Perfectionism. It’s the enemy of creativity, productivity, and, well, sanity. In “The Artist’s Way,” author Julia Cameron writes: “Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop–an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.” But you don’t even have to be creating anything to be crippled by perfectionism. It can also frustrate your efforts as a mom, a wife, a friend, and a human being. Because no one and no thing is perfect in this blemished world of ours.
I tackle this adversary every day. And although my inner perfectionist clearly has hold of my brain many days, I do think I am handcuffed less often by the fear of messing up than I used to be. Here are 10 techniques I use to break out of the prison of perfectionism in order to live and create as freely as I can in an imperfect world.
1. Remove yourself from the competition.
Don’t make life any more difficult than it already is. Most perfectionists are extremely competitive … because being perfect means being THE BEST at, well, EVERYTHING. So choose your friends and your groups wisely. For example, some professional organizations–writing clubs, publishing groups–can be extremely supportive. But some can be horribly competitive. And as a perfectionist, you don’t need folks feeding you the very message you are trying to forget: “you are nothing without total success…. and if you don’t get there, I will!” Do this: check your heart rate before one of these meetings, and just after. If it’s up ten beats or more, don’t go back!
2. Make up some rules.
Of course you can’t avoid all competitive situations. Which is why you need to make some rules. For example, I can now gauge when I’m going through a period of insecurity … when I feel like I need to be the best at something in order to feel okay about myself. During these periods, I don’t check out Beliefnet’s homepage where it lists “most popular blogs,” “most e-mailed posts,” “most popular features,” because if I don’t find my name somewhere in there, I mope around the house with that tight knot of disgust and angst in my stomach. Why torture myself? So here’s my rule: I can only visit the homepage on the days when I don’t feel like my popularity as a blogger is the definitive statement on who I am as a person. The result? I haven’t been to the homepage in months!
3. Do a reality check.
Unrealistic expectations are perfectionism’s trophy wife. Think about it. They always show up as a pair. So I try my best to distinguish realistic expectations from unrealistic ones. I list them all on a sheet of paper or (on a good day) in my head and then revise them about 2,035 times during the day. Under “unrealistic expectations” are cataloged things like this: “penning a New York Times bestseller in my half-hour of free time in the evening,” “being homeroom mom to 31 kids and chaperoning every field trip,” and “training for a triathlon with a busted hip.” Under “realistic expectations,” I index things like: “do 30 hours of good work in 30 hours of working time,” “reading to David’s class and having lunch with him once a month instead of being homeroom mom,” and “skipping the triathlon, but continuing to work out four times a week to keep the brain and body happy.” Recording the different possibilities of actions I can take to inch toward my broad goals (being a good mom, an adequate blogger, and a healthy person) can be extremely liberating.
4. Return to your exodus moment.
Awhile back, a Beliefnet editor asked some of the bloggers to describe our “exodus moments,” when we were freed from fear and crossed the Red Sea of anxiety into a land of peace. I’ve had a few such moments. One was during my junior year in college, the one time I relapsed and got drunk after three years of sobriety. I stood quietly in the gazebo right outside Our Lady of Loretta Church, where Eric and I married four years later. I told God to take my addiction, to take it for good, because I could no longer carry its weight. I remember lifting my hands to the sky as I looked down at the St. Joseph’s river, and I felt totally at peace.
The truth learned in all exodus moments is this: None of that stuff responsible for spinning us in a tissy matters. None of it is important. Just as Henri Nouwen explains:
Somewhere deep in our hearts we already know that success, fame, influence, power, and money do not give us the inner joy and peace we crave. Somewhere we can even sense a certain envy of those who have shed all false ambitions. Yes, somewhere we can even get a taste of that mysterious joy in the smile of those who have nothing to lose.
5. Show your weakness.
This is counter-intuitive for most perfectionists. But I can guarantee that you’ll get good results if you try it. Because every time I have, with great reservation, flashed my imperfections and become vulnerable before my Beyond Blue readers–crying, whining, screaming either in a post or on a video–the response is amazing. “Phew!” some say to me, “You are real. You feel that way too! So I guess I shouldn’t beat myself up for similar emotions.” Whenever I follow the advice of my wise editor, Holly–to write from where I am, not from where I want to be–my readers don’t recoil in disgust. They come closer.
6. Celebrate your mistakes.
Alright, celebrate is an awfully strong word. Start, then, with accept your mistakes. But I do think each big blunder deserves a round of toasts. Because almost all of them teach us precious, rare lessons that can’t be acquired by success. Nope, the embarrassment, humiliation, self-disgust … all those are tools with which to unearth the gold. Just like Leonard Cohen writes in his song, “Anthem” that a friend of mine tapes to his computer as a reminder to ignore the perfectionist in him:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
7. Add some color.
Perfectionists are color blind. They see the world in black and white. Example: either I am the best blogger in the entire blogosphere or I should throw my iMac into the Chesapeake Bay and become a water taxi driver (they do have a pretty cool job). Either I am the most involved mom in David’s school or I am a slacker parent who should let a more capable mom adopt her son. Does this kind of thinking sound familiar? In order to get a pair of glasses on our inner perfectionist, then, we have to add a few hues to every relationship, event, and goal: we have to become a tad more tolerant of life’s messiness, unresolved issues, and complicated situations that can’t be neatly boxed up. Seeing in color is realizing that even though a certain solution to a problem worked well yesterday, it might not be right for today.
8. Break the job down.
Procrastination is a symptom of perfectionism. Because many of us are so petrified of bloopers that we can’t begin the project. For a year or so I procrastinated writing my memoir. In fact, I procrastinated by reading Dr. David Burn’s chapter on procrastination in his “Ten Days to Self Esteem,” I couldn’t write a bloody word until he set me straight. Burns explains: “One of the secrets of people who are highly productive is that they rarely try to tackle a difficult job all at once. Instead, they break the task down into its smallest component parts and do one small step a day.”
As an exercise in that chapter, Dr. Burns suggests you list a few steps. For example, my first chore didn’t involve sitting down at my computer. I first had to find and organize all the post-its regarding this project that I had stashed away in drawers and coat pockets. Then he advises you to commit to a specific time that you will get started on the job. Third, he prompts you to record the problems that you anticipate at that time. I wrote: “getting overwhelmed, hearing the negative voices in my head that say I can’t do it, brain farts, and cognitive fatigue.” Finally, Burns encourages you to arrive at some solutions to the potential distractions. I wrote: “do it despite what the voices say.”
9. Be yourself.
In her book “Being Perfect,” Anna Quindlen explains that being perfect is cheap and easy: “Because all it really requires of you, mainly, is to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be and to assume the masks necessary to be the best at whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires.”
The much more challenging task, she asserts, is becoming yourself. Because “nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great, ever came out of imitations.” I concur. As a writer who used to shirk penning anything original, compiling book after book of other authors’ works, I can attest to the exhilaration and satisfaction of writing my own words.
10. Believe in redemption.
Redemption is an odd thing. Because identifying the broken places in your heart and in your life can be one of the scariest exercises you ever do, and yet only then can you recognize the grace that comes buried with every hole. If the journey to the Black Hole of despair and back has taught me anything, it’s this: everything is made whole in time … if you can just hang on to the faith, hope, and love in the people and places around you long enough to see the sun rise yourself. Absolutely nothing is forsaken, not even those relationships and memories and persons that you think are lost forever. All things are made right in time. So you don’t always have to get it right on the first try.