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Looking My Perfectionism In The Eye, And Learning To Work Alongside Her

In my experience, taking on new projects and challenges often comes hand in hand with the opportunity to learn something more about ourselves and the ways we work. Venturing into unfamiliarity can show us how we best succeed, but also where we can be self-limiting.

Last month, I enrolled in Beth Kempton's online Book Proposal Masterclass, which is a month of weekday workshops designed to help you put together a non-fiction book proposal. It's a significant enough investment that most people doing it are committed to the desire of writing a book, and many are doing so as a stepping stone in their professional careers.

Writing a book is something I've talked about doing for years, but like the majority of people, had never taken any serious action on before. The self-doubt would creep in, and I'd put the project aside and move onto something else with quicker or more guaranteed rewards. Writing a book requires a certain amount of faith, or surrender, or both, which I previously have not quite had.

Filling in the end-of-course feedback form this week, I got curious with the question that asked 'what has this course taught you about yourself?'

mug saying good enough

I know from the Facebook group of other course participants that I'm not the only one who has felt some big emotions over the last four weeks. Allowing yourself to have a dream requires vulnerability, which also creates a nice little space for self-doubt and criticism to grow. It's a version of taking off your protective armour in order to stretch out and become bigger.

As I started on this course, my mind found many, many stories to tell me about why I wasn't going to be able to manage it. Luckily, I'm not the only one who experiences this. So much so that Beth actually starts the course with meditations on overcoming self-doubt. On being able to hear those critical voices, and say 'thank you, but I'm not going to listen to you today.'

The big thing that came up for me was perfectionism.

For many years, I have been a perfectionist in denial, because the way it manifests for me is slightly different to the examples I'd always heard. I've discovered that my perfectionism doesn't keep from finishing a project, it stops me from starting it.

For some people, being a perfectionist means double-checking everything, spending hours on the last 5% of a task because they want it to be perfect before they can accept that it's finished. This makes total sense as a behaviour, but it's not something I really do. I'm often quite happy to check something once and then contentedly mark it as done and move on. Cognitively, I understand that there is often no such thing as 'perfect' and that the bar I need to aim for is just 'good enough'. So I'm not a perfectionist, right?

Wrong. I realised that my kind of perfectionism is not about getting the 'perfect' result, but about fear of not meeting my own bar for being 'good enough' along the way. This is still a classic perfectionist behaviour that usually leads to major procrastination and creative blocks. Doing this course made me realise just how much I rely on having a reasonable guarantee of success before I begin. And I'm definitely not the only one!

Quite early on I had to re-set my goals and lower the bar, otherwise I would have got overwhelmed and might have given up. On Day 1, my goal was to publish a book. By Day 3, my goal was to just keep showing up for every day of the course, and at least attempt each of the exercises. This was so much better, because I knew I could achieve it.

So I kept going, logging in and listening every day, and by taking it one step at a time I was able to keep momentum and actually complete most of the work as I went along. Every time I got overwhelmed or blocked I would write about what I was thinking and then I could choose whether to listen to it or not.

perfectionism at work

As I'm gaining confidence in my project, my goal can begin to grow again. Now that I've finished each exercise, my next step is to pull together a completed proposal. After that it might be to send it out to 3 potential agents. These are all things I know I can do. I don't know the outcomes yet, but I do know that I am capable of taking these steps. This is how the perfectionist brain can cope...

Trying to banish my inner perfectionist overnight will not work. Like with any pattern of thinking, you can't just ask it to change and expect years of habit to dissolve straight away. We have to listen, acknowledge, and then gently coax them in a different direction. A lot of my journaling when I got stuck was almost a dialogue with my perfectionism - 'we don't need to be perfect, and we won't achieve anything if you won't even let me try.' This reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic, where she shares some playful and powerful insights about not letting your ego run the show.

So, to meet my perfectionism and walk alongside her, what I've learned is:

  • To be on the lookout at the beginning of something, not the end.

  • To notice when I want to quit, and ask myself why. What's the fear? Write this out as clearly as possible, and then choose whether to listen to it.

  • To push on through even in uncertainty, and know that investing in a structured course helps me with this.

  • Keep the goal small. Know the big picture, but focus on the baby steps.

I'd love to hear about your experiences with perfectionism. Join the discussion in this linked Instagram post, especially if you have any super tactics for overcoming perfectionist tendencies, or stories to share with our journaling community.


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