Google “perfectionism” and “writers” and you’d think perfectionism was a deadly disease.
Pages pop up offering tips for overcoming the “disorder,” warnings for avoiding the “dangerous” tendencies, and help for “dealing” with it.
Even the beloved Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) is quoted as saying:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life….”
I’m not one to question the wisdom of Anne Lamott, but that quote does make me wince a little. I mean, cramped and insane? Is it really that bad?
What if you are a writer who happens to be a perfectionist? Are you doomed to failure before you even start?
Why Do We Pick on Perfectionists?
We all have unique character traits, and they can have both positive and negative sides to them. Someone who is very detail oriented, for example, is likely to shine at carrying a project through to a successful conclusion, but may have a hard time seeing the bigger picture, or envisioning the overall end game.
On the other side of the coin, someone who is a brilliant visionary is likely to have difficulty remembering everything that needs to be done on a project, and without help, may miss something really important.
The problem (or blessing) is that most of us can’t change these inherent characteristics. Not completely.
Studies have shown this to be true. According to the New York Times, for instance:
“The largest and longest studies to carefully analyze personality throughout life reveal a core of traits that remain remarkably stable over the years…”
Paul T. Costa Jr., scientist emeritus at the laboratory of behavioral science at the National Institutes of Health, found similar results in his studies:
“It’s not that personality is fixed and can’t change. But it’s relatively stable and consistent. What you see at 35, 40 is what you’re going to see at 85, 90.”
So to be so hard on perfectionism, above all other traits, seems to be a little unfair. After all, the perfectionist can’t really stop being so. Not entirely. To ask someone to do that is like asking a visionary to swap and become detail oriented, or the detail oriented to suddenly take on the visionary attitude.
They can try, but they’re likely to end up frustrated, and worse, to lose confidence in their abilities as a whole.
Yet there’s no doubt that though there are some good sides to perfectionism (really!), it can also have a damaging, negative influence on a writing career.
So what’s a perfectionist writer to do?
5 Positive Traits of Perfectionist Writers
It’s time to embrace what can be a positive trait in many ways. Let’s look at some of them:
I’m not the only one who believes that perfectionism, properly controlled, can be a good thing. Veteran journalist Alina Tugend, in her book Better by Mistake: the Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, writes:
“Being a perfectionist isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it may mean you have very high standards and you often meet those standards. Those who have perfectionist tendencies without having those tendencies rule — or ruin — their lives are what psychiatrists call ‘adaptive’ perfectionists. They find it very important to do certain things in the right way, but this need doesn’t hinder their lives and can actually help them achieve great success….”
Ann MacDonald, writing in Harvard Health, agrees:
“Desirable aspects of this personality trait include conscientiousness, endurance, satisfaction with life, and the ability to cope with adversity. This helps explain why some perfectionists become corporate leaders, skilled surgeons, or Olympic champions.”
Yet it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. We know that perfectionism—like any character trait—has a dark side. The answer, though, is not to deny that we have this trait, or to feel badly about it. Instead, we need to embrace the positive side, become more aware of the negative, and learn some coping techniques for keeping it in control.
In other words, as Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, says in The Perfectionist’s Handbook, we need to become “better” perfectionists.
5 Challenges Facing Perfectionist Writers
Just what are the drawbacks to being a perfectionist writer? Let’s remind ourselves of a few of them:
This side of perfectionism isn’t fun—ask those who suffer through it. Science-fiction writer Veronica Sicoe, for instance, admits to being a perfectionist, and talks about her challenges:
“It’s not easy being a perfectionist….Being unable to enjoy doing something without grading the result is not fun. Being unable to forgive oneself for making even tiny mistakes is not fun. Being unable to move on unless a project is beaten to death is really not fun. And on top of that, we’re experts at giving ourselves a guilty conscience over almost anything. Just make your pick, we’d be able to feel bad about how we’re doing it in ten minutes.”
So what’s a perfectionist writer to do?
7 Tips to Help You Become the Best Perfectionist Writer You Can Be
First, realize that you are a perfectionist. Here are some signs:
Next, work to embrace your perfectionism, but keep it from bringing you down by trying these tips:
Bottom line: Realize that your perfectionism is probably not going to go away, and that’s okay. In many ways, it can benefit your career. Limit its potential destructiveness by becoming more aware of how it affects you, and practice coping techniques that help.
As freelance editor Lisa Munro says:
“In the end, managing perfectionism is a life long process; it requires that we tackle difficult emotions….We need to believe that we’re good enough. Not perfect, but good enough.”
Do you have more tips for encouraging the positive aspects of perfectionism, or limiting the negative? Please share them with our readers.
Daniel Goleman, “Personality: Major Traits Found Stable Throughout Life,” New York Times, June 9, 1987.
Melissa Dahl, “How Much Can You Really Change After You Turn 30?” Science of Us, November 24, 2014.
Therese J. Borchard, “Good Perfectionism Versus Bad Perfectionism,” PsycheCentral.com, May 16, 2011.
Colleen M. Story writes imaginative fiction and is also a freelance writer, instructor, and motivational speaker specializing in creativity, productivity, and personal wellness. Her latest novel, Loreena’s Gift, was released with Dzanc Books April 12 2016. Her fantasy novel, Rise of the Sidenah, is a North American Book Awards winner, and New Apple Book Awards Official Selection (Young Adult). She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, a motivational site for writers and other creatives. Find more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.
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