Pushing Back Perfectionism
I’m a notebook freak. I buy them whenever I come across them. Spiral-bound or stapled; hardcover or soft; all sizes, shapes, and colors; extra points if the cover makes me laugh. I prefer them with lines: pale blue tracks that route my train of thought, long corridors where my words run like the bulls in Spain: coursing, angular, driven.
My current notebook says lalala on the cover. I like this because it makes me think of my Aunt Betty – in our Polish-American household, we called her Cioci – who liked to sing. Not in a “please-sit-quietly-and-listen-to-this-aria” way, but simply as an alternate means of communication. She would sing at the end of long family discussions around the kitchen table; she would sing while she cleaned the house; she would greet me by crooning, “What’s new, pussycat?” and on cue I’d respond, “Whoa whoa whoa-oh….”
The thing is, Cioci Betty didn’t know all the words to the songs.
The gift she gave is that not knowing all the words did not prevent her from singing. She would burst into song, and, if words failed, she just sang lalala. She was teased for this, but she was not deterred.
Perfect at your own risk
Some people have no problem winging it. They adapt, they try things, they throw stuff out there and see what sticks. I admire this and, to be honest, I’m trying to learn to do more of it, because I see how insisting on exactitude at the wrong moment holds me back. If I pay attention, I notice that it has a shrinking effect: my muscles contract and I breathe less, as though I’m literally trying to squeeze the right thing into existence. Then whatever I’m doing is strained through this shrunken filter, usually siphoning out the pleasure along the way.
Perfectionism that becomes a habit or a worldview can have some nasty repercussions. Constant, across-the-board, or what is sometimes called neurotic perfectionism usually provokes stress, with all the accompanying consequences (chronic tension, increased cortisol and adrenaline production, higher blood pressure, etc.). According to recent research, the stress of perfectionism can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, heart disease, and increased infection, not to mention behavioral issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, workaholism, and procrastination. Some psychologists even suggest that, like obesity or smoking, perfectionism should be considered as a risk factor for disease.
Yet there is no convincing scientific evidence that perfectionism is genetic. You are not hard-wired for it. It’s something you learned from your parents, your education, your painful or frightening experiences. This means you can tweak it. You can keep the useful aspects – discipline, concentration, persistence, effort – and ditch the ones that hold you back. You do this through self-observation. Try to notice when you’re interrupting your own flow, when things seem to be taking too long or getting stuck in the pipeline, when you’re about to walk away from yet another project:
- What are you saying to yourself?
- What’s happening in your body?
- How do you feel?
- What do you want or need just then?
If you take the time to answer these questions honestly, you’ll go a long way towards making friends with perfectionism, turning it into a partner rather than a master.
Don’t get me wrong: there is great pleasure in, for example, searching for the precise word that fits what you’re trying to say. There’s enormous satisfaction in getting it right, correcting errors, organizing, putting everything in its place. But I’m talking about the danger of getting so caught up in doing it right that you don’t do it at all; or you get bogged down midway and give up; or you put off finishing, letting go, moving on.
And obviously lalala is not appropriate for every endeavor (performing major surgery and piloting an airplane spring to mind). It’s not an excuse for being sloppy. Cioci Betty was an excellent pediatric nurse; her house was immaculate and her hair was always coiffed in an impeccable tower of hairspray and curls. But she knew when she could take her foot off the pedals and coast; she didn’t get hung up when channeling Tom Jones or singing the Polish national anthem. And the result of that not holding back was usually something wonderful: closeness, and laughter, and love. You don’t need to be perfect to bring these and other wonders into the world.
If you don’t know all the steps to the dance, if you don’t have the precise ingredients, if you don’t know exactly how to start a business, or a novel, or an important discussion; or if you’ve started something but have no idea how to continue – lalala is your friend. The writing equivalent is “Keep your hand moving.” Keep some kind of momentum. It may very well mean you make a “mistake” – you sashay left instead of right, you put too much banana in the muffins, you go down some dead ends and have to back up and try again. Lalala.
There is a time and a place for caring about the details. But what a shame if it distracts you from the spontaneity, however flawed, of what’s in your heart – the desire to express yourself, to act, to create, to make contact, to interact. If you wait for the right words, your song may never be sung. And unsung songs can turn into something very bitter over time. All those trains not routed, all those bulls not run. Let them out, be generous. What’s the worst that could happen? You lose face? Time? Money?
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. In March 2017 she will launch a series of workshops combining breathwork and writing.