The Death of Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” – Anne Lamott


“Write more blog posts!” my sister said to me the other day as we ate our tea together over Skype, 5000 miles apart. Her well-meaning exclamation made me realise I’d stopped posting the sort of fun, everyday, spontaneous snippets that used to characterise this teeny online space of mine for fear of not living up to the blogging ideal, of seeming unprofessional, of not being perfect.

I’m a clandestine perfectionist, often feigning disinterest or shelving ideas entirely for fear I will fulfil them to standards below my own high expectations. But this week, rather late to the party, I realised how much my own lofty (and, in many instances, unachievable) standards hinder me. A desire to be perfect is not only misguided and unrealistic; it’s obstructive. My undercover perfectionism – in that I rarely admit to it, even to myself – prevents me from pursuing my most valued ambitions, from striving in my career, from reaching out to new people, even from writing on this blog. I love to write, but I spend far too much time worrying about whether my work is up to scratch instead of just getting my head down and improving with time and with practice.

It’s not all bad. A desire to fulfil your potential is without doubt a worthwhile cause in moderation. But after a certain threshold, enough is enough. I’ve been reading the glorious book Bird by Bird, a laugh-out-loud writing manual by Anne Lamott, which boasts a whole chapter on the dangers of seeking perfection in work and in life – and I feel inspired. In the space of the week it’s taken me to devour the book, my desire to write and share here has swiftly overtaken my desire to write and share only pieces I feel are as good as they’re going to get. Which is, of course, easy to say and harder to put in practice when you’ve been unknowingly conforming to the perfectionist ideal for years. I’m sure an education at a competitive girls’ school compounded this, where even one’s very best sometimes felt mediocre.

Lamott has made me realise we’re all doing the best we can. And my lovely little sister reminded me that one of the best things about blogging is documenting memories. The only thing worse than not living up to your own expectations is not trying at all. In a nutshell, expect more blog posts! They might not be perfect, but nobody ever became a writer by writing perfectly from the get-go. Writers become writers through writing. Writing good messes, bad messes, awful first drafts and better second drafts, and even better final drafts, and eventually figuring out their holy trinity the hard way. Thus, I’m raising an imaginary champagne flute to the death of perfectionism. Goodbye, auf Wiedersehen, au revoir: I’m done with ya!

“Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force… perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave too much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.” – Anne Lamott

What about you? Do you ever struggle with wanting to be perfect? How did you overcome it? I’d love to hear!

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