write other things, enjoy my passion, and breathe freely. There’s always room for improvement, yes, but without forward movement it’s just an ugly pileup.
Performance anxiety is the number one cause for chronic procrastination, which is nothing but the brain’s flight response in face of stress — stress brought on by unreasonable expectations, fear of failure, and the feeling of worthlessness.
Eventually, repeated or ongoing Writer’s Block leads to a guilt-ridden loathing for their passion, the pursuit of which should otherwise naturally enrich their life, but which has become the primary source of self-loathing, depression, inadequacy and anxiety.
The only way out is through Acceptance and Compassion.
Accepting “less-than-perfect” is NOT “settling.”
Being compassionate with yourself is not slacking off. It’s moving forward, out of the quicksand. It’s progress.
There are many awesome books and websites out there that are dedicated to killing perfectionism in favor of actual productivity and an overal happier life. My top recommendation is The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block, by Hillary Rettig (@).
Hillary’s approach to beating perfectionism is to develop a mindset of Compassionate Objectivity. She describes the many ways in which a compassionate and objective approach to the challenges of a perfectionist mindframe can help you become more producte, happier, and more accomplished in the long run. Developing positive habits, learning to reward yourself abundantly while refraining from self-abusing litanies, and counteracting the many logical fallacies of perfectionistic thinking will help you reach a more mature understanding of the writing process and the meaning of success and failure.
There are plenty more books on defeating perfectionism that aren’t geared toward writers, and most of them are very helpful as well. There’s also a lot said about perfectionism and the way out of it online (such as in this productivity post by Anne R. Allen, or this psychology article right here). Or just go read this post on perfectionism by a very productive writer who HAS FUN writing instead of having to push herself and suffer through it (like most perfectionists feel they have to): Battling Perfectionism and Shutting Up Your Inner Editor, by Rachel Aaron/Bach.
If you struggle with chronic self-bullying, writer’s block, overidentification with your words, paralyzing fear of failure — consider fighting the real culprit, not yourself. Kick that ugly bastard in the teeth, and accept that he is NOT the voice of reason preventing you from being less, he’s the voice of self-destruction that keeps you from being free and enjoying your passion.
I’ve come a long way over the past 5 years, and I still have a long way ahead of me, but every day that I focus on HAVING FUN WRITING instead of mulling over the meaning of success and failure, and worse: of WORTH, is a glorious day.