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Solutions to Perfectionism

If you haven't yet read the Perfectionism page, I recommend you do so before trying these solutions.

Note that perfectionism often starts in childhood and is catalyzed by traumatic rejections: hence, this work can sometimes be emotionally difficult. If it is, please consult a therapist or other professional. – Hillary

1. Journaling to Understand Your Perfectionism

Review the list of perfectionist characteristics, then take a few hours or days – however long you need – and write out how those characteristics show up in your life and work. Do this via free-writing, without paying attention to spelling, grammar, etc.: just get it all out in as much detail and depth and nuance as possible. Don't leave anything out, even if it seems small (it probably isn't) and especially don't censor.

The good news is that often simply writing down a perfectionist idea or behavior is enough to defeat it. Perfectionism is fundamentally delusional, and when its delusions are exposed to the light of day they are easily discredited. However, other ideas or characteristics will be more ingrained and harder to overcome.

Also, journal about the roots of your perfectionism within a framework of forgiveness for yourself and others. We're all affected by our society's pervasive perfectionism.

2. Cultivate a Mindset of Compassionate Objectivity

Compassionate Objectivity (CO) is a mindset where you combine:

Compassion, meaning you view yourself and your work with abundant empathy and understanding. And,
Objectivity, meaning you see things accurately, with all their nuance and complexity.

The happily productive writer who has overcome her perfectionism. (illustration from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.)
A compassionately objective writer who has overcome her perfectionism and is now having a great time writing prolifically. (Illustration by Barry Deutsch, from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.)

In place of perfectionism's reductive, rigid and punishing world view, CO offers nuance, flexibility, empathy, compassion, and true love and respect. The compassionately objective person sees through perfectionism's illusions and understands the realities about herself and her work. She knows to:

  • Set achievable goals, and be compassionate about any failures or mistakes.
  • Be realistic and grounded, as opposed to grandiose.
  • Emphasize process over product.
  • Value internal rewards over external ones.
  • Not be shortsighted.
  • Not to overidentify with her work.

The CO person also eschews invidious comparisons, dichotomization, rigidity, unhelpful labels, hyperbole, negativity, shortsightedness, fetishes, unconsciousness and blind spots.

Don't confuse CO with “permissiveness,” “self-indulgence,” “being a Pollyanna,” “letting yourself off the hook,” or “giving yourself a pass.” It isn't any of those things. CO calls it as it sees it – and with much more accuracy than perfectionism. Compassionately objective people forgo unproductive blame and shame, but that doesn't mean they don't take responsibility.

There's no magic to “switching” your mindset from perfectionism to CO: you just catch yourself thinking like a perfectionist and GENTLY interrupt and correct yourself:

Instead of: “I can't believe I'm behind on submitting my chapter to my editor. What made me think I could write? I'm just a fraud. I haven't written anything in two months – and what I wrote before that is crap. And look at Mary – she's a real writer. She's already submitted five chapters, and hers are all great. I'm just lazy, that's all.”

The compassionately objective person thinks: “Okay, let's calm down. I actually have done some writing in the last two months. It wasn't very much, and honestly it wasn't very good, but there's a big difference between that and not writing anything. The big problem is that I've been stuck on the plot...I guess I'll submit what I have to my editor so he at least knows I'm working. And I'll talk to him and my critique partner about the plot. As for Mary, well, her partner supports the household, so she doesn't need a job: she gets to stay home and write all day. I do have a job – and so if I can get a couple of hours in of writing a day, I'm lucky. I guess I'll talk to my partner to see if I can cut down on my hours for a while, and also to see if he'll do more of the housework.”

Note how, in the compassionately objective response, the writer isn't letting herself off the hook: she admits that her writing hasn't been very good. It is possible to acknowledge mistakes without taking on a mantle of shame – and you must absolutely learn to do so. Notice, also, how a shame-free examination of the causes of her underproductivity enables her to easily problem-solve.

At first, these self-corrections may feel awkward and even contrived, but keep practicing and eventually CO will replace perfectionism as your reflex response to underperformance. Just don't try to immediately correct every tiny instance of perfectionism, or berate yourself harshly when you slip – that's perfectionism! Just focus on building the new habit gradually.

Some have described the compassionately objective voice as that of the “good grandparent” or “wise teacher.” These adult metaphors are no accident: CO, unlike terrified and regressed perfectionism, is a mature viewpoint. The more you replace perfectionist thoughts and feelings with compassionately objective ones, the less fear, and the more confidence, you will feel around your writing and other work.

 3. Dialogue With Your Inner Critic

Dialoguing, via journaling, with your inner critic (a.k.a., inner bully, a.k.a. inner perfectionist) is a powerful anti-perfectionism technique, and very healing.

You have to do it right, though. You must:

(a) Dialogue in the role of the compassionately objective adult.

(b) Give your inner bully abundant time and space to express his (or her) thoughts, frustrations, and needs. In other words, don't censor him, don't try to shut him up, don't rush him when he has things to say. You've probably been trying to squelch him for years or decades, and it hasn't helped. It just enrages him.

The thing about inner critics is that their goals are often valid: you do want to do excellent work, and get more work done. It's just their methods (bullying, setting unreasonable goals, grandiosity, shortsightedness, negativity, etc.) that are problematic. Which brings us to:

(c) Do not let the inner critic bully you. The inner critic exists in a state of constant perfectionist terror, which means he's regressed and acts younger and less competent than his chronological age (meaning your chronological age!). Do not let him abuse you or throw tantrums! You're the adult, you set limits and boundaries.

In practical terms, this means no endless journaling of: "I suck. What's wrong with me? Why am I such a loser?" (I did that for twenty years, and believe me, it didn't help!) Instead, have an honest discussion with the critic, and listen to and respond honestly to his viewpoints. Doing that, you can actually defuse his anger and desperation. Here's an example showing how it works:

Inner Critic (in disgust, but also terror): That paragraph you just wrote sucks. I can't believe you think you're a writer. Everyone will laugh at you.
Compassionately Objective Adult (keeping his cool, and with honest curiosity): Oh, so you don't like it? Why is that?

IC:  Well, look at it! The prose is really banal, your observations are mundane, and your grammar stinks. This is hopeless.
COA: Okay, listen: I really want to hear what you say and I will listen to you say it, and I promise to address it. But I really don't want any more of this harshness and name-calling. OK?

IC: But, but, but...
COA: I mean it. We can talk about everything you want to discuss, but it has to be done politely.

IC: (Sullenly.) Okay.
COA: can you rephrase your criticisms so that they're not so harsh and all-encompassing?

IC: (Hesitantly, because it's not used to holding back.) Well, the first sentence is run-on, isn't it?
COA: (Non defensively.) Yeah, I think you're right.

IC: And when you describe the landscape as "flat as a pancake" that's a cliche, isn't it?
COA: You bet it is! I'll fix that.

IC: And "indomitable" is misspelled.
COA: I'll correct that. Anything else?

IC: I guess I just wish the whole thing were better.
COA: I do, too. But it's only the first draft, and we've got a lot more drafts to go. Do you think we'll be able to improve it over time?

IC: I guess so, but I'm pretty worried about the piece as a whole. The pacing's off, and there's no narrative tension.
COA: No narrative tension at all? Really?

IC: Well, not much.
COA: Point taken. So what can we do about that?

IC: Ask our writer's group for help?
COA: Great idea.

Note how the compassionately objective adult listened respectfully to the critic and acknowledged the validity of many of his points, but insisted on respect. And notice how it was relatively easy to get beyond unproductive harshness and recriminations to constructive problem solving.

4. Practice Compassionate Objectivity While Working

Having “exorcised” at least some of your fears through journaling and compassionate objectivity, it's time to practice writing fearlessly. Get a timer and set it for 5 minutes.

Then write.

To be clear: you are writing on your desired project but in a “free-writing” kind of way. Your goal is not for any specific result – and especially not to “write something good” - but to simply put in your time: write uninterruptedly without getting derailed by fear or distraction.

You work on the “low-hanging fruit” - the easiest or most accessible part of the project. It's also okay to do some note taking, organizing, or outlining related to the project. No research, though: you need to be writing, not reading, during this time. And absolutely no self-abuse: no writing, "What's wrong with me? This is easy! I'm so lazy, etc. etc." Don't make the mistake of thinking that perfectionist self-abuse has any corrective or redeeming quality, when it does nothing but hold you back.

When the timer rings, you stop, stand up for a good stretch, and give yourself rewards. (If you don't make it through the entire five minutes, don't bother berating yourself but simply try again later for two minutes.) A reward can be an actual physical reward – a cookie, bubble bath, or promise to yourself to buy that new DVD. But the most important part of the reward is a sustained feeling of honest pride and self-satisfaction, two emotions that don't come naturally to perfectionists. So open yourself up to those feelings and savor them for at least a few seconds every time you reach your goal.

The perfectionist in you will probably protest: “Five minutes! That's trivial. And you think you deserve a reward? Give me a break. How are you ever going to finish writing five minutes a day! And what you wrote was crap!” Etc. etc. That is the voice of your fears, and it's telling you these things in a desperate effort to get you to stop writing.

Never listen to that voice. (And the desperation, by the way, is a sign you're making progress – so congratulations!) If you want, you can dialogue with it compassionately via journaling, reassuring the frightened part of yourself that it will all be okay. Eventually, as you learn to stop burdening your work with unreasonable expectations, the voice will go away.

Only when you are completely rested and relaxed should you reset the timer and start over. In fact, you may want to wait for tomorrow. Never push your productivity, because doing so will only increase the pressure and consequent fear, which is obviously counterproductive. Remember: the thing you're writing about may be intellectually or emotionally challenging, but the act of putting words down should never in itself be difficult.

After you can securely handle five minutes of non-fearful, non-judgmental writing, you can increase the timer to eight or ten minutes. And then fifteen, twenty, thirty, an hour, three hours, and more if you wish. As you progress, watch out for, and learn to accept, the inevitable plateaus and backsliding. If you find yourself struggling, set the timer for fewer minutes.

5. Follow This Advice Radically: Take Your Anti-Perfectionism Work to the Limit

As discussed in the "False Pride" section of the Perfectionism page, many people have trouble giving up old habits of unreasonable goals, harshness, grandiosity, etc. They see that Compassionate Objectivity is working for them, but are afraid that if they let go of their perfectionism entirely they will "fall apart" and lose whatever willpower or discipline they have.

Free flying birdsIn my experience, however, it's when people finally internalize and act on the truth that perfectionism serves no purpose at all, and commit themselves to expunging every trace of it in their behavior and thinking, that they start to make rapid progress.

So take your your anti-perfectionism work to the limit and don't tolerate even a bit of perfectionism. Of course, do that in baby steps (i.e., non-perfectionistically!) and never get harsh with yourself.

Stay the course, and the rewards -- in terms of more productivity, better work, and increased joy in your work -- will probably be better than you can even imagine.

For more information check out my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific or attend one of my workshops.

For fastest results get coaching.

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