Yesterday, in Part I of Perfectionists and Procrastination, you heard about Anne, who missed opportunities because her perfectionism never let her finish a project.
The Root of Perfection.
What causes perfectionism? Research shows that around the age of four, children begin to socialize with the culture they live in. In American culture that means playing in groups, not being too different, not showing above-average intelligence, and following rules. (Later this changes to not getting caught when breaking the rules.)
Around age four, children start spending most of their day in a school-like group environment where behaving according to the teacher’s norms is important—it yields approval. Children learn to color in the “right” colors, stay inside the lines, sing in groups, write the “truth,” and memorize facts that will appear on standardized text.
Critical thinking is not encouraged. Creativity isn’t either. Both take time, and most schools spend a lot of time preparing the class to get better grades on standardized tests.
Misplaced Focus Leads to Misplaced Ideals.
As children manage the hard work of socialization, they are taught to focus on certain questions and their answers. Art, music, and other creative studies are dropped. No standardized test worries about inventiveness, creativity or multiple right answers.
A Little is Good, a Lot is Worse.
Socialization isn’t bad, it’s just overdone. Our parents and teachers tell us to compete, win, get that good job, make lots of money, be “successful.” Peers goad with fear that we are not good enough, stupid, not applying ourselves or lazy. By the time we are in college our goals are to hurry up, win, compete, and stay in the top percentile of school and achievement.
Perfectionism is not all bad. In tiny doses, self-discipline is great, and even the desire to be perfect can be useful–doing careful research, doing original work instead of plagiarizing, being diligent–all are good. When being “perfect” gets out of hand it leads to serious life problems.
The key is separating discipline from fear of failure. We live in a world stoked by our own negative self talk. “You can’t do this, you will not make it, you are scared. . .” goes the voice. Suddenly discipline stops us from producing anything finished.
New Idea of Discipline.
Discipline is exactly the right word for what we do need to nourish. it is not the discipline of your youth. Here is how the new discipline works.
The idea stage of a creative project is the fun part, the part where anything is possible. But when we start the process portion of the project, we call, not on discipline, but on the gremlin of negative self-talk.
What we need is discipline enough to push through to the finish and get that wonderful feeling of completion, perhaps even accomplishment.
Gremlins of Negative Self Talk.
Everyone has gremlins of negative self talk. We criticize ourselves harshly, in the words we remember from our parents, teachers, and peer bullies. This negative self talk collides head-on with the need to compete, to win, to succeed. And perfectionism is created.
Too much pressure and stress to achieve leads to symptoms or real illness. The deadline looms, and the perfectionists collapses.
The Trap of High Standards.
Perfectionists say they have “high standards.” It serves as the excuse to miss deadlines and to berate lesser efforts than there own. Yes, the perfectionist is a bully. Of self, of others. Because that was the power example they learned early.
Blaming the deadline is a lack of discipline. The truth is more likely to be, “If I never finish it, others will never find the flaw, and I will never have to admit that my work (and I) are not perfect.”
And making it perfect sounds virtuous, even wonderful. The perfectionist excuse fosters procrastination.
It says, “Oh, this part isn’t as good as that part.” It says, “Oh, this book needs too much work to be right.” It says, “I need to edit the draft one more time.” And when the work doesn’t get out there, we have the excuse of “still working on it. . .”
The Reward of Completion.
Here is the big reward: when you get things done, even if they are not perfect, you will first be overwhelmed with shame at how poor the work is. You will invent hundreds of excuses not to turn it in.
Do some deep breathing, put it away for an hour or so. Then, look at it right before you send it in. You will discover that it is really good, and that it is done. When you submit it, you will be boosted up on a wonderful high. You will feel relieved. You will feel proud. You deserve that wonderful rush. It is the rush of the imperfect. It is the acceptance that you worked hard and as well as you could with the talents you have today. And it will be the first step into meeting deadlines and doing well. It will be the first step into being a recovering perfectionist.
–Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist who helps other people open the door to a new future without the burden. See her work at QuinnCreative.