For many years, I wrote mostly in my head. I might spend an entire day or even a week formulating a single sentence, turning the words over in my mind like agates in a tumbler until they came out gleaming and smooth, ready at last to be committed to paper. At the rate I worked, it would take me a few light years to complete a story, but I didn’t care because each sentence was a perfect, polished gem.
It took a long time for me to realize how deeply my head was embedded in my own ass, and even longer to understand that perfection is the archnemesis of productivity and happiness. According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, perfectionism is maladaptive.
“The desire to present oneself as perfect also has important consequences for psychopathology, especially in the context of treatment. Hewitt, Flett and their colleagues have recently devised a new scale, the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale (PSPS), to measure it.
The PSPS rates three aspects of perfectionistic self-presentation: advertising one’s own perfection, avoiding situations in which one might appear to be imperfect and failing to disclose situations in which one has been imperfect.”
I’ve been guilty of all three.
Those shiny sentences I couldn’t stop stroking were weights anchoring me in place, and as long as I kept fussing over them, I didn’t have to come up with new ones or hear what other people thought. Hell, I didn’t have to read them and find out what I thought. I had no room in my backpack for improvement or revision. Cut? Change? Redo? I labored to bring forth those words. I would sooner amputate one of my children’s limbs. I lived in a weird limbo of arrogance and fear. I’d already done all the work – look how beautiful! But also: I’d done so much work. I was such a good girl. See? See? Didn’t I do a good job?
So, yeah. I wrote two essays in ten years. They were both published. All two of them.
In that time, I also learned that I am prone to clinical depression and that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. (Speaking of weights that anchor you in place.) My particular cocktail of brain chemistry probably means I’ll always be susceptible to these conditions, but in therapy, I’m learning to get well from the perfection disease. I’ve learned to recognize the symptoms: the paralysis, the rationalization, the relentless criticism, and the shimmering mirage of flawlessness that hovers on the horizon. The treatment that works for me is this: action and a willingness to be wrong.
Today, my daughter lies prone on the living room floor, worksheets strewn around her. Her assignment? To draw a picture of herself as a grown up, driving a car – a fantasy she’s had since she hopped in her first Fisher Price mobile in preschool – and to write a story about it. Tears stream down her face as she wails in despair, “I’m not GOOD at drawing people! I don’t know how long to make the arms and I don’t know where to draw the line for the pants or how to shade them or…or…” She’s hiccupping now. I pull her away from the table and have her lie down with me on the couch. We breathe – in for a five second count and then out for a five second count. “I KEEP HICCUPPING!” she bellows. I tell her it’s okay. Just start over with the next breath. We’ll just keep doing it until her body calms down.
After a few minutes, she relaxes against my side. I kiss the top of her sweaty head. I want to tell her that her teacher cares not one fig about arm length or pants shading because she has 32 worksheets to correct, that all this furious emoting is wasted energy and that if she’d just started drawing instead of freaking out over her artistic abilities, she would be done by now. What I say is, “It’s okay if you make a mistake. You know how I know it’s normal for people to make mistakes?” She peers at me sideways through wet lashes. “How?”
“Because erasers exist.”
“Ohhhh,” she says, clearly thinking of her massive eraser collection. “I guess people must make a lot of mistakes if there are so many erasers.”
I tell her about my new motto: done is better than perfect. “Do you know what that means?”
“I think so. If you’re trying too hard to be perfect, you won’t ever get anything done?”
She promises that instead of saying “I’m not good at this” she’ll tell herself “I am going to try this and see how it turns out.” I promise to do the same.