I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer, much less any artist, who doesn’t struggle with perfectionism. In fact, I know few people outside of those categories who don’t have a bout of perfectionism every now and again. But despite how many people struggle with this problem, I’ve never met a perfectionist who’s conquered their perfectionism.
I haven’t, either, but I’ve started to conquer it.
I’ve been a perfectionist since I was young: taking painstaking hours to make sure the details of my art projects were perfect and symmetrical, proofreading my school assignments at least four times before turning them in, triple-checking my science and math exams, and having a keen eye for when an outfit, room, or space was off aesthetically. Not to mention the tendency to critique everyone and everything in sight.
Of course, that also means that I’ve wrestled with anger over grades that were lower than 100%, shame because of less-than-sparkling reviews of my work, disappointment with stories and social events that overpromised, and discouragement over the quality of my writing that lasted for days, weeks, or sometimes months. For all perfectionism “gifts,” it always burdens ten-fold.
I never thought I would conquer the pitfalls of perfectionism. For years, I had lamented the frustrations of always desiring excellence, setting impossible self-standards, and falling into procrastination in the face of imperfection to many artist friends—often with laughter in a “you feel my pain, don’t you?” way. Those artist friends laughed with me, clearly empathizing with my problems. But we always ended on a note of defeat. Nothing would ever be good enough, so what else can you do but chuckle and suffer through it?
Well, if you think of yourself as a victim to your perfectionist whims, of course there’s nothing to do but suffer through it. That, or try to beat the perfectionism out of yourself by repeating the “first drafts are always bad” mantra over and over again. I tried both approaches and ended up frustrated and just as discouraged as when I started. There’s only so many times a perfectionist can try ignore their nature before giving up all together (what’s the point of creating something purposefully lackluster, after all?).
That’s because perfectionism, like any other personality trait, cannot be stamped out when it’s part of your nature—but you can’t let it run loose and expect it to behave, either. You must accept it, then train it: just like a stubborn child learns to funnel their stubbornness into something like leadership, passion, and integrity instead of selfishness and foolhardiness, or a sensitive child learns to funnel their sensitivity into compassion, empathy, and tenderness instead of being offended all the time. Only then can weaknesses be conquered and strengths be given the space to shine. That is why I started calling this new, matured perfectionism “active perfectionism.” No more following instincts on a whim and feeling as if you can’t do anything about it—you take control of the negative parts and work them out of your system until you’ve mastered them. You look at the world with curiosity and hope for improvement, not despair when you don’t reach the goal.
Instead of looking at the rough draft from the night before and lamenting over how horrible it is, an active perfectionist takes note of every area that could use improvement then figures out how to improve it. They see mistakes and imperfections not as personal failings, but as opportunities to learn, grow, and do better next time.
Instead of being afraid of failing or as if failing is inevitable, an active perfectionist is confident that they can create something they’re happy with because they recognize that perfection is a process more than a product. If they’re willing to put in the work, they know they can get the results, and they keep reminding themselves that they are capable when doubt creeps in.
Instead of finding something wrong with everything in the world, an active perfectionist knows that humility is more important than personal tastes. They balance their own feelings with objective standards of measurement, and always strive to build up the weak areas around them through constructive feedback, not negativity.
An active perfectionist gets things done, does them well, and has fun while doing them. What perfectionist wouldn’t want that instead of wavering self-doubt, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction?
I say all this while still struggling to master being active with my perfectionist tendencies. I still feel self-conscious and discouraged about my writing. I still find fault all around me. But I find it much easier to take negative feedback. I have more joy in my stories than I did two or three years ago. I’m motivated to work every day on my writing, even if that means a little bit of outlining here or a little research over there. I don’t feel as frustrated when I don’t get 100% or first place. I’m not embarrassed by my old work. I choose to see beauty in the world instead of falling into cynicism (and I’m catching myself when I do fall into it). And it’s so much easier for me to get back on track when I do slip into procrastination. I feel capable of becoming the writer that I want to be instead of trapped in what I always thought was mediocrity. I’m no longer a victim of perfection.