Perfectionist and Procrastinator, Part 2

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.)

ColoringInsideTheLinesAround 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.

Graduation-CeremonyA 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.” We compete, and our inner critic  steps up to tell us that we are not good enough, 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. And we are almost completely unequipped to do it.

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. Over-discipline stops us from producing anything finished.

New Idea of Discipline.
There is a new discipline–and it is exactly the right word for what we need to nourish.

The idea stage of a creative project is the fun part,  the part where anything is Lowering-the-bar-300x193possible.  But when we start the process portion of the project, we need to call on a new discipline rather than the critic of negative self-talk.

What we need is discipline enough to push through to the finish and get that wonderful feeling of completion, satisfaction and accomplishment. Even if the project is not perfect.

The Trap of High Standards.
Perfectionists say they have “high standards.” It serves as the excuse to miss deadlines and to berate less than perfect results. The perfectionist is a bully. Of self, of others. Because that was the power example they learned early by coloring in the lines.

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.”

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. Then, look at it right before you send it in. You will feel relieved. You will feel 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.  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. She has just completed a book on developing inner heroes that take on our inner critics.

14 thoughts on “Perfectionist and Procrastinator, Part 2

  1. I would say I am a perfectionist. I used to think it was a good thing to be one. I no longer think it is. By being a perfectionist I rarely used to “dare” do certain things i.e. learn to decorate for example, because I knew it wouldn’t be perfect. I am starting to learn that “good enough” will have to do and it is liberating. I am decorating and it is not perfect, but good enough and I am saving money and getting satisfaction knowing I have done it myself. I am still finding it hard trying not to achieve perfection, but it is getting easier. The benefits are that I am more excepting of others and becoming less critical of them as well.

  2. I found as a teacher, because a classroom teacher’s job is endless, and again when I completed my MEd that I had to learn to say “this is good enough” or I’d be working all the time . . . good enough is sometimes good enough. I needed a reminder of that this sweet summer’s morning.

  3. I’ve thought for a long time that everyone ought to learn programming, starting probably in first or second grade. It’s another useful dimension of thinking, just like arithmetic, reading, coloring, and figuring out a way to get the ball back from that mean Mikey.

    But there might be another benefit: it’s a solid, unbiased demonstration that mistakes are inevitable, finding them is valuable, and a good way to get something done is to simply start finding and fixing the mistakes one by one. To make it even more impersonal, they’re not even called “mistakes”; they’re called “bugs”. (thus providing a good segue, about 3rd or 4th grade, into entomology — the very first recorded “bug” was literally a bug. A moth, as I recall.)

    One of the things you learn from programming is that avoiding mistakes or blaming anybody for them don’t help. Find ’em, fix ’em as best you can, and continue.

    • We agree completely on this one. Of course [grinning wildly] my reasons are a bit different, although I love yours–almost more than mine. My idea is that learning another language stretches your world into a dimension of another culture. Once we stop thinking “them v. us” we begin to see a bigger world, a more interesting one, with more possibilities instead of more restrictions.

      • I completely agree! As well as another language, music and art should be high up in our priorities. All of then take us away from self interest and into a shared world with all the beauty and pathos of human experience.

        As for being over-socialised, I knew very ealry I didn’t ‘fit’ and what’s more, didn’t want to when I looked at what the mold was. For much of my life though I felt like a cameleon, changing according to the context and unable to find my own form. Now? I use that skill, born of the necessity to survive and advocate for kids trying to do the same . . . to be themselves and explore a sometimes difficult world.

        Learning when to stand and when to sit is hard enough, but find the strength to never lie down!

        • I wanted to fit in, and didn’t. I didn’t fit in at home, where everyone was a scientist and didn’t believe in emotions and I didn’t fit in at school, where I was a “foreigner.” I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life: how to be alone and happy. You seem to have not cared about fitting into a mold and thrived, after all.

    • I too agree completely on this one. Learning programming on my own when I was about 10-12 on my C64 was time wisely spent. Though I never became particularly skillful in it, it gave me an insight into computers that has been extremely useful. I understand how computers work, I understand their logic and I know what I can expect of them. If some program I’m using fails in some way (a feature malfunctions repeatedly, the program shuts down unexpectedly or what ever) I know that it is not me but the program or the hardware that is the problem. All in all, having some programming experience has made me a more informed user who expects proper usability from the computers and programs I use. That’s why I still prefer pen and paper over digital learning tools: their design is ready while most computer programs are still riddled with flaws that could be fixed with enough patience and debugging. There will always be glitches in the system but that’s OK since you can always go back and try to fix them. – Though I would prefer not paying for the upgrade that makes the program that I have already paid for function as it was meant to. 🙂

      • There are at least three constituencies involved in commercial software development: design, business, and engineering. Upgrades can almost always be shown to be improvements in at least one area, but sometimes at the expense of the others. For example, Microsoft changes the way Word works every few years (the design), so existing users have to relearn things they already knew how to do. And as the business requirements change, the priority of the “things you can do” changes as well, so tasks may become easier or more difficult (aside: how come “difficulter” is not a word?). That’s what led to the current situation, in which Microsoft Word (and Office, which it’s slowly disappearing into) is demonstrably less usable than it once was. Upgrades are not always “up”.

        • “Difficult” follow the “X”—“more X”—“most X” pattern instead of the X, Xer, Xest pattern. It depends how the word got into the language. Usually, when English took a word from another language, it also took its grammar rule. That’s why English has so many exceptions to “standard” rules. It’s worse than software development on the “difficult” development side! It’s also why you should turn off Grammar Check–Microsoft can’t possibly catch all the exceptions.

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