Are you a perfectionist?

I discovered perfectionism when I was about 10. I'd written a short story about a princess who rescued a prince from a tower, and I gave it to my mum to read. I found that short story recently, which she'd corrected with red pen over my grammar and spelling mistakes.

At around the same age, I passed a maths test with 99%. This time, my mum was over the moon. However, my dad asked me why I hadn't got 100.

I wonder if these tales resonate with you, at all. Perhaps not with writing or maths, but in some other area of your life, did you learn the idea that what you produce has to be perfect? Did you carry that idea with you into adulthood? Do you have a voice at the back of your head telling you that if it's not perfect, it's not worth it?

My parents didn't overtly tell me that message, but that's the message I took.

If it's not perfect, it's not worth it.

As a teenager and adult, I became obsessed with getting my spelling and grammar perfect. I crossed every t and dotted every i. The upside of this is that when I'm teaching, I'm a whizz at spotting and correcting errors. I'm an excellent proof-reader, even of my own work.

The downside is that in the past I've spent hours crafting each piece of writing. Shaving an extraneous word off here. Altering an adjective there. Making sure that when it went out into the world it was impeccable. So that nobody could criticise it.

The problem was that it could and was criticised. If not for the grammar, then for the style and flow. For the character development or pacing.

But the real shock came when I had an actual novel published, by a proper publisher, and had the manuscript copy-edited. Because I hadn't been as perfect as I'd thought. In fact, I had tons of errors. Thousands of them. Errors of spelling, grammar, historical fact.

Perfection is an impossiblity.

It took me a loooong time to realise that perfection is an impossiblity. That it's a rod I - and perhaps you - have used to beat yourself with. A standard that can never be reached. And that the less perfect among us, the jauntily mediocre, confident and focused ones, tend to reach the top. Not because they're better, but because they haven't wasted time trying to be perfect.

Being perfectionist led me to getting frazzled. I wrote about this in my non-fiction book, and if you're frazzled, consider whether you have a perfectionist mindset or not (I have a quiz in the book to help you work it out). If you do, time to let it go. Which I know is easier said than done.

  1. Recognise your perfectionism. Where does it show up? Conversely, where doesn't it show up? Some things other people obsess over won't bother you at all. Enjoy that, too.

  2. Celebrate the benefits it's brought you. For me, I'm brilliant at editing my own work. I'm also a confident speller, punctuationist and word-maker-upper.

  3. Work out where it's holding you back. Does it take you 10x as long to do something as it ought? Are you afraid of showing your stuff to others, in case of criticism? Do you find yourself unable to praise your own work, as you can only see its faults?

  4. Start by refusing to pick holes in what you do. It'll feel really uncomfortable at first, but it's a habit you'll get used to.

  5. Continue by bigging yourself up. Not a grudging acknowledgement that 'this bit was OK.' Celebrate yourself as if you're amazing. Do it in private, and nobody will know. Again, uncomfortable. Again, necessary.

  6. Experiment with doing less than your perfectionist-instinct tells you is necessary. One draft fewer. One wardrobe-change less. One wobblier-than-normal drawing.

  7. Remember I'm right behind you.

As for me, I'm a recovering perfectionist. The proof? This blog post has been written once, corrected once (although I admit, I went back and changed LESS for FEWER... I couldn't help it!) And now I'm about to press publish... mistakes, wonky adjectives and all.

Let me know what you think in the comments. Are you a perfectionist? How are you doing with that? How has it helped you / held you back? What do you think of the tips above?

Take care, and have a lovely rest of your day.

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