What are Perfectionists Actually Afraid Of?

So, I want to do a post about having a passion and finding a career and navigating the jello ocean of adulthood whilst maintaining a grip on childhood fantasies… but instead I’m doing this.

I do want to do a post addressing adult-ness and passion-ness and artiness, but I want to do it right. So it’ll take me a few drafts and days, I think. BUT IT’LL HAPPEN THIS WEEK. I’m pretty positive about that. I’m like, at least 12% positive.

[A representative from TheLadders.com invited me to make a post about careers and writing, and I’m all jittery with nervous excitement of AHHHH.]

In the spirit of not doing things but wanting to do them correctly, let’s talk about First Draft Fear.

Those among us who are inclined to—let’s put it delicately—type A personalities, may find it difficult to move forward with creating a first draft. This applies to first drafts of all sorts: essay on entymology, first experiment in the chem lab, outline for a painting, first jab at a mathematical proof, first jump out of an airplane. (For the record, there will never never EVER be a first jump out of a plane for me, unless the plane is on fire, and then it’ll also be the last jump.)

What are Perfectionists Afraid Of?

It’s not as simple as being uneasy at the slightest typo. Let’s go over what perfectionists are really afraid of:

1. Letting someone down. You’re making something that actual other human beings will experience, and you want them to like it. You don’t want them to have the chance to NOT like it. That means it has to be perfect out of the gate, right?

2. Letting yourself down. You want to be happy, but you’re your biggest critic. There’s a little voice inside your head saying, “Oh, if you just change this. What about this next? Is that really the best choice?” Wanting to be happy with something can keep you from finishing it.

3. Not reaching your full potential. It’s not so much a fear of letting yourself down as not reaching the heights you aspire to. Sometimes, we think that the first draft sets the bar somehow. We think that our first try is an indicator of our total capacity and capability. So we work forever to make it as good as possible.

4. Making the wrong decision. Tied into all the other fears, this one involves a lot of trepidation and precision. Moving forward is difficult when each and every step is calculated, quantified, tested, and prepared. On top of that, perfectionists constantly look back at previous decisions to see if those were really the best choices.

What’s GOOD About Perfectionism?

Perfectionists aren’t all bad. Here are the benefits:

1. Attention to detail. Remember those glaring plot holes in that one movie? Remember the unanswered question? Prefectionists are less likely to let these things slide.

2. Enjoying research. All the things people think are monotonous are actually fun. Getting the little details right is a win, and perfectionists draw energy and happiness from finding the right answers. The more right it is, the happier they are.

3. Prettier first draft (if it ever gets finished). If the perfectionist actually gets the job done, you know it’ll be done properly. No corners cut, no errors overlooked, and nothing over par.

4. Being attentive to details is useful from a more practical standpoint. Bosses love it when you’re good with details. They love it when you take the extra time to make it better. They also want you to get the job done, but they want you to do a great job.

The Drawbacks of Being a Perfectionist

1. It takes a long time to get something done. Second-guessing and backtracking aside, it takes a while to move forward. Because of the fear, because of the need for better and better, it’s tough to leave things behind long enough to move forward.

2. It’s hard to learn from mistakes. How do we learn from mistakes if we’re unwilling to make them? On the one hand, perfectionists do make mistakes, but their smaller on many levels and they are addressed more quickly.

3. People frown. There’s always a bit of backlash to being a perfectionist, such as people who want materials by a deadline or people who are attempting to redefine the term “patience.”

The Metaphor

Goal: Get through the garden to the pond where all the artists live in the happy splendor of completing their work.

Path: A rocky path of flat stones.

Perfectionist: There you are, stepping back and forth from stone to stone in the garden. You’re focused in getting their in one piece, no twisted ankles and no 40 years of wandering between the orchard and the begonias. Worried about stepping in the right place, you forget the flowers. The destination feels impossibly distant.

Don’t forget flowers. Make sure that the minutiae of the journey don’t keep you from the destination. But make sure to enjoy the flowers. Make moving forward and enjoying progress a part of your perfect journey. Instead of worrying about each decision, make sure every step backward is accompanied by three steps forward.

Know that the rocks are holding up up, but the flowers are the details to be enjoyed.

Rather, don’t get distracted by rocks your way to the pool party, and feel free to idle by the flowers!

PS: Check out this post by Sara about how to use work created by Past You to improve work created by Present You!


4 thoughts on “What are Perfectionists Actually Afraid Of?

  1. Pingback: A Perfectionist Goes on a Walk… | words — and other things

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