How To Work Through Perfectionism

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.  It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life." - Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird 

I have a really terrible habit of saying no to any new suggestion.  It's a hard-wired reflex, that I try to avoid repeating too many times in a row.  At lightning speed my brain computes 'new' as 'no'.  'No that might not work; no that might not be perfect; I'll just stay here in this cozy warm bubble of what I already know and avoid the risk of disappointment at all costs.'  If I allow this automatic thought pattern for long enough, life can become very small.  And as living a small, timid life is my actual worst fear, I have to remind myself constantly not to do this.  

Here are five (of the many) ways I remind myself that I must keep going:

1.  Remember whose opinions really matter, and it's probably not that many.  As Brené Brown will tell you in her book Daring Greatly:

“I carry a small sheet of paper in my wallet that has written on it the names of people whose opinions of me matter. To be on that list, you have to love me for my strengths and struggles. You have to know that I’m trying to be Wholehearted, but I still cuss too much, flip people off under the steering wheel, and have both Lawrence Welk and Metallica on my iPod.”

2.  Switch off your inner monologue, or swap it out for a new one.  I don't always notice my own negative self-talk straight away, in spite of this being my number one perfectionist behaviour.  Sometimes it only shows up in my conscious thought when it turns into really bizarre judgements of others.  Like getting violently offended by a stranger's hideous outfit.  Once I'm at that stage, it's time for a serious look at what's going on. Or CBT.  

3.  Get your shitty first draft out.  Just start something and finish it. The second, third and fourth iterations will be a piece of cake in comparison, but if the first one is a pile of crap, that's ok.  In fact, it is encouraged.

"The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later." - Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird

4.  You are not your work.  Separating your creativity from your sense of self is really difficult, but really really healthy.  Divorce it from your ego, and let it exist outside of you.  I love Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius when I'm struggling with this one.

5.  Feel The Fear, but keep saying YES.  The ideas that scare me most to begin with usually turn out to be my best.  Accept that fear goes hand-in-hand with creativity and make friends with it.  If you get really advanced at facing your fear, you might even think about following it.



  • I may sometimes sound flippant about therapy.  This is because I've had so much therapy that I barely remember it's still a thing for some people.  By thing I mean taboo.  If you are actually crippled by perfectionism, please go and see your GP.  If you're not brave enough to do that right now, two great books (that they will literally prescribe to you on the NHS) are Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy by David D Burns PhD, and The Worry Cure by Dr. Robert L Leahy.

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Keep going.