When Perfectionism Holds You Back

Author of crumpled paper.

 

A few days ago, I was meeting with my Creative Sanctuary and Coaching Collaborative in peaceful Sol Studio. It was the end of the day and the end of our six-month session and I was trying to wrap things up. I wanted to know everyone’s biggest takeaways from our time together and what challenges they still faced.

 

Regarding the latter, one group member confessed that when she finally got time and space from her family and work obligations, she still wasn’t getting her creative work done.

 

“I get in my own way,” she said.

I hear this a lot. We think we know what it means, but it’s vague.

“Can you be specific?” I asked.

“I find ways to distract myself,” she said.

“You procrastinate?” I asked.

Usually when we talk about distraction, we’re talking about procrastination.

“Yes,” she said.

“Procrastination is anxiety,” I said. Her eyes lit up with recognition.

“Exactly,” she said.

“And I’m guessing your anxiety is about your performance. I’m guessing you’re battling perfectionism.

 

BINGO.

 

PROCRASTINATION = ANXIETY = PERFECTIONISM

 

When I told her I was writing a post on perfectionism, she said, “I’m right on schedule, then.”

 

“Yes,” I said, “you and ninety percent of the artists and writers I know.”

 

Earlier in the week, in an attempt to prime the pump for a post on perfectionism, I queried Facebook friends. How does perfectionism interfere with your creative work? I asked.

 

Here are a few replies:

  • It paralyzes me to the point I can’t get started, or can’t continue.

  • It prolongs the creative process to excruciating length.

  • It keeps me from finishing things, which ultimately leads to a trail of mostly-but-not-quite finished work that just makes me sad.

  • It steals my joy.

 

Any of these sound familiar? They are all familiar to me.

 

Even as I’ve had to let go of unattainable high standards in order to get these posts out week after week, I still barely tolerate mistakes in my work or the mountains of crappy writing that lie festering in my notebook.

 

And after twenty years of working with writing practice, trying to accept the whole mind with no thought of good or bad, I still find my bad writing excruciating to read.

 

A few weeks ago, I was in Santa Fe at a writing retreat with my teacher, Natalie Goldberg and the award-winning food writer, Bill Addison. The topic of the workshop was writing about food, which I thought would be fun, but turned out to be taxing.

 

  • First, it raised issues about my family and food that I’ve been wanting to write about for years, but hadn’t had the time or space. While the words poured out, the writing was dark.

 

  • Also,  it turns out writing about food is harder than it looks. How to describe flavor in all its specificity? 

 

On the first day, when it was time to read aloud, I chose haunting pieces about hunger that had rolled off my pen. Despite our policy of no comment — which builds spine and teaches you to stop seeking applause and reassurance — over the course of the evening, several friends whispered in my ear that my writing was powerful.

 

On the one hand, my ego was happy. On the other, I felt ashamed at what was hiding in my notebook. Most of the topics had me fumbling as if I’d lost all capacity for language.

 

A few weeks later, I was talking to my daughter about her struggles with anxiety and perfectionism and told her about the bad writing and how uncomfortable it made me.

 

Seeing the writing my in notebook was nearly intolerable, I told her. Despite twenty years of practice, my perfectionism was still profound.

 

The mind will do almost anything to avoid discomfort, which often keeps us from showing up for ourselves. But we all know that no one ever made breakthroughs in their work by staying in their comfort zone.

 

In our family, we’re learning a lot about distress tolerance, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. That includes cozying up to imperfection.

 

And what is the danger of imperfect writing or crappy art? Our rational minds know that it is only our fragile egos at stake, and that helps, but that won’t make anxiety won’t go away.

 

The late Susan Jeffers wrote a book titled, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I don’t remember much of it, but the title is all you need to know. I recommend writing it on a post-it and putting it in your workspace. Or write it on every page of your notebook or make a sign for your studio.

 

There is only one way forward in this work and that is right through our fear and discomfort

 

Now that I have a new home at the beautiful Sol Healing and Wellness Center, I am getting ready to teach writing practice again. While the setting is nearly perfect — our light-filled yoga studios are profoundly peaceful and our grounds green and inviting — we’ll practice being wildly imperfectMore information soon.

 

Kirk pic

 

When you’ve built some spine and and are ready to have your writing carefully reviewed by an experienced and thoughtful reader, I know a wonderful editor. S. Kirk Walsh is a seasoned author, editor, and teacher, as well as a book reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

 
I’m always nervous when I give Kirk my work — she’s reviewed so many gifted authors– but she treats the work respectfully and her comments are clear and delivered with kindness. Her information is below.

S. Kirk Walsh specializes in editing—general feedback, line-edits, and copy-edits—for fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. She also runs a nine-month MFA-style writing workshop in Austin, Texas. For the past twelve years, she has worked with a variety of clients, who have published books with self-publishers, university presses, small presses, and large publishing houses. During the past seven years, she has served on the screening committee for the the fiction applicants for the Michener Center for Writers at UT. In addition, she has served on the selection committee for Yaddo, an artist residency in Saratoga Springs, NY, and provided recommendations for potential MacArthur fellows. Her book reviews have been published in The New York Times Book Review, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other print and online publications. Kirk attended the Creative Writing Program at New York University, where she had the opportunity to study with E. L. Doctorow, Peter Carey, and Mona Simpson. Prior to going to graduate school, she worked on the editorial staffs of various magazines, including Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, and Entertainment Weekly.