Therapy for Writers: Dealing with Perfectionism

The perfectionism trap is easy to fall into. We live in a culture that’s all about success and achievement, and the writing world is no different. We hear about New York Times bestsellers, advance checks with a series of zeroes scrawled across them, there’s books and blogs out there giving us the blue prints to achieve just that — probably in thirty days or less. You just have to have everything – your prose, your grammar, your concept, your cover, your marketing plan – just right.

Don’t get me wrong, high standards are a good thing, they convey respect to your reader. But perfectionism is a trap, one that is all too easy to fall into. Perfectionism gives us the false promise that as long as everything is perfect, we can avoid the risk and pain of failure. That we can become the next JK Rowling while side-stepping the faith-shaking, confidence-breaking lows.

Not only that, it sets unattainable standards (what’s the ‘perfect’ book anyway?). You see it during first drafts — the dithering over the ‘right’ word that swiftly grows into anxiety at the thought of sitting down to write. You can also experience it at the editing stage, especially if you’re about to send your creation out into the judgy-scary world. You can easily convince yourself it’s not the right time, that the opening scene needs just a little more tweaking.

Sound like you? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you delay starting a writing project because it has to be perfect?
  • Do you put off finishing writing projects because you worry they won’t be good enough?
  • How worried are you that others will judge your work?
  • Are you your own worst critic – always telling yourself you could have done better?
  • Do you feel that any effort less than 100% is a failure?

If you answered yes to some or most of these questions then perfectionism is probably is costing you far more than it’s benefiting you. Perfectionism sows the seeds of anxiety, heightens the fear of failure and sucks the joy out of what is a beautiful process of creation. I argue that you can still create a quality product that is worthy of a huge fan base, without the debilitating stress levels.

So what is it?

As a person that tends to perfectionism myself, and as a psychologist that sees it in my clients, I use the 70% rule – making 7 the new 10 — personally and professionally. I’ve attached the worksheet here, but you can work through the questions without writing them down (although I encourage you do just that, it can be enlightening to see these answers in written glory).

Now that you’ve reflected that perfectionism can cost you by reducing productivity (ironic, isn’t it?), let’s look at how we can redefine a ‘good enough’ effort. Think of it as recalibrating. Ask yourself — how would letting go of the craving for a perfect outcome remove self-imposed pressure? Does it lessen anxiety or worry? Then consider how could putting 70% of your energy toward the goal of very good or good enough be helpful to you?

What would a 70% effort look like when you write, especially considering that extra 20-30% doesn’t guarantee the ‘perfect’ product? Less editing, maybe allowing a beta reader to read it. How would this help your writing, both in output and in how you feel about it?

Right now, think back to a project that you were overly critical of or dissatisfied with your work. Now that you’ve recalibrated 7 (very good or good enough) as your new 10, what do you think of it? What about that concept that’s been percolating in your wondrous grey matter for a while now…?

Now grab your keyboard or your pen and write.

Has this been helpful in dealing with your perfectionism demons? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

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