Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Fighting Perfectionism

I'm the type of person who could get 99% in an exam and say 'why didn't I get 100%?' Regular readers of this blog know this already: I think I've mentioned, about seventy-two times, how I regard anything less than the top grade as failure. Or used to. Nowadays, I'm striving to be less of a perfectionist.

I've also 'talked' openly about my struggles with mental illness (recap: I have Borderline Personality Disorder with depression and anxiety) and perfection feeds into - and feeds upon - this struggle. In simple terms, trying to be perfect aggravates my anxiety and my inevitable failure to be perfect exacerbates my depression. I've always tried to kid myself that perfectionism has its benefits. I would claim that I wouldn't have achieved good results if I hadn't been aiming for excellent results; that perfectionism was a motivator and I'd otherwise sit on my arse watching TV all day... Total BS.

The truth I had been ignoring all along is perfectionism gets you nowhere. I haven't achieved stuff because of my perfectionism - I've achieved them in spite of perfectionism.

Perfectionism paralyzes you. It causes you to stare at a blank computer screen because you're terrified what you write won't be perfect. And the most ridiculous part of all this? You know it won't be perfect.

I'm not aware of any story or novel that everyone in the world agrees is perfect. I know plenty that I think are pretty much perfect. I know a few that many people say are close to perfect. Perfection doesn't exist.

Even if I had gotten top marks all through my educational adventures, it wouldn't mean my work was perfect. It would mean my work had merited the maximum marks available: nothing more. Even if I manage, one day, to write a story critics hail as perfect and that wins me many prizes and admirers (dream on!), it doesn't mean the story would be perfect.

So I'm trying to give up perfectionism. Instead, I'm aiming for gradual improvement.

This struck me when I was on the treadmill today. I'm very unfit and obese. I can't go very far or fast on the treadmill, so I just aim to go farther each time. Even 0.1 mile farther. 0.2 on a good day. It's been a couple of weeks since I resumed walking/jogging on the treadmill (my MA got in the way, so I hadn't been on it for the best part of a year) and today I went nearly a mile farther than the first time I got back on it. I hope to be able to walk/jog 4 miles by the end of 2012.

It would be ridiculous to tell myself 'I'm going to do 10 miles today' before I get on the treadmill. Yet I've been doing the equivalent of this in other areas of my life - especially learning and writing. And, indeed, learning to write.

I'm not going to write brilliant prose anytime soon - and certainly not in a first draft - but that's fine. My aim is to get a little better each time I write something. Who knows, maybe one day I'll achieve the literary equivalent of a sub-three hour marathon!



  1. My eldest daughter has struggled with the need to be perfect. She was devastated, for example, when she got two As and a B for her A Levels, rather than three As. Everything she did, from baking a cake to exams, had to be perfect. It ruled her life.
    She has realised now that the struggle has absolutely no point. People can only ever do their best and no more.
    I once read about a singer who suffered crippling stage fright due to his yearning to be perfect and his worry that he would fail. His wife said he should try going on stage and aim to be average. No more than that. Not brilliant. Just ordinary.
    It worked. He went on and he was fine. Everyone loved him just as they always did. The stage didn't cave in. The world didn't crumble. The applause was thunderous.
    If I aim to enjoy what I do instead of thinking about it too much, the results are good. All my best writing is done when I'm relaxed and happy and just loving it because it's what I do. If I get a good story out of a day's work, I'm thrilled. If I don't like it much, then I look forward to whatever the next day brings. It always looks much better then. I think it's important to step back from it and realise when to give yourself a break. It isn't defeat or failure. It's just a good thing that everyone needs when they've worked hard.
    My daughter is far, far, far happier since she stopped trying to be perfect.
    Thank you, Hayley, for such a frank and interesting post. And I'm so glad you're not going to let perfectionism hold you back. x

    1. Thank you, Joanna. I do regret putting so much pressure on myself in the past, especially concerning exam results. I still beat myself up about my A level results from time to time, even though they are irrelevant and got me onto the university courses I wanted to do!

      Ironically, I did much better than expected in my GCSEs, which I was convinced I'd fail after having a lot of time off ill. I approached them with the attitude that I'd study as much as I could (without killing myself) and accept that I probably wouldn't get great grades. I took a similar approach when I did my OU diploma - I was focusing on my Film BA at the time, so I decided to just complete the assignments as best I could and appreciate the break from film theory! I ended up with a distinction. Guess it proves the point: perfectionism doesn't result in perfection.