One of the biggest challenges writers face is the drive toward a “perfect” product. It’s a never-ending struggle to let a document go, given the concerns that it might not be enough, be too much, or push people away. People dealing with imposter syndrome often wrap perfectionism around their worries like thin gold plating over nickel. They make their anxiety look shiny and say, “I just want it to be everything I know it can be,” while trying to gloss over the fear that they don’t have the skill or knowledge to make that happen.
If you’re a bit farther along on your journey as a writer, you know that this is a problem. But advice along the lines of “just let it go” is tough to take. So, let’s turn to the research literature and see what other advice is out there to help you stop stalling over the desire to be perfect.
Perfectionism is Not Healthy
First and foremost, let’s do away with the idea that perfectionism is a good thing. Who doesn’t believe that striving for excellence isn’t great? It is great, but that’s not what perfectionism is all about. Perfectionism means not letting something go until it is without flaw. That’s not striving; that’s blocking.
A great article by Thomas Greenspon published in The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education rips apart the concept of perfectionism as potentially positive. People that say so haven’t actually done their research. Greenspon offers a few conclusions to their own research, but my favorite is:
“The essence of perfectionism is not striving for excellence, but rather, feelings of conditional self-acceptance. It is for this reason that perfectionism has a negative connotation, not simply, as Parker and Adkins (1995) asserted, “from a belief that perfectionism is inherently frustrating” (p. 173). Frost et al. (1990) found that “most of the dimensions of perfectionism are associated with psychological distress” (p. 466). “
In a world where financial and reputational success is often measured by clicks, comments, and saves, practicing self-compassion is a threat to our bottom lines. There is always that voice that says, “but if it’s not perfect, I’ll lose sales, followers, reputation!” That right there is the line between striving for excellence (yay!) and perfectionism (boo!).
A set of authors publishing in PLOS One wrote an article, “Self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and depression link in both adolescence and adulthood.” As is often the case with researchers, one finding was the need to do more research. But that aside, their study found that self-compassion looks to be a way to balance the toxicity of perfectionism. “Individuals who are self-compassionate recognize that imperfections, faults, and difficulties in life are universal and are therefore less likely to be self-critical, harsh, and judgmental.”
“I just want…”
Self-compassion is a challenge for me, as it is for many others. What has worked for me is to listen for two “trigger” phrases for how I talk to myself and promptly reframe my inner dialogue. The words “just” and “but what if” are not okay. “I just want this to capture my intent.” “But what if it’s wrong?” The word “just” is apologetic, limiting, and subservient. We shall henceforth ban it from all inner dialogue.
“But what if…”
Once you’ve stopped apologizing and owned up to your goals, it’s time to tackle “but what if.” If you are like me, you’ll immediately take that down a dark path. Because you’ll answer with all the things you can think of that suggest that “but what if” means terrible outcomes. A better response is, “Look, self. I’ve done a lot of research on this, and I know I can defend my position. If someone thinks I’m wrong, then we’ll have a conversation. Either they or I will learn something from that conversation, which makes it all good.”
Perfection on a Time Limit
Some people take the “it must be perfect” a step further. “It must be perfect in the time I have available to do it.” If that’s not possible, then you should never start “it” in the first place. What a sneaky way for imposter syndrome and procrastination to rear their ugly heads! It’s time to start studying time management techniques and learn how to break up your work.
Writing happens in stages. Even if you are intent on getting a well-formed idea in your head down on e-paper, it will still occur in stages. At the very minimum, you’ll have to write it down and edit it. More likely, however, is that your writing will happen in a few more stages than that. There will be the research stage, where you learn more about what you’re doing to write about and take a few notes. There’s the outline stage, where you lay out the hierarchy of the content. There’s the writing stage, possibly separate for each section of the outline. Then there’s the editing stage, and finally, the publishing stage.
Every one of those stages can be allocated a separate bit of time. In fact, they might be improved by having some time between each stage of work, as you can review what you’ve done and tweak it. Try allocating time in 15-25 minute chunks (Pomodoro timers help with this) and avoid going back to earlier stages more than twice. When you have a final product, walk away for at least an hour. Come back, do your last review, and publish it. Publish it even if you found a mistake (and fixed it), thinking there might be more if there’s one.
If you are in a position to have others review your work, that’s another way to push past holding back on publishing your work until it’s perfect. If you can’t trust yourself, trust someone else to tell you if it’s good enough to be shared with a wider audience.
Another thing to remember is that blog posts, at least, can be revised later. If you publish to your own blog (as opposed to books or peer-reviewed articles), you can always revise it when you learn more. I want to see someone maintaining their posts with a note that they’ve learned more since they originally published. That tells me the person who wrote it is willing to learn and take in feedback and is someone I would like to keep track of.
There is nothing wrong with striving for excellence. The problem comes when that goal blocks you from publishing what you’ve worked so hard to do. You can change the conversation in your head to be more compassionate and positive toward yourself. If you do better with external support structures, try timeboxing your work. Make it a pre-set agreement that you will not revise your work more than twice. And consider having a friend or colleague read it before its final publication.
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