We all want to be good at the things we do, right? I mean, it’s natural. We want success, approval of some kind often feels good, and validation makes us feel like we have a reason for being on the planet, that we are worth something to others. And yes, we should all have a strong enough self-esteem where we don’t need the approval of others, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that when we receive compliments, it feels good.
But there is a fine line between wanting to do well, and being afraid to do poorly. Wanting to do well is a positive thing. We strive to better ourselves, we want to be masters of our craft, we work hard to achieve our goals. Yet there sometimes comes a point where we can go from trying to do better in a healthy way to bullying ourselves because we aren’t good enough. And that’s what perfectionism is.
It’s one thing to say, “oh, I hope people like this book.” I mean, we’re writers, and that is how we make a living—people like our work enough to buy it. It’s quite another to say, “Oh what if someone doesn’t like this, I’ll change it…Oh, wait, that might not work for these people, maybe I need to just scrap this whole project.” Perfectionism doesn’t know how to say, “Good job on that chapter!” or “I feel really good about where this is going.” Perfectionism is the negative bully in our heads, the one that says, “You’ll never be good enough,” and “No one likes you” (and yes, mine kind of sounds like Smeagol). What are some other things that perfectionism does?
- Compares our work to others in a competitive way.
- Compares a beginner’s work to a master’s work.
- Makes us feel bad about projects we should love.
- Makes us afraid to submit our work.
- Makes us feel like frauds.
- Makes us feel like everyone is talking about us in a bad way.
- Keeps us looking for the perfect time, the perfect place, the perfect story, the perfect venue, the perfect audience, the perfect font, the perfect program…Instead of actually WRITING the story.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people,” says Anne Lamott, of Bird by Bird fame. If you notice you have some really negative self-talk going on in your head, that can be one sign you might be suffering from perfectionism. If you are constantly revising a story instead of submitting it, that can also be a sign of perfectionism. It can take many forms, but the main way you can tell you might have fallen for its tricks?
You aren’t submitting, you aren’t finishing, you aren’t telling yourself your story—and you—are good enough.
You know how Yoda says, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the Dark Side?” Well, it’s true. Once you feel that fear of not being good enough, you can become bitter and angry. That’s when you start saying things like, “Look at that author, it’s so easy to be them. No kids, probably rich, too. Of course THEY can have all THEIR dreams come true.” Or, “If I had my own office, I could write for *insert franchise here*, too.” “Why do all of THEIR dreams come true? I must have done something wrong in a past life.” Soon, you start scanning social media, and it seems like everyone has great news to celebrate except for you. And you feel like stabbing them all. OK, not really, but your bitter anger morphs into hate, and you become someone not very fun to be around.
Even reading this, someone who has a Perfectionism Monster on their shoulder will say, “Oh, yeah, easy for her to say. She has ___ and does ___ and gets ____. Of course she thinks it’s all fine and dandy to JUDGE. She doesn’t know what it’s like!” Well, you’re right. I don’t know what it’s like to be you. But you don’t know what it’s like to be all these other authors you might be comparing yourself to. That author who gets to write full time? They are up all night worrying about health insurance and paying their mortgage. The author who gets all these mega-franchise book deals? They are petrified at the keyboard because they are afraid they can’t deliver. We ALL have our hang-ups, and we ALL face perfectionism at some point in our lives. And even when someone’s life seems perfect, it’s not. No one’s lives are. We all have our battles to fight.
So what can you do if you find yourself falling victim to this crap? Well, one thing is to tell that voice in your head to stop being an asshole. You don’t speak to other people that way (I hope). Why do you speak to yourself like that? And yes, that’s easier said than done. But once you catch yourself engaged in negative self-talk, try to switch it off and focus on something good. “I’m not good enough… But I WILL be. And this is a good paragraph. And everyone starts somewhere.”
Remember WHY you are doing it (writing, art, whatever you are doing) in the first place. I’m certain no one started writing because they thought suffering would be fun. Why did you start? Was it because you wanted to share the stories in your head? Was it because you just wanted to write the stories in your head down? Did you want to play with some characters who popped into your head? Did you want to inspire people? Did you want to make people laugh? No matter what your goal was, if you start listening to that imaginary negative voice in your head, you won’t be accomplishing it. Sometimes this negative voice makes us forget our goals. Instead of wanting to write, our goals morph into these things we a) have no control over or b) are unrealistic. You will NEVER write the perfect story. And I don’t know anyone who has ever sat down and said, “OK, I’m going to intentionally sit here and write a New York Times bestselling novel right now,” and had it actually work. That’s because if you only write something in order for it to be “successful,” what you’ll end up with is derivative, shallow crap—copies of what you think other people will want, imitations of what has done well before. The stories that really speak to people are written from within, with passion, excitement, glee. And yes, it’s hard work, too, but without that element of “I’m doing this because it feels good,” stories often fall flat, and those who strive to write a story just to be “successful” end up self-sabotaging their work. And I don’t mean to say that writer’s don’t need to just jump through some hoops in order to stay in business—we all do. But if you remember WHY you are jumping through those hoops, and why you go through the hard times, it’s easier to see your way to the end, to accomplish your goals.
The thing to remember is, if you spend your life waiting for things to be perfect…you’ll spend your whole life waiting. NOTHING is perfect. Nothing will ever BE perfect. So commit yourself to finishing that good-enough draft and sending it out, even if it’s just to show that you CAN do it. Then start the next project, make it good enough, and repeat. Finish things. You’ll never be published if you never submit. You’ll never finish a book if you don’t just grab those ten minutes to jot down some lines. Time is a finite resource, it’s true. Waiting for more to come is an exercise in futility. Those authors out there who have the time to write those books they have? They didn’t have a magic time fairy come by to deliver extra hours in their day. They TOOK that time to write, because writing was important to them, and they silenced the voices in their heads that told them they couldn’t have that time.
You DESERVE to create the things that are in your heart. You DESERVE to take that time, even if it’s 10 or 20 minutes a day. You DESERVE to have your voice heard, you DESERVE to make your dreams come true, and no imaginary voice in your head has the power to tell you otherwise. Banish that bastard, and take control of your destiny.
Want to learn more? Try reading The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown, Fearless Creating, by Eric Maisel, and Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance, by Julia Cameron. You can also read Neil Gaiman’s thoughts on the subject. And remember, sometimes we must make glorious mistakes if we are to succeed. Call it practice. And move on!
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. Her fiction has most recently appeared in the anthologies Champions of Aetaltis and Kaiju Rising II: Reign of Monsters. Melanie is the co-director of the Gen Con Writer's Symposium and the publisher at Outland Entertainment. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.