10 commandments for perfectionists

10 commandments for perfectionists

I’ve known for awhile that I’m a perfectionist, but this summer was the time when my perfectionism and I finally had a standoff.

Perfectionism: I think it’s a great idea to feel stressed, pressured, and overwhelmed all the time. K?

Me: Uh, wait, no, but…

Perfectionism: Also, seriously, you’ve been on this planet for 25 years and you’ve yet to achieve anything extraordinary. Aren’t you paying attention to what I’m saying?

And so on. We wrestled for awhile. We’re still wrestling. And as the summer draws to a close, I decided to sit down and hash out all the things we’ve been arguing over. So here they are – the rules that the mean voice in my head keeps trying to enforce, and the thoughts I want to cultivate.

Perfectionism: Don’t waste time.

Me: Life takes time. Time is only wasted if I’m waiting for it to be over.

Perfectionism: I wish things were different.

Me: Life is a game of “Yes, and…”[1]

Perfectionism: I need to plan in order to control the future.

Me: I’m curious what will happen today and I know I can handle it.

Perfectionism: Must. Be. Serious.

Me: What would kitty do?[2]

Perfectionism: This is such a big deal.

Me: Will this matter in a year?

Perfectionism: I have to be careful.

Me: Life’s great dare is: Am I all in?[3]

Perfectionism: What will the future look like?

Me: What does the present feel like?

Perfectionism: I have to be maximally productive.

Me: I want to explore my whole self.

Perfectionism: I must get everything done.

Me: I can only do my best.

Perfectionism: I have to accomplish something extraordinary.

Me: I want to be happy and serene.

My hope is that articulating these in words will become a useful tool in my day-to-day life. I was doing a chore the other day, wishing for it to be over, when I thought, “Life takes time. Time is only wasted if I’m waiting for it to be over.” Perfectionism will still try to do battle with me, but at least I have some weapons in my arsenal now.

[1] The organizer of the Toronto Happy Healthy Women meetup, Natalie Colalillo, came up with this idea at an improv comedy workshop. Improv comedy requires a “yes, and” approach – you take whatever the other performers give you and run with it, rather than trying to contradict them or go in a different direction. Life is like this, too – you have to accept what happens to you before you can move on and have positive experiences.

[2] In other words, be silly! Cats and cat videos are a reminder for me to keep things fun, silly, and lighthearted.

[3] This is from Brené Brown, and the full quote is: “Vulnerability is life’s great dare. It is life asking, ‘are you all in?’” Living wholeheartedly means not holding back.

Photo by Flickr user Digitalnative

Control, or how to stop squeezing the life out of life 

Control

When I used to play violin, my bow grip was too tight. It worked most of the time, and I managed to get into some elite orchestras and play some solos. But when those light, bouncy spiccato passages came up, I stumbled. I was supposed to nearly let go of my bow and let it do the bouncing itself, naturally, but I couldn’t. I wanted to control it, which slowed me down and threw off my rhythm.

I think I approach life like I approached that violin bow. 

A recovering perfectionist, I want control. I want to control my health, my career, my relationships. But at some point, it’s too much. My heart aches like my fingers used to ache from violin. I feel rigid, tight, tense, gripping, pressured. I just want to breathe and let it go and soften – or do I? 

Brené Brown says life is full of vulnerability, full of uncertainty, risk, and raw emotion. Much as we’d like to control it, we simply cannot. I simply cannot

I might lose a job, or have my money stolen. I might get cancer through no fault of my own. I might have to say goodbye to a loved one sooner than I expect. I might get a cavity, the flu, or a hangnail. I might feel anxious, sleepless, or apathetic. I might say something embarrassing, do something mean, or write something dumb. 

On the other hand, I might get a job from a random tweet. I might ask a second-degree connection out for coffee and gain a lifelong friend. I might try a different hobby and then meet the love of my life while practicing it. Oh wait – all of those things have happened already. 

I can’t have it both ways. I can’t control all the bad things while letting the good luck happen. I have to just embrace that fact that life is darn unpredictable, and sometimes that leads to blissful accidents, and sometimes it leads to plain old accidents. If you grip life too tightly, you can’t make beautiful, bouncy, playful music.  

Photo by Flickr user Lif…

Write mediocre things now 

boredI never thought of myself as one of those writers who’s afraid to put their writing out there.

I’ve published over 1,100 posts on Tech Cocktail and hundreds of posts on my personal blogs. Fear is not my problem – right? 

But the other day, I was toying with an idea for a blog post about “should” – a phrase I use all the time in my head, which may not be the best motivational strategy. And I realized: I was afraid. 

Not of trolls or scathing refutations, but of mediocrity. 

I often get my fiance to read my posts, and when he responds with something along the lines of “Hm! That’s nice,” I feel like I did something wrong. Somewhere in my head, I want all the posts I write to be the musings of a genius. I want to be creating new ideas, challenging assumptions, and evoking more than a “Hm!” And, as a perfectionist, I’ll always push myself to take the ideas further, to categorize and define, to find the connections that lie just below the surface. 

But maybe I’m too hard on myself. Maybe I have to write lots of mediocre stuff before I someday arrive at my magnum opus, my book, my profound revelations. Maybe writing is just like a form of public practicing, where I get better at the actual writing and the idea development each time I click “publish.” 

Paul Jarvis, who published an ebook for creative entrepreneurs last November called Everything I Know, says, “Einstein wrote thousands of research papers and most were considered either awful or simply average. It wasn’t until he had tried several ideas and explored many new paths that he finally came upon his genius.” When Jarvis felt like a weak web designer himself, he responded by building more websites – practicing. 

The student doesn’t walk into physics 101 and expect to invent a new theory. As bloggers and writers, maybe we need to see ourselves as students – particularly if we’re hoping to become experts in a certain subject. While I aim for the fascinating, today I may have to settle for the mildly interesting. 

Photo by Flickr user TRF_Mr_Hyde

Do you have “banging your head against the wall” syndrome?

In his book The Perfectionist’s Handbook, author Jeff Szymanski talks about the difference between persistence and “perseveration” – or what I like to call “banging your head against the wall” syndrome. 

Bang your head syndrome

Persistence is that dogged determination of working on a challenging task that you know you can accomplish: the long, slow grind of marathon training. Its alter ego perseveration shows up when you keep applying yourself to a problem without results. You might start to feel anxious because it’s not working and you’re wasting time.

Think about bloggers who insist on getting their introduction perfect before moving on to the rest of the article – and end up staring at a blank screen (guilty!). Or startups who insist that their idea is the right one, even though no customers seem to agree. Or working mothers who exhaust themselves peeling potatoes and chopping vegetables after a long day of work, day after day.

Often, the problem is falling into the trap of “The Right Way.” The writer assumes her introduction must come first; the entrepreneur believes that his original idea must be the winner; the mother feels that all dinners must be made from scratch. We get so obsessed with details and doing things properly that we forget about the overall goal: writing an article, making money, or having a family meal.

It reminds me of an infographic I saw by Yang Liu about attitudes in the East vs. the West: it turns out Eastern societies know that some “problems” really aren’t problems at all – and you can just step around them.

East vs West

Not sure if you’re banging your head against the wall or slowly chipping away a tiny hole through it? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I making progress?
  • What is my emotional state?
  • Do I have alternatives?

In other words, be flexible. Be faithful to your goal, but creative about how you get there. There isn’t one Right Way.