Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends, I re-wrote the ending to “Farewell to Arms,” the last page of it, thirty nine times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
Hemingway also advised “Write drunk; edit sober.” Er…moving swiftly on…
Perfectionism is very common in creative people. It’s particularly common in writers. It’s even more common in writers who are just starting out. This is usually to do with a lack of confidence.
You may already suspect that you are a perfectionist. Or you may have perfectionist tendencies. It’s a good idea to nip it in the bud before it takes a hold of you.
Is Being a Perfectionist Such a Bad Thing?
Being a perfectionist can be a positive thing. If you pursue excellence or have very high standards, the chances are that you’re a high achiever.
That’s a commonly held view of perfectionism and it’s certainly one way to look at it.
The truth is that your perfectionism may be holding you back. Are you so inhibited by the thought of creating something that is “sub standard” that you never put yourself out there?
If you want to work from home as a blogger or writer, there are a lot of decisions to be made. How’s that working for you?
Have you chosen a blogging platform or web host yet? Or are you still going over your short list to see which one will be perfect for you?
Have you got a file of half finished articles or posts that you don’t think are quite up to scratch yet?
Have you got a list of ideas that still aren’t quite hitting the spot?
It’s time to ‘fess up. Do you secretly fear that you’ll never get started?
When that kind of fear gets in the way of being productive, it’s time to take a long, cool look at what’s going on.
The dictionary definition is – a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.
That sounds very harsh but then perfectionism is harsh too. Sometimes, your drive to produce something amazing can be crippling. Having high standards is no bad thing but there’s a difference between high and unattainable.
Does it irritate you that some people don’t have such high standards and achieve less…but they do achieve. How does that happen???
You’re Going to Need a Lower Bar
When you set your personal bar insanely high, you’re never going to reach it.
We’ve all dreamt of writing as well as our favourite authors. But that’s all it is…a dream. You might get there one day but it isn’t going to be tomorrow, next week or even next year. Remember, even the big hitters started somewhere and then they got better at it.
The same is true for you. But to become better at it, you have to keep practising and that means writing a lot. It doesn’t mean re-writing the same piece 237 times.
Perfectionism doesn’t just turn you into a closet scribbler who never shows their writing to anyone. You put pressure on yourself to meet your own, self imposed, high standards and this can have a powerful and often negative effect on how you think about yourself.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be the best that you can be – but when it becomes a force that is unhelpful, counter productive and slowly crushing your self esteem, something’s got to give.
Are You a Perfectionist?
You may be reading this and thinking that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to produce the highest quality writing that you can. And I totally agree.
Are You Thinking –
I like to do things well, so of course I want to write well.
I get pleasure out of achieving what others can’t do – so I work very hard to make sure everything that I write is as good as I can make it.
It makes me feel special that I can do this.
I get satisfaction knowing that I’ve tried my hardest.
There is nothing wrong with any of those statements.
I have no free time.
Nothing that I achieve is ever good enough.
I blame myself if things aren’t done just right.
I have to go over my work so many times until I find it acceptable.
I have to do more and more in order to feel accepted by others.
or even…I’m so afraid of failing that I never get started.
Perfectionism is not Particularly about Being ‘Perfect’
You know in your heart of hearts that it’s not realistic or even possible to be perfect. So if perfectionism isn’t about being perfect, what is it about?
Perfectionism can be broken down into three main areas.
1. Imposing Unrelenting Standards
This is the relentless pursuit of very high standards, not just for yourself but for others around you. Do you ever feel that others consistently fall short, are disappointing or can’t be bothered to make the effort to reach their full potential?
To an outsider, these standards would seem unreasonable and unnecessary.
If you keep pushing to reach these levels of attainment, you are putting yourself under immense pressure. Do you often feel tense, stressed out or on the edge?
Being a perfectionist also means that you not only strive for the absolute best…but you feel you have to do better each time.
This inevitably makes you feel that you’re not good enough – even when you have pushed yourself to your own personal limit.
Do you tend to base your own self-worth on your ability to achieve something that you consider perfect? As we’ve already said, no one is perfect or capable of producing something 100% perfect – so this attitude becomes a self fulfilling prophesy as you are never likely to reach your unrealistic goals. This means that you will never allow yourself to feel good about anything that you have accomplished, written or produced.
It’s an all or nothing attitude but sadly, the nothing often wins out.
3. Suffering Negative Consequences
One negative consequence that few perfectionist writers realise, is that constantly editing and re-editing what you’ve written is probably ruining your work. There is a certain amount of life and energy in fresh writing. Going over and over every word with a magnifying glass can leave it as limp as last weeks lettuce.
Even if you know that you are setting yourself goals that are not achievable or realistic, you may still believe that if you work harder or for a longer time, you will get there. This can have negative consequences on your health. When taken to the extreme, perfectionists pay a high price.
Do you Suffer from any of the Following?
A tendency to depression
Difficulty with relationships
Repeatedly checking your work or the work of others
Taking an excessively long time to complete tasks
A persistent feeling of failure
The Procrastinating Perfectionist
We all procrastinate at times. However, for perfectionists, procrastination is the mother of all let outs. If you never start something, you can never fail at it.
Or, you may start something and then not see it through to the end because of a multitude of excuses.
It’s interesting that many writers who suffer from procrastination don’t have a problem when writing for clients. They have their ‘professional’ hat on and if any perfectionism kicks in, it is aimed at getting the piece delivered under deadline.
However, when they try to write for themselves, those excuses start coming thick and fast. Ironically, the longer you put something off, the harder it becomes to start it, let alone complete it.
Fear of failure is a powerful emotion. I’ve seen some people admit online that they have become so scared of making a mistake that they don’t even leave a comment after reading an article.
Or – they do leave a comment and then become horrified when they see a mistake after they’ve pressed Submit.
This happens to everybudy. Honistly.
Who are You Being a Perfectionist For?
You might use the argument that you want your writing to be perfect for your reader. That’s very admirable. But there’s an element of shifting the blame there.
If your output is diminished or halted altogether by your need to have everything just so, your reader will never see any of your work.
Is Your Perfectionism Impacting Other Areas?
If you’re falling behind in other areas, this can make you feel as if you’re under even more pressure and it can quickly reinforce your sense of not being good enough.
When you feel you’re not good enough, you spend an excessive amount of time reading, re-reading, writing and re-writing everything, which makes you fall behind in other areas, which makes you feel as if you’re under even more pressure which can quickly reinforce your sense of not being good enough.
When you feel you’re not good enough…and so on and so forth.
You see where this is going. The classic vicious circle.
How Did This Start?
Children are blessedly free from this potentially crippling affliction – until we start to teach it to them. Children are encouraged to aim high, to get good grades, to pass exams and to get good reports from their teachers. If they don’t, it is often frowned upon – and the child is left feeling frustrated and full of doubts about their own ability.
However, many perfectionists loved school. Remember when it was easy to know if you were doing well or badly? It wasn’t your call – it was up to your teacher. Hard work was rewarded with good results and you may have found it relatively easy to shine.
Once you’re out in the real world, everything changes. Success is measured in a much more subtle and ongoing way. The whole system is structured differently and you have to keep working hard to stay in one place, let alone rise to the top.
10 Signs that Perfectionism is your Road Block
Let’s look at the tell tale signs that perfectionism could be a major road block for you…and some ways to Let It Go (Yes, it is what you think. If you can’t wait, scroll down to the end.)
1. Are You a People Pleaser?
The sword of perfectionism is double edged. You are constantly in a state of wanting to write well and also fearing the consequences of not producing something earth shattering. You worry about letting others down but primarily about letting yourself down. Aren’t you exhausted?
How to Handle It
Perfectionists tend to have very specific expectations about their finished piece of writing before they even start. If this is a problem for you, try ‘stream of conciousness’ writing. The beauty of this is twofold –
1. It comes direct from your own mind so no one, not even you, can judge it and find it wanting. It is what it is.
2. Doing this a few times a week can help you to let go and loosen up about your writing. Just let it flow and try to enjoy the process. You may find it quite liberating.
This is easier to do with a pen and paper but if you can type without looking at the keyboard, you can use your pc.
Find somewhere quiet and make yourself comfortable.
Think of a topic. It can be absolutely anything. You could write about your coffee machine, a holiday you’d love to take, the old teddy bear you won’t part with – the choice is yours.
Start writing. Forget grammar, punctuation, spelling…just write as the words come into your head. Keep writing until there are no more words coming to you.
Read it and enjoy it. Don’t change anything.
Put a date on it and file it away.
2. No Pain, No Gain
You’re willing to put yourself under constant and unreasonable levels of stress to try and obtain a level of achievement that is acceptable to you. You consider it the price to pay to gain success. However, if left unchecked, perfectionism can take away your peace of mind, your enjoyment of life and your self esteem. It will take some time and practice but losing your perfectionism can lower you daily stress levels which will make you feel healthier and ironically, improve your work.
How to Handle It
1. What’s Your Payoff?
You may believe that your output is of a higher quality because of your perfectionist behaviour but what is the cost? Make a list of all the ways that being a perfectionist is harming you or holding you back. Once you have that list, you may find the motivation to make some changes.
Every time you feel a burst of perfectionism coming on, write down exactly what you’re thinking.
Your thoughts may take the form of an obsessive desire to keep re reading or re writing something or a negative feeling about how poorly you believe you are performing.
Once you have identified patterns of thought, you can start working on them.
Take some time to create a response to each perfectionist thought. Every time you catch yourself thinking that way, say your response out loud. Eventually, you will retrain your brain to bypass the perfectionist thought and to go for the more reasonable approach.
3. See the Good
Your brain is obviously capable of spotting every tiny imperfection in what you do – so train it to see the good as well. Using the same method as #2, make a list of everything that’s good about what you have written. When a negative thought surfaces, push it away with a positive. Speaking the positive out loud helps to reinforce the message.
3. Procrastination is your Friend
A study performed at York University found that procrastination most commonly arises when the person is already anticipating disapproval from others. This is called (wait for it) Other-Oriented Perfectionism and it is primarily motivated by the desire for social approval.
We can put off doing so many things with so many excuses. The real reason for procrastination is that we believe that taking any action will cause some pain – in the case of the procrastinating perfectionist, that pain is the possibility of failure.
How to Handle It
William Knaus, EdD, a professor at American International College in Springfield, Mass., Co-author of Overcoming Procrastination; Do It Now – How to Break the Procrastination Habit has the following suggestions –
Write down exactly why you are not happy to proceed with a certain task or project.
You know yourself better than anyone else does. Which diversions or excuses are you likely to come up with? Write them down.
Now question those diversions or excuses. If you’ve written “I won’t do well at this” – write down why you think you won’t do well. When it’s written down, it loses power over you.
Break up the task into smaller pieces. Write out a schedule and stick to it. Set a timer if it helps. Smaller chunks of time are easier to face and the end is always in sight.
Set a reward for yourself once the job is done. It can be anything as long as it is something that you enjoy. Write it into your schedule.
4. You May be Highly Critical of Other People
Psychologist recognize that if we can’t accept something in ourselves, we reject it in others. This means that being judgemental is a defence mechanism which is more common than you may think.
How to Handle It
The Buddha knew a thing or two. His advice on this thorny issue was
Look not to the faults of others, nor to their omissions and commissions. But rather look to your own acts, to what you have done and left undone.The Buddah
People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
5. All or Nothing
If you have perfectionist tendencies, you may find it hard to see any shades of grey – let alone fifty. You may see things in black and white. You’re a success or you’re a failure. And you fear failure.
This attitude means that you will probably only attempt a new project if you believe there’s a good chance that you can succeed at it. If there’s even a whiff of a risk of any kind of failure, your most likely course of action will be to avoid it completely.
This avoidance behaviour means that even the thought of taking a risk would make you feel exceedingly anxious. If this is true for you, it’s a shame because it may prevent you from trying new things and letting your true creativity shine out.
Perfectionism may be the ultimate self-defeating behaviour. It turns people into slaves of success—but keeps them focused on failure, dooming them to a lifetime of doubt and depression. It also winds up undermining achievement in the modern world.Hara Estroff Marano
How to Handle Your Fear of Failure
1. Identify the Root Cause
When you work out what caused your own fear of failure, you may be surprised to see that your own interpretation of it was not accurate. Maybe you’ve blamed your parents for being too protective or blamed your teacher for being too strict. In retrospect, you can see now, that they were that way because they wanted the best for you.
Try and look at the events as an outsider would – and at last, you will understand that it had nothing to do with you.
Taking the time to examine all of your negative beliefs is important because they have had a big influence on how you live your life right now.
2. Make it More Simple
Break down a task into smaller pieces that you know you can do. That gives you the power back and turns a negative into a positive.
3. If You Fail More you can Succeed More Too
The difference between successful people and those who haven’t become successful yet, is the realization that failure is simply a temporary state – not a permanent event. Embrace failure because it brings you one step nearer to success.
Remember that it’s not our successes that we learn from.
We learn from failing.
4. Make Friends With your Fear of Failure
The sooner you accept and learn to make friends with your fear, the faster you will move forward. It’s not the fear itself that stops you from achieving – but what you decide to do because of that fear.
5. See it From the Other Side
Sometimes it helps to use negative imagery to propel you forward. How? Take a few moments to imagine yourself 5, 10, 20 years from now – if you let every fear you ever had dictate how you lived your life. Would you end up with a lot of regrets?
Now imagine your life if you had overcome every fear along the way. A better life with no regrets. It’s got to be worth a shot.
You must accept that you might fail; then, if you do your best and still don’t win, at least you can be satisfied that you’ve tried. If you don’t accept failure as a possibility, you don’t set high goals, you don’t branch out, you don’t try – you don’t take the risk.Rosalynn Carter
6. You Find it Hard to Truly Connect with Others
Psychologist, Shauna Springer, says that perfectionists find it difficult to be vulnerable and hate to feel exposed. In an article for Psychology Today, Springer says –
It is very hard for a perfectionist to share his or her internal experience with a partner. Perfectionists often feel that they must always be strong and in control of their emotions. A perfectionist may avoid talking about personal fears, inadequacies, insecurities, and disappointments with others, even with those with whom they are closest.Shauna Springer
If they let others see their flaws, perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from criticism, rejection, and disapproval.
How to Handle It
In order to make true connections, it is necessary to show our vulnerable side to other people. The only way to connect is to be willing to have your imperfections seen by others.
Overcoming perfectionism means giving up the idea that you’re not good enough. To progress, you need to be willing to take ownership of both your good and bad parts. To move forward, you need to lose the fear of people seeing you for who you are. And you need to start that process by seeing yourself for who you are. Work on your authenticity.
7. Small Mistakes may Become Big Problems
If your perfectionism is severe, you may find it difficult to handle small day-to-day mistakes that others take in their stride. It’s not the end of the world if you forget to buy milk on the way home or show up a few minutes late for work – but for a perfectionist, it may feel that way.
It’s not that you fear the disappointment or anger of others – although you do – but that isn’t the main issue. A perfectionist will beat themselves up about these small errors more than anyone else ever could.
How to Handle It
Whenever you feel as if you have let yourself or others down, you tend to blow their reactions and yours out of all proportion.
To put them back into context, it may help you to write down exactly what you are feeling and why.
When thoughts swirl around our heads it is easy for them to assume an importance which is not in line with the actual event. The key here is to be honest. Getting it down on paper will get it out of your head. Write it as a stream of consciousness piece. When you read what you have written, you may be surprised by how petty it seems.
Here’s an example:
I’ve spent three days now trying to make this piece of writing better and I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Am I fooling myself that I will ever succeed? Maybe I just don’t have the talent for this kind of thing. It feels like such hard work and I’m exhausted. The harder I work, the further away the goal seems to be.
OK. Now I’m going to read it back and write down what I feel as I read it. Imagine that someone else wrote it and you’re responding to them rather than to yourself. Again, write your responses as stream of consciousness.
Am I fooling myself that I will ever succeed? You sound like a drama Queen – full of self pity. Get over yourself.
Maybe I just don’t have the talent for this kind of thing. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t but it’s what you want to do so the only way to find out is to stick with it and quit whining.
It feels like such hard work and I’m exhausted. It probably feels like hard work because you’re exhausted. Take a break. Take a nap. Take a walk. Get away from it for a while and then re assess.
The harder I work, the further away the goal seems to be. Stop being a Diva and go take a nap.
Doing this exercise has the dual function of making light of your fears and also reinforces that deep down, you truly believe that you need to lighten up.
8. You Take Things Personally
9. You Find it Hard to Take Criticism
These two go hand in hand.
You may already feel weighed down by striving for the perfection that you believe will eventually make you feel happy and vindicated. It’s likey that you also suffer from low self esteem. The combination of these two may mean that you take every mistake or challenge personally. Rather than learning from them, you may tend to see that they reinforce what you think anyway – that you’re not good enough.
Again, because you are already down on yourself, if anyone else makes any kind of suggestion for improvement – or, horror of horrors – criticizes you or your work, you may immediately go on the defensive. You may tend to over react.
How to Handle Criticism and Not Take it Personally
If you value the opinion of the person who is criticizing you, you will feel more hurt by what they’re saying than if you don’t value their opinion. If you really don’t care what this person thinks, make your excuses politely and walk away. If you do care, listen to what they’re saying but try not to react yet.
2. Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes
While you’re listening, ask yourself “Is this how the person talks to everyone?” Maybe the only way they can make themselves heard is by being rude and aggressive. If it is, then they have an issue with interpersonal skills. Realising this will put their opinion firmly where it belongs.
3. Don’t Jump to Conclusions too Quickly
One of the greatest pieces of advice that my Father gave me was “Stop worrying so much about what other people think about you. They are too busy worrying about what other people think about them.” This really opened my eyes at a young age to the fact that we’re all in this together. Everyone has their own motivations and reasons for acting the way that they do.
I learned that it was not all about me all of the time.
4. Don’t React in a Knee jerk Way
Take a deep breath and don’t give in to the immediate temptation to react in an emotional manner. Keep listening while you calm right down.
5. When you are Ready, Respond
Once they have run out of steam, calmly explain to them how they have made you feel. The honest truth is that they may just be having a bad day and didn’t realise how aggressive they sounded.
10. You’re Never Satisfied with your Progress
Perfection is an impossible goal so you will never get there. In your heart of hearts you know this. For perfectionists, any task is about the end result, not the journey towards it. Instead of concentrating on the process of accomplishing a task, perfectionists tend to focus exclusively on the outcome of their efforts. Ironically, this relentless pursuit of the ultimate goal may become your greatest liability.
The feelings of overwhelming anxiety often sabotage the your efforts.
The singer, song writer and actress Christina Aguilera has been quoted as saying –
I am an overachiever and an extreme perfectionist. I would like to do more film and I feel that I still have yet to acquire the type of success that I desire. I’m sure there will definitely be a place that I will be at peace with knowing I’ve accomplished a lot.Christina Aguilera
Aguilera has won five Grammy awards and 56 awards out of 226 nominations to date. And she’s not at peace with knowing she’s accomplished a lot.
That makes me feel sad. How does it make you feel?
How to Handle It
Aim to focus on the process of performing a task and not just on the end result. Practice evaluating your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how much you enjoyed doing it.
I hope that this guide to perfectionism has helped you to understand why you may be sabotaging yourself. If you can let it go, you will be happier to share what you write and more open to trying new styles and truly unleashing your creativity.
*“Let It Go”
Big finish…sing along and give it all you’ve got!
I've been a freelance writer for ten years. You name it - I've probably written it. I love working from home and I want to help you so that you can love it too. Hook up with me on Social Media and let's enjoy the journey together.