Is Perfectionism Holding You Back?

Is Perfectionism Holding You Back?

Perfectionism. It’s a tricky little concept. People work like dogs at a project and smile as they say they just want something to be so stellar, so excellent, so clearly brilliant that it’s…

Well, perfect.

But let’s call perfectionism by its true name, shall we?

Fear.

That’s what perfectionism really means: that you’re scared of saying something’s done, something’s finished, something’s good enough. You double-check and you hire pro after pro to go over the work and you tweak and rewrite and stress and worry. You just can’t let go.

Because you’re full of fear.

Fear of getting something wrong. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of not having the results you hoped for. Fear that someone didn’t do the job well enough. Fear of lack of control. Fear of letting go. Fear of people laughing, of embarrassment, of failure.

Or maybe even fear of success.

Perfectionism doesn’t mean you appreciate perfection. Perfection doesn’t exist. It just means you’re full of self-doubt, but you can’t admit it.

Who wants to face the demons within themselves, after all? If we admitted they existed, we’d have to do something about them. We’d have to struggle with them, fight with them, understand them, and overcome them.

Better to be a perfectionist.

Life’s much easier that way. You have a tidy little excuse that helps you pretend there aren’t any demons, no inkling of fear within you. You won’t have to take any chances or meet anyone’s expectations. You won’t have to let go and trust someone else. You won’t have to risk reactions you aren’t prepared to face.

You’ll never fail. And you won’t succeed.

You can stay safe and stagnant as you chase the impossible goal of perfection. You get to avoid taking risks and facing what really scares the pants off you. Like admitting the truth:

You’re not a perfectionist. You’re just afraid.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. I’m not afraid to say I love this post. Great point, great writing. So much of our lack of doing things we really want to do is tied back into fear and perfectionism. I feel like the root cause of all writer’s block is fear–of not knowing what to write, of it not turning out good, of all the work we’ve got to do to revise to make it good…

    Confronting that fear is really powerful. It’s so great to just ask simple questions like “So what?” or “What’s the worst that could happen?” or “Am I going to die if I do this thing I’m afraid of?” Usually the answer makes the fear fizzle, quickly, and we can get to work.

    Thanks for this great reminder. Onward, with a little less fear!

    • Actually, if you think about it… writer’s block doesn’t exist. It’s just a socially acceptable label we give to fear :)

      I knew a psychologist once who said to imagine all the potential scenarios of the “what could happen?” and then find a “here’s what I’d do if it did” for each one. When you know what you’ll do and how you’ll handle almost anything you come up against… well, you have a plan.

      Makes it easy :)

      • I agree about writer’s block not really existing! I say that all the time but most writers don’t buy it–which makes the “socially acceptable” part so true. It’s easier to say you have writer’s block than you’re afraid, for sure. But that won’t ever get you over that fear, either.

  2. This is right on the money. One of my most common barriers to getting starting. Waiting to get everything perfect.

    • I’ll add that it’s one of the most common reasons people spend a lot of money, waste a lot of time and drive themselves nuts double-checking. Ugh!

  3. Are you a recovering perfectionist too? Looking over my history in school and as I’ve developed my business, perfectionism has definitely gotten the best of me. Now that I’ve been able to push through (most) of the fear, I am appreciating the nuances that perfectionism brought me in the past, without falling prey to it’s stalling. For example, I appreciate that I like things a certain way but let go of *needing* them to be a certain way before proceeding.

    • Nah, I’ve never been a perfectionist, as far as I know. “That’s good enough for me,” is pretty common in my lexicon – thankfully!

      And I’m also pretty good at being honest with myself. (Well, I try.) Someone asked me not long ago why a project I’d cared about wasn’t finished yet and why I was STILL working on it, and I looked up and shrugged. “To be honest? Because I’m dinking around. I’m scared it might not work.”

  4. (and by it’s in my last comment I mean its) ha!

  5. Terrified is correct. The question I have is how do you conquer that fear? Just do it? Do you know how difficult that is when the fear is so ingrained in you that, sure, you do it once, but the next time, you have to face that same fear? Over and over and over again? I want to conquer it–and I really do know that it’s just a matter of doing it–but sometimes, just doing it can be scary. Sorry for rambling :)

    • Peter Shallard actually has a few great ebooks on fear and what to do about them. Demystify your Fear is excellent for the “how do you?” – most of it is understanding what’s going on and why. Armed with knowledge, you’re ready to tackle it!

      • I’ve really thought about buying that book. Any chance he has a sample of it available before I buy? I’ll go check out his site — your design for his site is gorgeous by the way!

        • You can download Peter’s Seek and Destroy ebook free of charge at petershallard.com – and that’s helpful in itself, it’s power-packed with good stuff.

          (And thanks for the compliments!)

        • By the way, if you don’t mind me intruding, Peter’s email newsletter is fantastic for stuff like this, so sign up for it while you’re there. It’s one of the few I always open when I get it. :)

  6. This is really telling it like it is. Exposing the truth about those fears that keep us tweaking and fine tuning to the point that whatever we are working on is irrelevant and/or redundant! I do believe in doing your best, but have the courage to realize that your best is not perfect. Spend your time working on improving your craft or skill, not obsessing about imperfect details!
    Great post, if a little too blunt for comfort! lol!

  7. I love this post. I have used a line with my staff for a long time, which goes like this, “When it comes to nearly all projects and we weigh out the issue of ‘good enough’ vs. ‘best possible’, ‘good enough’ is just fine.”

  8. What an excellent post.

    I’ve spent this afternoon convincing myself that I couldn’t possibly publish that e-guide I’ve been working on for lots and lots of reasons – most of which you covered above.

    Thank you once again.

    • You’re very welcome. PLEASE publish it.

      Your comment actually reminded me of when I used to compete in equestrian events. There’d be a long lineup of stressed people waiting their turn and trying to avoid going first.

      I’d take a deep breath and push to the front to ALWAYS try to be first. And sometimes, I was terrified. But I knew this:

      If I went first, I’d be DONE, it’d be OVER WITH and I could go change and watch everyone else.

      If I waited, I’d just watch everyone else go ahead of me and stress about whether I could beat them.

      I’d much rather they watch MY dust :)

  9. Ba zing! A post with bite! I know we can always count on you to tell it like it is, James. 😉

    The sting that comes from reading it is a good thing – even when we’ve read similar bits of advice, and know that it’s just ourselves holding us back, sometimes we need the kick from someone else to get us to pay attention.

    So I guess what I’m saying is, thanks for the post, as always!

  10. Wow. So true! Writing is kind of a scary business. We pour our hearts on the page, and it’s hard to let it go. I suggest having someone else read over your work. If your fears are true and there really is something wrong with what you’ve written, they’ll tell you, and you can fix it. If you’re just stressing, the compliments they give you can really help in taking that final step :)

    • Agreed, but you also have to agree to TRUST the person you’re asking. If you have someone read over your work, then get someone else, and someone else… that’s a quick path to saying, “I don’t trust any of you AND I don’t trust myself!”

  11. Ouch! Trust you to call a spade a spade!

    It’s much easier to keep our heads in the sand and pretend that we’re –this– close to finishing that project, publishing the book, or launching the new business, than it is to admit that we’re just plain scared that it won’t turn out how we hope. Perfectionism is another type of self-sabotage. Just accept that nothing turns out quite as expected, take a deep breath, and forge ahead anyway. It’s surprising how many times it turns out BETTER than we even thought!

    • Good point, Monica, and here’s an even worse thought…

      What if all that money we spent getting a second opinion, what if all that time we wasted reworking, what if all the tweaks, the efforts, the nightly stress…

      What if it was all for nothing, and we could have launched that thing weeks back?

      • OK James, you’ve inspired me. Between this post and the launch of your DFW, I decided to go ahead and launch my new website (www.monicahemingway.com). I’m not sure it’s quite ready for prime time (still adding articles) but all the tweaks, reworking, stress, etc….. I’d hate for that to be all for nothing. So, thanks to your post, I’ve gone live! Thank you for the push I needed.

        • AWESOME! Just gave you some Twitter attention for that bravery too.

          And it looks just great. The tweaks and twiddles, you can do them in your spare time – that’s WAY more productive than waiting until they’re all done… because they never will be. There’s *always* something to tweak on a website!

  12. OK, everyone turned this into a writer’s block thing…let me put a business spin on it. For each day that you delay not getting your project done or ”out there”, how much money are you losing ? How much more will you make by waiting that extra day, week, month to make it that much more perfect ? Most likely very little to be gained by waiting. Besides, a project is never really done, is it ? We keep tweaking them, adding or changing something. So, don’t worry about perfection. Risk it.

    • Ha, you caught the reason why I wrote this post! (Since I’m all about the money, after all.)

      Wasted money, wasted time, wasted effort doesn’t gain us a thing. Trust in the work, the project and yourself and DO IT.

  13. It’s such a good question–because sometimes, absolutely yes! Perfectionphobia is right up there with Failurephobia.

  14. Which is worse – perfectionism or im-perfectionism (if there is such a thing)? And how would the latter manifest in the world of writing? Sloppy, grammatically incorrect posts about nothing interesting but dripping with ego and self absorbed anecdote.

    Nonetheless, I tend more to perfectionism, and this was a good reminder that I need to be less fearful and more confident. Thanks!

    • Well, *everyone* is imperfect, and vive la difference, I say! it gives us something to strive for, to work towards, to improve and to better.

      Sloppy work, of course, is sloppy work. But it’s curious that sloppy work gets posted, published, created, launched, and released to the public every day.

      (Case in point, one might suggest Wal Mart.)

      Perfect work? Never gets put on the market.

      So I’m glad you’ll go for being less fearful, and more confident that your best really IS worlds above the rest!… no need to beat it to death, either :)

  15. I call it fear of the unknown. Yes that’s the name, after all no one is perfect so get use to it and bring to a closure that project of many years.

    Thanks James

    • Fear of the unknown is a big one for several people. In that case, figure out what you’d do for all the potential outcomes… and then nothing at all is unknown, now, is it?

  16. I with Ruth on this James. It’s that complacent, half-assed approach that drives me nuts. People show up on the field of performance with zero intensity and lack of focus. They coast along in amateur mode and the only thing they’re quick with are ready-made excuses for lack of results.

    Fear is a call to action. It’s your friend if you can harness it.

  17. I’ve written extensively about perfectionism, and a large part of my professional mission is helping people overcome it. Hope it’s okay if I link to some free resources:

    http://hillaryrettig.com/downloads/perfectionism-in-a-nutshell/
    talks about how perfectionism is not just about fear, but grandiosity, overidentification with the work, dichotomization, a propensity for labeling and hyperbole, and other factors

    http://hillaryrettig.com/downloads/how-to-overcome-procrastination-perfectionism-and-writers-block/
    just what the title says – a simple exercise for overcoming it

    And about 25% of my new book, The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block (not free) is about recognizing and overcoming perfectionism.

  18. I never thought of perfectionism as something created out of fear and it’s quite intriguing. I think it’s more of a psychological disorder, something like OCB and it’s never really fun being diagnosed to be suffering from one. At least, I got over my ridiculous habit of counting things and making inventories of everything, haha.

    • Nah, not a disorder, as far as I’m concerned. When you can actively stop doing something simply by choosing not to… well, you aren’t suffering from any disorder at all, right? Calling it a disorder, a symptom, a THING… gives it power and external control over you. But it’s all in your mind, and YOU have control over that!

      (Glad to hear you overcame your habits! I bet you’re feeling way better now!)

  19. Perfectionism is definitely grounded in fear – or, rather, terror. (I no longer say “fear of failure” in my presentations, but “terror of failure.”) Perfectionists’ key error is to define success narrowly and unrealistically and failure broadly, and then to punish themselves harshly for perceived failures. i.e., “If my novel doesn’t sell quickly, I’m a huge loser.”) Combine that with the overidentification with work – so that if the work fails it’s a kind of ego demolition – and you’ve got the recipe for a real terror of failure.

    Perfectionism is NOT having high standards, btw – high standards are great. Remember: it’s unreasonable or unrealistic standards, followed by harsh self-punishment for perceived failures.

  20. James, your perfectionism=fear post really sparks my interest. I admit to having perfectionist tendencies, but I don’t see it as fear based. The idea of authorship, of signing my name on my work and having that represent an excellent standard is what binds me in chains.

    It’s like the story of the two art classes… In the first class, the teachers told the students they have all term to submit a single piece of pottery, which will be graded on quality. In the second class, the students were told they will be graded on how much pottery they produced by weight, with no regard to the quality.

    At the end of the term, the teachers discovered the volume-goal students were doing far superior work to the quality-goal students. They were getting lots more PRACTICE in the craft of making pottery.

    Even though I know the story, I still feel I’m stuck in that quality-goal pottery class.

    Joe 😀

    • I’d bet that the people in the quantity versus quality class felt far more relaxed and free to produce all sorts of awesome stuff… because they had unspoken permission to screw up or make horrible creations. Of course, none probably DID, but because they knew it would be acceptable, they could create to their personal quality standards without worrying about what someone else though. S’awesome!

    • Joe, the pottery story is from Bayles and Orland’s terrific book Art and Fear. Maybe you’ll read some more in there to help you get out of the quality-goal class. :-)

  21. James, great post! And in response to your response to “–Deb” above, I…erm, did actually coin a related word a while ago. If I can pimp one of my own blog posts here: http://www.practicemakesimperfect.com/self-esteem/the-perils-of-procrastifectionism

    Although I like “farfactualifibia” a lot, too. :)

    Also, I happened to read a wonderfully pithy and relevant post from Ken Robert of Mildly Creative just this morning: http://www.mildlycreative.com/2011/08/waiting-for-perfect/

    He writes, “Everything that was ever done was done in an imperfect way for imperfect reasons by imperfect people. Why should your thing be any different?” Now THERE’S a mantra!

    P.S.– @ Hillary: Your site looks great–I’m going to spend some time checking it out more closely!

  22. James:

    Great post. Intriguing comments.

    By any name – whether it’s perfectionism or fear or something else – we’re not putting our stuff out there (at all or way after we’re capable of putting it out there).

    I think exploring the underlying reasons is useful, but I also think there’s another way to look at this whole thing. Suppose we decided to ignore the root causes (fear or whatever else it might be), and focus our attention solely on practice and feedback. This is exactly how a clinic I read about works for helping people overcome shyness, (which, when you think about it, has some parallels with what we’re talking about – not putting your stuff out there).

    Here’s how the clinic works: There’s no talk of anyone’s past and no attempt to deconstruct the root causes of shyness. Instead, the shy people who’ve come to the clinic are given increasingly harder tasks that take them out of their comfort zones (e.g. from water cooler chit chat, to asking someone for a date, to doing something that will draw a huge amount of attention to them, like going into a grocery store and dropping a watermelon). Coaching is gentle and tough-minded. Perceptions are corrected and people are encouraged and told to keep trying.

    So, I’m thinking, why don’t we create our own little clinic? Here’s how: Anyone would be welcome to participate. The task would simply be to practice putting our stuff out there – way before we think it’s “ready” or “good enough” or “perfect” or whatever.

    We could call it: “Out There 2011”

    1)We’d choose a schedule for posting, say, every Friday by noon for the next 30 days, which would be August 12, 19, 26 and September 2.

    2) On each of those days, we’d publish our posts on our respective blogs. The posts would be done under agreed-upon constraints, e.g. written in one sitting; 90 minutes or less; 500 words or less. About anything we want.

    3) We could tweet our posts under the hashtag #outthere2011, and we could go to each other’s posts, read them ,and commenting however we like, as long as it’s constructive and respectful.

    4) IAt the end of the 30 days, we could have an online chat about the experience. It could take place in the comments section of this blog (if you’re up for it, James), or on my blog. One of us (James or I) could just write a quick post for the purpose of hosting this chat in the comments. Anyone could join in, of course, not just the people who wrote posts.

    This way we could actually practice some semblance of the very thing we want to improve at, we could give each other feedback, compare notes at the end. Is anyone in? Hope so!

    Susan

    Notes:

    (a) The shyness clinic example appears in Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code (pages 213-14).

    (b) I propose doing this in a 30 day challenge format because they’re my preferred method for behavior mod. They’e are a big part of my blog – here’s a link post about them, if you’re interested: http://bit.ly/oYoNtW

    (c) If there’s someone who doesn’t have a blog, they could still participate. I’d be happy to set up a post for the purpose of giving people a place to “post” their writing (i.e. they could paste it in to the comments section.

    • See, now, the entrepreneur in me is stroking my chin and thinking, “Hmm… she could charge for that…” 😛

      (Must read the Talent Code! *adds to book list*)

  23. I’m late so I guess that makes me imperfect. :)
    It doesn’t really matter because I still got to read this post, enjoy it, and agree with it along with the comments.
    I think we’re all perfectionists to varying degrees. The important thing IMO is to know when and to what degree perfectionism is happening to us or others and then making the necessary adjustments.

    • That’s a good thought, Mark. Depending on what we’re doing, when, with whom, how, why… yeah. Every one of us has that perfectionist potential in us, eh?

  24. Wow, this is spot on. Until recently, I was a diehard perfectionist. Then I realized it was just holding me back. Obviously, I was just holding onto fear.

    • Pretty normal, I’d say – fear keeps us safe. I hold onto plenty of fears – I just like to pick which ones I do, and I try to make sure none try to hold me!

  25. Excellent point, James!

    I’ve found that I need not ask my writing to be perfect. I just need to write and leave the rest up to something else.

    My job isn’t to be perfect, my job is just to get to work done. Doesn’t matter when, how, or why–it just needs to get done.

    • Yeah, I’ve had days where, “Just get it done,” rolls around my head too – and on those days, being perfect isn’t even CLOSE to being an inkling!

  26. I understand your point. I have tons of fears–some justified, some not. But, I’m not sure perfectionism and fear and really the same.

    Just found out today that one problem I’ve been working on for a long time might be near solution. Geez, what if I had let my fear stop me?

    I know I will sleep tonight with a smile on my face, but oh… the journey is so long and while I am confident this is a step in the right direction, I just have to squish the fear about the next steps… and believe.

    • You’re quite right. Fear isn’t perfectionism. Perfectionism is a fear-based symptom. Ergo, perfectionism = fear, but fear /= perfectionism. (That’s my funky symbol for “does not equal”!)

      And I hope that the solution is closer than you think. You deserve it.

      • Perfect “Ergo, perfectionism = fear, but fear /= perfectionism.”

        ps. I think you should enter your (/=) symbol in the urban dictionary or webdesigners dictionary.

        Niebu.

        XX (cross your fingers) we have a couple meetings Friday.

  27. James,

    Hi, my first visit here – why did it take me so long. :)

    Wonderful thoughts on perfectionism or just ol’ fashioned scared. Wanting your work to be valuable and high quality is one thing, but if you aren’t producing because you want the work to be “perfect” – power though. So many things in life change and, more often than not, you have to update and tweak as time goes.

    Thank you for a great article – Theresa

    • What took you so long indeed?! 😉

      Good point on life changing. As they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.

      Or something like that. I never did figure out what the mice had to do with it…

  28. Yep, I’ve said perfectionism for years but it has always been fear. Excellent post, cuts through to the heart of the matter. I fear finishing my work because of the sudden responsibility it would mean. To release a work for others to read, I would bear the burden of having to produce more and at that level or better. And it would need to be in a timely manner, couldn’t linger and play anymore. It would not be so much that others would demand it, I would demand it of myself and that could lead to failure and disappointment. It all comes back to being afraid. Sucks.

  29. Caine Ruckstuhl says:

    Wow – this is a fantastic article. I have never read a perspective on perfectionism / perfectionists like this before. I am not afraid to say that at first I was offended by the article but then realized holy #@$% – she is right. I used to be a perfectionist and continue to struggle with this, and it’s all because of fear. What is interesting is that the more I speak to successful business owners the more I learn that for some 50% (acceptible rate) is good enough to go to market and others it can be as high as 70%. I used to think that 90% wasn’t good enough. Boy was I wrong and fearful. Thank you for writing this excellent article and sharing the truth about perfectionism.

  30. Great post. I am working on my perfectionist streak, which is totally fear based, and leads to a singular talent for procrastination. I am trying to remember, “Perfection is the enemy of the good”, when I see Perfectionism and his buddy, Fear, lurking about.

    I have never competed with my horses. I decided going in that I did not want my fear and perfectionism issue to be part of my life with them. I wanted to simply enjoy them and relax, and by not entering the competition arena, I thought I sidestepped the issue….Well, sort of. But I clearly am a perfectionist about their care and management–so down the rabbit hole–wherever you go, there you are :-).

  31. Simply… Thank you.

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