Are you a Perfectionist Like Corbit?
When you are working, do you feel like your work is unacceptable unless it is perfect? Do you feel like you can never make a mistake? If you do make even a little mistake, do you sometimes just throw it all out and forget it?
I definitely feel that way a lot. And if you feel that way too, you might be a perfectionist.
Recently, I’ve been trying to reframe how I think about the things I do. I try to think about my pursuits as moments of my life and I try to think of my projects as the experience instead of the end product. This hasn’t been easy, so I want to give you some more perspective and some tips on how to take your inner perfectionist down a few pegs.
The Perfectionist’s Rubric
First, you have to get it out of your head that perfection is virtuous or morally good. It might be hard to convince yourself that “perfect” is not better than “good.” But you have to remember that there is a certain rubric you have decided on – a list of specific criteria on what makes something perfect.
Why did you make that particular rubric? It’s worth answering that question, really. The rules we make are often based on conditioning we have had since childhood – particular rules on how to behave at school, at home, and even at play. We are taught that we have to do things the “right way” in order to “succeed at life.” But let me tell you, there are made up rubrics for the right way to do things and what success at life is. We are taught to follow these rules and achieve certain things, but we are never asked if we want those things in the first place.
What will happen if it’s not perfect?
I used to think I knew the answer to that question. My answers tended to be hypothetical, and even overly catastrophic at times. For example, if I don’t get this line exactly right, I will lose my job and I won’t be able to afford food. Sometimes I might think, if I don’t get this line right, everyone will laugh at me and think I’m inadequate and nobody will ever ask me to do anything ever again.
Yes, this is an unlikely scenario, but that’s not the reason these answers aren’t true. It’s more important to remember that you can’t please everyone. Your rubric might be completely different from the person you are showing your project to. If you are showing something you deem imperfect, the other person might think it is great. On the other hand, if you show something you have deemed perfect to different people, they might both think it’s imperfect for different reasons.
In fact, they might think it’s imperfect for precisely the part you worked so hard on. Maybe they wanted a wavy, hand drawn line and not a perfectly straight line. It’s not predictable how other people are going to react.
A Word on Social Media
Even when I do projects for myself, it can be difficult to silence the voices of others. If there is something we are proud of, and want to show others, we share it. And this is great! Sharing is a fun, healthy thing to do.
Because social media is so ubiquitous, it can be difficult to do something completely for myself. I am always thinking about how people will react. Especially on projects more frivolous, we crave attention and praise from others.
Social media conditions us to seek acceptance. Being social in general conditions that too, of course. But social media has an added layer of likes, shares, and the algorithm. There is a built-in scoring system for your “worth,” and therefore, there is a built-in rubric for perfection.
I understand how difficult it is to convince myself I don’t have to follow that rubric, so I am working every day to try to overcome that urge. When I start to feel myself getting worked up about popularity, I remind myself that completing my projects is more part of my life than anyone else’s, and I should do my best to enjoy it. When I get mad at the algorithm, I think about the opinions of those closest to me, and how those are the ones that matter most to me. When I find myself getting sad that fewer people like my posts, I remind myself how much fun I had making the post, and how much I will like to look back on it myself.
I am working on my mindset and reframing how I see perfectionism, and that will be a lifelong process. But I have some more practical steps that I can take as I complete my projects, day to day.
The magic of thinking non-binarily
The dark side of thinking binarily should be a whole essay by itself, but I will touch on it here. We are taught to think binarily throughout our whole lives.
- It’s a Girl/It’s a Boy
- Momma’s boy [child] or Daddy’s girl [child]
- Vanilla or Chocolate
- Edward or Jacob
- English or Math
- Republican or Democrat
- Chemistry or Stability
- Career or Family
- Cremated or Buried
Even though we all know these binarily rules don’t apply to complex humans, (or even complex robots) we still let them take control of a lot of our thoughts.
Keep reminding yourself, multiple times a day that
- There are more than 2 choices
- You can choose both and
- Everything is on a spectrum
You can like strawberry ice cream, or you can like chocolate and vanilla equally, or you can like chocolate and vanilla at different times and circumstances, and you can like them at the same time in a swirl. Your love of vanilla can be integral in your love of chocolate. You can change your mind. Even the simpler binary choice of
Do I like Chocolate, Yes or No
is much more complicated than that. Maybe making this binary choice can simplify things, and that can be useful. But learning how to think of things non-binarily is even more important.
Thinking Non-binarily as a Perfectionist
A hallmark sign of perfectionism is the all-or-nothing mindset. One way to put this is “Either I do it perfectly, or I don’t do it at all.” Another way that can be just as serious is “100% is acceptable, 99.9% or less is awful.” These are both ways of thinking binarily.
By knowing that doing things to 100% isn’t actually impossible, I keep reminding myself that 100% is not a good option. Because the chances of getting it are zero, “all or nothing” can only really be — nothing.
Doing something part way has value. We have to get rid of the notion that not completing something means you are a failure.
When my perfectionist brain takes over, I have to decide what is acceptable. Because nothing can actually be perfect, I have to approach it with as much precision and accuracy as I can. But if I am measuring something, how precise is acceptable to me? I could probably get it down to a tenth of a centimeter, or an ounce, or an eighth of a teaspoon. But once I do that, I might not be satisfied, and I think I can get it down even smaller.
Because I know it is easy for me to want to get it closer and closer to perfect, I choose the tolerance I want at the beginning. If I can get it within that tolerance, I keep it there.
The 70% Rule
70% is a lot. If you eat 70% of a pie, you ate a lot of pie, if you get 70% of the votes, you got a lot of votes, and if you know something 70%, you know a lot about that thing.
When I first thought about that, my subconscious was telling me that was wrong. If my task was to fill in a circle with color, and I only filled in 70%, that wouldn’t be a job well done. If I only knew something 70% of the way for school, I would get a C, and if I missed even one question for some other reason, I would get a D! That is unacceptable, right? I studied until I knew 90-100% of the material.
When doing projects, I can find myself doing the project 70% of the way in an hour, then I can spend 7 hours on “perfecting” it. If there is a larger project with many little steps to it, I can find myself taking way too long on early steps. If I have a deadline, I might run out of time for the later steps. If I have another person waiting on my work, I can cause their work to fall behind.
If I do the first step to 70% and then move on to step 2, it helps me keep moving forward instead of getting stuck in one place for too long. When I move on to step 2, I often find that perfecting step 1 wasn’t necessary. Even if I find step 1 needs some tweaking, I can go back and adjust it – just a little.
It can be easy to procrastinate starting projects because I am afraid I am not ready, or I don’t know enough, or I don’t have all the right tools. I hardly ever feel like I am fully prepared, and then I feel like I am inadequate or unqualified. So I simply don’t start.
When we take tests in school, once you get your grade back, you can’t go back and change your answers. Your grade goes in your teacher’s grade book in red pen, and your worth is marked down forever in your permanent record.
But life isn’t like that at all! I am constantly making changes when I find out things don’t work. Writers can make revisions. Artists can can paint the same flower in many different ways. Even Leonardo Da Vinci painted more than one Mona Lisa. You can’t make adjustments on something you never started, so you have to start.
Work On Your Relationships
People have been telling me I’m too hard on myself forever. But I never trusted them. I felt like they were setting me up for failure. Maybe they expected me to fail from the beginning, so it didn’t matter if I got it perfect. Sometimes I felt like people would tell me what I made was good, but then turn around and criticize it.
Maybe the people around me were doing those things, and I could do my best to avoid them. But I was responsible for my half of the relationship, and I had something I could work on, too. I had to build up my trust in people. In order to do that, my relationships had to get better. I had to be close enough to someone to know – really know – that they would be happy with my success. This taught me how to take criticism from other people better, too.
Practice is the End, Not the Means
The beauty of all of these tips is I’m no longer agonizing over every decision, or doing something over and over until it is perfect. I am enjoying myself as I complete the projects more, because the work is more fun. Also, the work itself is more valuable than anything I produce. There is nothing more precious than the time I have to spend on earth. Nothing I make in one hour will ever make up for an hour of time, so the hour of time has be the valuable thing.
“Practice” is a word often used to mean someone has to improve what they are doing in order to do it properly, or perfectly. The main goal is the perfection, not the practice. But practice should be the ultimate goal. The practice is something you can have every day, and spend your very valuable time with.
Real Perfectionism In Daily Life
Even though I am aware of all these different perspectives and I know all these tips, there is still some perfectionist in me. There are some parts of perfectionism that can be helpful, can set me apart from less sensitive people. I understand this can be to my advantage.
If I ever find myself leaning towards perfectionist behaviors, I make sure I am being healthy and happy. If I feel sick or unhappy or bad about myself in any way, I try to take a step back and see what is really happening. I follow my tips, and do my best to get back into a healthy mind space.