Perfectionism is Murdering Your Muse

Perfection

We’re all battling demons when we set out to write, but the biggest demon of all is Perfectionism. All those other ugly monsters that sit on our hunched shoulders and drill into our heads are nasty too, for sure, but this one’s their Daddy.

His destructive power comes from our mistaking Perfectionism for Ambition. Mistaking his bullying for motivation. Believing that being a perfectionist means setting High Standards for oneself, and Working Hard to reach them.

All this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

 

Perfectionism is NOT about Ambition.

It’s about Worthlessness.

A perfectionist holds unrealistic definitions of success and failure, believing only extremes really count (such as overnight bestsellers and superstar writers, versus complete failures and obscure nobodies). They are so fixated on the idea that ONLY complete success matters, and all else is failure to some degree, that they become blind to the fact that the gray area is HUGE and encompasses 99% of all active writers.

Perfectionists are so obsessed with the fear of failure (which always follows them, since it’s nearly impossible to plan and work for that 1% of stellar success) that they become paralyzed. They constantly overplan, overthink, overprepare, second-guess, change their minds, backtrack and “correct,” then change their plans again, because they can’t face the possibility that their efforts might not lead to absolute success. That they might just be another writer, instead of THE Author.

Obviously, their efforts are just that: EFFORTS, not actual WORK that leads somewhere. The constant overplanning and backtracking leads nowhere. Their wordcounts don’t add up to a body of work, but instead form a huge personal slush pile of rejected, less-than-perfect material.

Perfectionists often belittle ordinary tasks (such as planting their butt in chair every day) and admire serendipity. Talent and luck weigh more to a perfectionist than workmanship and diligence, and exceptional “overnight” successes mean more than the common, incremental ones. Perfectionists fail to understand the long, complex process that leads to success, believing they ought to reach success effortlessly because they’re talented, or destined for it, and difficulty to do so is perceived as a sign that they’re in fact NOT talented and destined for greatness but UTTER FAILURES.

Most perfectionistic writers never finish. Most never publish. Most never publish a second novel. Most never find the strength to face their audience and its reactions, because anything less than perfect means total failure and worthlessness.

That is no way to lead a creative life.

That’s no way to live, period.

 

Perfectionism is NOT about High Standards.

It’s about unrealistic, unachievable standards.

Perfectionists live with constant, excessive criticism of their talent and output that’s not based on any objective criteria (that they’d liberally apply to others as well), but on the “gut feeling” that they simply suck.

They see any acceptance and pride in their output as a weakness preventing them from reaching their true potential. Because no story is ever perfect (there’s always one more dialog line to sharpen, one more sentence to optimize) feeling PROUD of their work is akin to self-delusion. If they are “blinded by pride” (what most normal people would call “happy to have finished something”), they might not see the hidden defects in their work, and if they don’t see the defects they might publish something sub-par, something IMPERFECT, and that will make them less than a total success, which means they are a total failure and essentially worthless.

This distrust in the feeling of accomplishment even goes as far as mistrusting anyone who praises their work, believing they must love it because they don’t see all those tiny imperfections, which makes their point of view and their appraisal unworthy. Their praise becomes worthless, and the perfectionist continues to dread their own failure and worthlessness.

Perfectionists also overidentify with their output. Any criticism directed at their work is taken personally, a straight blow to the heart. Because they’re so used to the Inner Bully telling them they’re worthless if they’re not perfect, they assume external criticism is a validation of that feeling of worthlessness.

 

Perfectionism does NOT run on Discipline and Motivation.

It thrives on Bullying, Self-Punishment and Fear.

Because anything less than perfect means failure, perfectionists often suffer from severe performance anxiety. It doesn’t just mean they’re scared to publish or even talk openly about their work, but they’re scared to sit down and write. Agonizing over every sentence, deleting it again, staring at the blank screen feeling incapable of producing the perfect start to a new scene, the perfect comeback to a character’s accusation, the perfect description of a new setting, etc. can easily grow into full blown Writer’s Block(TM). Perfectionist writers are notoriously prone to become blocked as well as spending a decade or more on their debut novel.*

*I spent 5 years (taking a break of 1.5 years) writing my “perfect” first novel, until I finally understood the source of my constant backtracking and self-bullying, and stopped tinkering. I published The Deep Link knowing it’s not perfect, accepting it’s never going to be perfect, feeling almost as if I’m exorcising it so I can finally MOVE ON and write other things, enjoy my passion, and breathe freely. There’s always room for improvement, yes, but without forward movement it’s just an ugly pileup.

Performance anxiety is the number one cause for chronic procrastination, which is nothing but the brain’s flight response in face of stress — stress brought on by unreasonable expectations, fear of failure, and the feeling of worthlessness.

Eventually, repeated or ongoing Writer’s Block leads to a guilt-ridden loathing for their passion, the pursuit of which should otherwise naturally enrich their life, but which has become the primary source of self-loathing, depression, inadequacy and anxiety.

 

The only way out is through Acceptance and Compassion.

Accepting “less-than-perfect” is NOT “settling.”

Being compassionate with yourself is not slacking off. It’s moving forward, out of the quicksand. It’s progress.

There are many awesome books and websites out there that are dedicated to killing perfectionism in favor of actual productivity and an overal happier life. My top recommendation is The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block, by Hillary Rettig (@hillaryrettig).

Hillary’s approach to beating perfectionism is to develop a mindset of  Compassionate Objectivity. She describes the many ways in which a compassionate and objective approach to the challenges of a perfectionist mindframe can help you become more producte, happier, and more accomplished in the long run. Developing positive habits, learning to reward yourself abundantly while refraining from self-abusing litanies, and counteracting the many logical fallacies of perfectionistic thinking will help you reach a more mature understanding of the writing process and the meaning of success and failure.

There are plenty more books on defeating perfectionism that aren’t geared toward writers, and most of them are very helpful as well. There’s also a lot said about perfectionism and the way out of it online (such as in this productivity post by Anne R. Allen, or this psychology article right here). Or just go read this post on perfectionism by a very productive writer who HAS FUN writing instead of having to push herself and suffer through it (like most perfectionists feel they have to): Battling Perfectionism and Shutting Up Your Inner Editor, by Rachel Aaron/Bach.

 

If you struggle with chronic self-bullying, writer’s block, overidentification with your words, paralyzing fear of failure — consider fighting the real culprit, not yourself. Kick that ugly bastard in the teeth, and accept that he is NOT the voice of reason preventing you from being less, he’s the voice of self-destruction that keeps you from being free and enjoying your passion.

 

I’ve come a long way over the past 5 years, and I still have a long way ahead of me, but every day that I focus on HAVING FUN WRITING instead of mulling over the meaning of success and failure, and worse: of WORTH, is a glorious day. 🙂

25 Replies to “Perfectionism is Murdering Your Muse”

  1. I am always impressed with how succinctly you are able to summarize books, Veronica; in this case, “7 Secrets.” As is the case with synopsis writing, Twitter, and all things 2015, the ability to distill a great amount of information into one digestible bite (or swallow-able pill) is a true talent.

    I applaud your battery of the inner critic so that your first novel could be finished. I am facing dreaded second novel barriers, with only 15-20k remaining in my first draft (but ALWAYS an excuse to work on another project). This post gives an excellent way of viewing the mess: an unrealistic definition of success/failure is the surest way to wake up and say “Yeah, well, it’s *almost* done, that’s more than most people do.” I’ve yet to meet someone whose incomplete book occupies a store’s shelves…except maybe Nabokov’s “The Origin of Laura” and other similar author died/family estate cashing in on unfinished manuscripts.

    Either way, excellent post!

    Like

    1. Thanks a lot, Mark!

      I’ve suffered from a crazy “unfinishing” syndrome which had me stop just one or two steps before finishing a manuscript (or short story) and go back to tinker and “perfect” it so I could finish in style, or something. No idea. I felt it was impossible to write that last bit before everything else was “perfect” because goddamnit the thing couldn’t be called FINISHED if it wasn’t perfect.

      In fact, my definition of what “finished” meant was completely off kilter. Without consciously choosing so, it meant “complete and un-improvable,” instead of simply finished as in THIS STAGE IS COMPLETE.

      First drafts are a stage.

      Second drafts are a stage.

      There’s no completion if no stage is ever finished because we expect everything of it. 🙂

      Like

  2. Pingback: Hidden Bullying
    1. Glad you liked the post, sorry to hear it resonates.

      What helped me more than anything was to understand that perfectionism generates slow, painful, ever unsatisfying progress, if there’s any progress at all. It’s only through accepting the universal lack of perfection in all things, and the absolute necessity of being kind to oneself and focusing on the process instead of the product, on the experience instead of the result, on JOY instead of WORTH, that you can step out of that mentality and realize lack of perfectionism creates lighter, faster, and immensely more joyful progress, and does so continuously.

      Good luck!

      Like

  3. This post punched me right in the gut! (in a good way of course)

    I’ve been having a ton of trouble recently with perfectionism and self-doubt as I query and deal with the constant trickle of rejection. It’s become really hard to keep writing and I’ve been struggling to actually ENJOY what I’m doing. It’s been miserable, because writing is my dream and my passion, and yet I’m not having any fun while doing it.

    Well, this post described everything that I’ve been feeling. As I deal with rejection, I’ve allowed my inner critic to become too huge and taint the joy of the writing process. Which is terrible, because storytelling is the biggest joy in my life! Everything you said is dead-on and allowing that inner perfectionist to take the helm has been absolutely destructive to my writing process.

    So here’s to writing s*$# first drafts and editing them later! And also getting back to the love of the craft, the adoration of stories, and the passion behind the work. 🙂

    Thanks Veronica!

    Like

    1. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Audrey!

      You’re definitely not alone in dealing with that bastard inner bully who keeps bashing every little sense of success or joy. It’s an uphill battle sometimes, but it’s not a hopeless battle. You can break free if you shift your focus, if you remind yourself every day that you do this because it’s FUN, because it enriches your life just doing it, regardless if anyone approves or not. It’s not their approval that brings you joy, it’s WRITING itself, creating characters and worlds and exploring possibilities. Focus on that, on exploration and joy, on the freedom of creativity, not on any shifting opinion on the end product.

      Shopping your MS around is very tough, and rejection is part of this writing game, but rejection is NOT a final judgment of YOU. It has no power over your ACT OF CREATION, it’s only an opinion on the product. You are not your product. You can always create other products, write other stories, enjoy new worlds, invent new people. You can always grow. THAT’s what matters.

      If something doesn’t work and doesn’t bring you joy, move on. You are the only constant, your passion is the only thing that counts, and what will keep you going. All else is dust in the wind.

      Good luck! 🙂

      Like

      1. Veronica, I have to say that your reply truly warmed my heart. I took a screenshot of it and am going to save that for rainy days. You are so fantastic and encouraging and I wish you the very best in your writing career, because you sure deserve it!

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  4. I fear we have this in common. Most people would be surprised to hear that I have extremely low self esteem, and have almost no faith in myself. Because, I act like I don’t care about anyone opinions. Which, I don’t, mostly, because mine are far worse : ) At least critiques were painful as hell to deal with it. I did them, because I needed them. I’d never get any better if I sat around hoping I’d improve.

    These days I focus on goal oriented things, rather than bother with the rest of it. It at times really bothers me. But, I deal and push forward. I’ve been shopping of my novels around and finishing off my series.

    For me, its a daily struggle made worse by some of my other mental problems. I’m just happy these days that I make goals, meet them, and only suffer a few lingering moments of self doubt typically.

    I’m glad you pushed through and finished your novel. It might not be perfect, but finishing a novel, self publishing it, and moving on, is no small thing.

    Like

    1. Yeah, I know the feeling of not being so sensitive to others’ criticism because you’re already dealing with FAR WORSE from yourself every day. It’s not a healthy way to deal with it, though, becoming calloused by being exposed to so much of it. It has to stop. We have to make it stop.

      I think the best way to stop it is to understand it, and gradually root it out from all aspects of our thinking. It has no place with us when we write. No place with us when we think about our writing. No room to breathe inside our minds.

      Goal oriented thinking is a great way to focus on productive things, instead of self-destructive thinking. Keep at it!

      It’s not easy, I know that very well. But it’s worth the fight, if we regain the joy and love for what we do, and the freedom to grow without fear of being inadequate.

      Thanks for your support, Fatma. Wish you the best of luck with your writing!

      Like

  5. (Groans as he drags himself upright from the bloodstained floor, gingerly touches split lip and ruefully examines swollen eye).
    I guess I deserved that. I’ll leave Neil alone.
    Neil looks on, bewildered, and finally, realising there’s a better way, returns to his 4 first-drafted novels and 5th half-completed one, resolved to stop worrying and start working …

    Like

  6. Hi Veronica. I’m so glad I found this post of yours because, like others, I can relate to it all so well. Living with ‘constant, excessive criticism’ pretty much sums it up. I have been sitting on some of my work for years, going over them repeatedly, believing that they’re just not ready to send off. The reality is I’m just stalling, letting the fear and my internal bully control me.

    I completely agree what you say about putting the fun back into writing. When that happens, there isn’t any problem – there is pleasure in it and there are times when I can even end up in ‘the zone’. However, it can be a daily struggle to get to this level. Thanks also for the links, including the book from Hillary Rettig – I bought myself the book for my kindle to read over the Christmas break.

    I’m sorry to hear that you’ve also been struggling with this and I applaud you for what you have achieved. I hope you are surrounded by supportive friends and family. My husband is my ‘rock’ and I’m sure I wouldn’t have got this far without him. It’s unfortunate that there are others going through this, but at the same time it’s good to know that together, we can work our way through it.

    Wishing you and your family a Happy Christmas Veronica and I wish you all the very best for the new year.

    Like

    1. Thanks for commenting & sharing the post, Debbie! I’m glad you found some solace in it. You’re not alone in your struggle!

      Some days it’s tougher than others. The toughest for me is before I start a new novel. I have all these great ideas, and plenty of excitement and the drive to DO IT, but then all my insecurities run amok. The bully snarls at me that I’ll never be able to write that novel well enough, never give shape to those ideas, never touch a reader, never sell a thing. It takes a lot of strength and determination to kick that bully down and hold him down during the drafting stage. That’s when I’m most vulnerable. My family is a great support, though indirectly – by grounding me, and reminding me I’m appreciated and loved regardless of my transitory insecurities.

      I’m happy to hear you’ve got support! And I wish you an amazing Christmas with your loved ones! Keep your head high and remember to put JOY before PERFECTION always!

      Like

  7. A bit late, but still:
    I found this and another of your posts on perfectionism quite encouraging, at a time when I really needed it.

    In a way, I´m quite the expert in this field: At 12, I knew I was a writer, and now, 35 years later, I haven´t finished a thing. Not long ago, I dropped a novel I had been working on since 1997, after realizing I didn´t know what it was about anymore, and presently, I´m trying to gather courage for new projects.

    My resources of fear and shame seem endless, in this as in all aspects of life, but the past couple of years I have tried to drain some of that off with attempts at self confidence, acceptance, and such (plus evaluating a psychologist or two, as you mentioned in “Dealing with perfectionism”). These days, I have the additional “Too Old, Too Late” demon to deal with as well.

    But seeing you could write (and finish stuff) despite having similar issues, and your practical approach to it, feel very helpful. Adding a practical assessment of how to reduce the impossibility of writing to the pinches of self acceptance and compassion I can muster could just be enough to make it near possible.

    Like

    1. Thanks for commenting, Sven. I’m glad you found the post useful.

      Dealing with perfectionism is very difficult when you’re a creative, because what should come as playful selfexpression can easily become yet another performance by which to measure our worth. It’s particularly important to remember that our worth is an untouchable, unquantifiable quality, and our creative work isn’t some sort of body of evidence in favor or against us.

      Wish you the best.

      Like

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