The problem with perfectionism

I’ve taught college off and on for many years, usually English and writing classes. I remember a particular student who seemed very lively and intelligent but the essays she turned in were merely competent. She was the typical “C” student. She could string together sentences without committing too many grammatical atrocities, and she could spell most of the words she used, and she could follow a chain of logic from beginning to end without falling into more than one or two fallacies. Her writing was acceptable, but given how she participated in class, I knew she was capable of much better work. During a conference, she expressed frustration at how hard she worked for so little reward. She also knew she was capable of much better work, but she didn’t know how to do it.

Since most college writers dash off a draft, check for spelling and turn it in, I usually counsel them on strategies for revising. Those who listen to my advice usually find it results in a better grade the next go-round. I anticipated that she would benefit from this wisdom as well. I expressed this to her, and she said, yes, she could see that revising would probably benefit her, but it took her so long to get the first draft done that she couldn’t see how she’d manage it. I suspected procrastination but she insisted that as soon as she received an assignment, she went to her desk and started working. She told me, quite seriously, that she was spending thirty and forty hours on her 1,000 word essays. Assuming that she was overstating the case even by half, that was still an immense amount of time to be working on such short essays. These were not in-depth research papers, they were merely personal response to readings we’d done. So I probed further and discovered that she was beset by perfectionism. In other words, she couldn’t write her second sentence until her first sentence was perfect.

No wonder she was taking so much time and producing such barely passable work. While I suppose there are some savants capable of producing excellent work on the first version, every writer knows that the secret to writing is rewriting. You get your thoughts down, then you go back and you make everything pretty. Sometimes you don’t have that much to clean up; sometimes you do. And yes, sometimes you may spend an hour agonizing over a sentence, but that’s after you’ve already written a draft, not while you’re trying to get to the second sentence. The flow of writing requires that you let the imperfect stand while you’re getting the words on the page.

I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to interrupt that flow after every sentence to go back and try to make sure the sentence was perfect. It explained everything, including her frustration. I couldn’t imagine how she’d gotten to this point, but I was pretty sure an English teacher had done it to her, so I felt obliged to undo the damage.

I coached her to relax and to leave in an imperfect sentence or two. I suggested she set a timer and give herself five minutes to write the first paragraph. I shared all the tricks I could think of and yet she couldn’t get past this block, this enormous burden – her perfectionism. The first sentence had to be perfect before she could go on to the second, yet how could she know when that first sentence was perfect?

Finally, in desperation, I sat her in my office with a tablet of paper and a pen and told her she had two minutes to fill the top sheet of paper with words. If she didn’t fill the sheet up she was going to fail my class. If she did, I’d give her 20 extra credit points. I didn’t care what the words were. I didn’t care if all she wrote was “I don’t know what to write” and “This is a stupid idea.” I just wanted her to write words without stopping to critique them.

So she did as she was told and managed the task in the time allotted, although I was not surprised, when I looked at the paper later, to see that the entire page consisted of one extremely lengthy sentence – as if she were willing to go along with the game but her mind refused to abandon the prison of perfectionism. In other words, despite everything, she never did get to sentence two. Sentence one stood there waiting for revision before she went on to the next one.

All this to point out that striving for mastery, moving towards perfection in your life, has nothing to do with perfectionism. Perfectionism is a little like obsessive-compulsive disorder (and I’m told can actually be a symptom of it.) An obsessive-compulsive treats all problems equally – the late library book and the burning building are given the same amount of attention and worry. Now, I don’t want you to be so caught up in moving towards perfection that you fail to get out of the burning building because the brushstrokes on the wall you’re painting aren’t quite smooth enough yet. I want you to see that you can move towards mastery without getting caught up in perfectionism. A perfectionist cannot let go of the finished product because it isn’t perfect. Someone moving towards perfection knows that it’s not perfect this time, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the process and the intention. She is trying to master the action. She intends to become better, more perfect at it as she grows in skill and devotes time and attention to her practice. The process makes her feel relaxed, contented, absorbed – not frustrated, annoyed, crazed.

The Red Flags
So how can you distinguish between a healthy regard for mastery and the unhealthy disorder of perfectionism?

First, remember that mastery – moving towards perfection – requires focus, mindfulness and slowing down. If you’re engaging in rituals mindlessly, without thought and without apparent self control, that’s a concern.

Lots of fear and anxiety are also red flags. If you’re biting your nails over a project you have to turn in today even though you’ve devoted sufficient time and attention to it, that may be a sign that you’re engaged in perfectionism, not in moving towards perfection.

Staking your value on the task at hand is also a warning signal. You shouldn’t be overwhelmed with feelings of failure just because you burned the casserole. Believing that you’re only worth something because you’re good with horses leaves you vulnerable should you no longer be able to work with horses. Your value comes from who you are, and that exists no matter what your career choice or how bad your cooking tastes.

If you’re unwilling to let unimportant things slide when you’re called away to deal with tigers, that can be unhealthy. I’d rather make hot chocolate from scratch than use a mix, but when my kid’s in the hospital the same week a major client needs a major project, I’m pretty sure I’ll be relying on the store-bought variety for a while.

Instead of feeling relaxed and content as you work, you feel frustrated and boxed in. You think you’re slow and stupid for not understanding something, instead of realizing that it takes time to learn any new skill and that people face plateaus no matter what level of competence they’ve achieved.

I point these red flags out because I want you to discover that moving towards mastery is a wonderful thing, a source of pleasure – not a burden, not a chore, but a gift that can bring you a rewarding and fulfilling life.

A few of my favorite things

LESSONS IN MAGIC
A CERTAIN KIND OF MAGIC
THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN
DOJO WISDOM FOR WRITERS

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