It all started with my Dad and thank you notes. Whenever I received gifts for Christmas or my birthday, Dad insisted I write thank you notes. He would fetch some nice paper and envelopes, and sit me down to compose my letters.
Teaching kids good manners and the importance of gratitude makes sense. I can’t fault Dad with that. In fact, I ended up falling in love with the art of handwriting and written correspondence.
The problem was my father’s exactitude. I would scribble out my notes and hand them to Dad. He’d read them, and then pull out his fountain pen to make corrections. Precise corrections.
“Look here, Johnny, your handwriting is not very neat,” Dad would say. “You misspelled this word, and your cursive is sloping down the page. Use some lined paper underneath to keep your handwriting even.”
Dad’s handwriting was insanely perfect. His copperplate cursive, always flowing from his Parker and Waterman fountain pens, looked somewhat like Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting.
I admired my Dad’s perfect penmanship and emulated it growing up. Same with my thank you notes. I crumpled many pieces of paper and envelopes to get it perfect. I got a little neurotic about it.
The suffering hero
Dad’s fixation with doing things right went beyond thank you notes.
After making my bed, Dad would drop a quarter on the cover, to see if it would bounce. “Make those hospital corners taut, Johnny, and the quarter will bounce,” Dad would say.
“Perfectionism becomes a badge of honor with you playing the part of the suffering hero.” -David D. Burns
Even my mother didn’t escape Dad’s precision and orderliness. Once he came home from work and pointed out a dead fly on the window sill. “Was it a slow day at work?” my mother quipped.
Despite how it sounds, Dad was not trying to be imperious or domineering. He meant well, trying to teach me discipline and attention to detail. Still, he was a hopeless perfectionist, and he passed the disorder along to me.
Impossibly high standards
According to an article in healthline.com:
“People with perfectionism hold themselves to impossibly high standards. They think what they do is never good enough.”
I can relate to that. Looking back on my professional career, there were many work projects that I slaved over. Every detail had to be perfect. Even when the project concluded and everyone celebrated its success, I downplayed it.
“I could have done more with this part,” I’d say, or, “It worked out okay, but I could have done better.”
The healthline.com article added:
“Some people mistakenly believe that perfectionism is a healthy motivator, but that’s not the case. Perfectionism can make you feel unhappy with your life. It can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-harm. Eventually, it can also lead you to stop trying to succeed. Even mild cases can interfere with your quality of life, affecting your personal relationships, education, or work.”
Perfectionism can often be a learned behavior, as was the case with me. For some, they pursue achievement to feel of value but never seem satisfied.
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it’s a shield.” -Brene Brown
Symptoms of perfectionism vary, but according to the healthline.com articlethey include the following:
- feel like you fail at everything you try
- procrastinate regularly — you might resist starting a task because you’re afraid that you’ll be unable to complete it perfectly
- struggle to relax and share your thoughts and feelings
- become very controlling in your personal and professional relationships
- become obsessed with rules, lists, and work, or alternately, become extremely apathetic
The core of perfectionism is fear
“At the core of perfectionism is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of not measuring up to other’s expectations.”
If you’re an artist, writer, musician, or creative person, do you do any of the following:
- You constantly compare your work to others
- Everything has to be perfect before you start
- You’re never able to finish the piece you’re working on
- You keep changing your mind on the project at hand
- You’re never able to publish or sell your work because it’s not done yet
- You put too much pressure on yourself and get creative block
If any of the above examples sound familiar, then you may suffer from perfectionism. Of course, there are other disorders like obsessive compulsiveness, ADHD, and depression, that may also be at play.
If your life seems to be increasingly unmanageable due to perfectionism or a related disorder, do something about it.
“Perfectionism rarely begets perfection, or satisfaction- only disappointment.” -Ryan Holiday
There are amazing health professionals who can help you get your life back. Sometimes a little cognitive therapy or helpful prescription can get you on track.
There is no shame in seeking help. None of us get through life without leaning on others from time to time.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
As a writer and fine artist, my perfectionism has been a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, perfectionism has fueled my artistic education and helped me zero in on important details. On the other hand, perfectionism has hurt my productivity and growth.
Sometimes I endlessly repaint my paintings, hoping to improve them.
I have deleted lengthy articles because they weren’t perfect when perhaps all that was needed was to take a break and regroup.
Mastering perfectionism means you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The key is to do your best effort, and then move on. Done trumps perfect.
“Perfectionism and procrastination have such a fine line. You say, ‘Well, I want it to be good. I want it to be perfect.’ But what you’re really doing is not doing your work. You’re putting off showing up and being visible because then you’re going to be judged, and it might suck.” -Jen Sincero
Be realistic about your expectations. Realize that not everything needs to be a masterpiece. If you get overwhelmed by ideas, jot them them and prioritize. Visualize the worst possible scenarios, and how likely they will happen. Remember that making mistakes is a big part of learning and growing.
The voice of the oppressor
Perfectionism used to kill my productivity. It still gets in the way sometimes, but I’ve learned to let go more. Having a regular schedule for my creative work helps. It creates conditions, routines, and habits that keep me moving forward.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” -Ann Lamott
Don’t let perfectionism rule your life and productivity. Healthline.com recommends the following tips in overcoming perfectionism:
- set realistic, attainable goals
- break up overwhelming tasks into small steps
- focus on one activity or task at a time
- acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes
- recognize that most mistakes present learning opportunities
- confront fears of failure by remaining realistic about possible outcomes
Thanks to my Dad, I can make a neat bed, write beautifully crafted thank you notes, and scoop dead flies out of the window sill. But on my own, I learned that such things are not vitally important.
I figured out that perfectionism can become a trap, hurting my well-being, preventing my personal growth, and killing my productivity.
How about you? Are you grappling with perfectionism? Embrace the tips in this article, accept your best effort, and learn to let go more. Soon you will become more productive and happy.
Before you go