The Life of a Recovering Perfectionist

My most popular post for 2014 was this little piece… Enjoy!
“I enjoyed your article in today’s ‘Sunday Life’ but please, please, please – ‘slither’ is what a snake does, ‘sliver’ is a small piece of kitchen bench!” (Fiona)

Yesterday, I had a first-person feature article published in the Herald Sun’s Sunday Life magazine, talking about the importance of following your dreams and I related my experience of being in the wrong career, of suffering chronic fatigue syndrome at just 29 years of age, and the long road to recovery. Part of that journey was learning to manage my inner perfectionist. (I don’t think I’ll ever truly get rid of the perfectionist, so I have to learn to manage her instead.) I received some wonderful feedback on the article, including the quote above from a reader named Fiona, who helpfully pointed out the typo in the very first paragraph of the article.

imagesI do actually know the difference between slither and sliver, but my fingers went for the typo while I was writing the article (probably precisely because I was writing it with all those distractions I describe in the first paragraph) and there it stayed, even while multiple editors read it and sent it to print. It’s just one of those things that happens in life.

Now, let me sidestep here and tell you about a teenage girl I met at one of my library talks, who was so passionate about writing and just bubbling with conversation about what she was doing. BUT, she also talked about how she would sit in a cafe for hours to write, but only ever get a few sentences on the page because she would work them and rework and, essentially, be so afraid of getting it wrong that the words she wanted to get just didn’t make it to the page. Truly, this broke my heart. How unbelievably sad. That girl has words waiting for the world and her fear is stopping them getting there. This is a clear example of how perfectionism is a destructive force in our life.

Perfectionism is NOT about excellence. In fact, ‘perfect’ doesn’t even exist! It is a constructed idea in OUR OWN MIND. It is the perpetual search for the worst in ourselves, not the best. And because it is a constructed idea, in your own mind, no one else can ever convince you that something is good enough, no matter how much evidence they present. Only you can decide to trust and let go.

So, back to my reader feedback. Of course, as a recovering perfectionist, my first response to that was horror, shame, humiliation. Stories running through my head like, ‘Oh my God, my article is out there for the whole country to read and there’s a spelling mistake in the first paragraph!’ ‘No one will buy my book now because they’ll think I’m a crap writer!’ ‘People will think I’m stupid!’ ‘How could I have been so stupid??!!!’

But then, as a recovering perfectionist, I quickly identified these thoughts as illusions in my own mind. Sure, some people might think those things. Many people wouldn’t even notice. And many people, going by the rest of the feedback I received, took away something really valuable from the article. Was it better for it to be out there at all? I’d like to think so.

I used to be an editor of books, and despite four or five sets of eyes looking at them before they went to print, they invariably came back with at least one error in them. It’s just one of those things that happens because we are human in all our imperfect glory.

I also realised that Fiona’s feedback gave me a wonderful opportunity to once again heal my perfectionist and choose to NOT lie awake at night fretting about my errors but instead go to sleep feeling really peaceful that my article brought so much joy to so many people. Perfectionism is a choice. Self nurturing and acceptance is also a choice. I choose to be kind to myself. My words may not be perfect but they can still have power.

**disclaimer: I am once again writing this at 6.45am while my toddler watches Peppa Pig so I will embrace all errors ahead of time 🙂 **

10 thoughts on “The Life of a Recovering Perfectionist

  1. I’m usually one for picking up those kinds of things but I don’t recall seeing it. All I remember is how wonderful the article was and how much it spoke to me. So, thank you, spelling errors and all.

    And as a not-yet-recovering perfectionist, I very much appreciate this post. I am fortunate to have two friends who are currently trying to coax me through the fear of failure and not being ‘good enough’ so hopefully one day I’ll be able to say I’m a recovering perfectionist too.

  2. How liberating is it when you can call yourself a recovering perfectionist! You realise that all those times you spent beating yourself up were in fact, like you say, a choice! I recognise in part, that teenage girl, but thankfully, acceptance and I have become good friends over the years.

  3. From one recovering perfectionist to another – go you for being strong enough not to beat yourself up about your typo. I can imagine what thoughts went through your head as they would have been the same for me!

  4. Your article inspired me to face the ‘perfectionist’ demon head on. I was struggling to finish a piece of writing over the weekend, paralysed by the fear of failure, until you helped me see things another way. I applaud your choice to strive for your best (not some ideal), even if that means accepting that a typo will sometimes go unnoticed. I am slowly working towards becoming a recovering perfectionist myself.

    I bought your book today – The Tea Chest – and look forward to reading it.

  5. I feel like that teenage girl at the library talk could have been me! I LOVE to write but my perfectionism is a real challenge as I sit there, painstakingly pulling each sentence apart until it flows just as it would in the finished version of my book. The problem is however, that I don’t have the book. I have nothing to publish; just lots of perfectly constructed paragraphs, lying dormant, waiting to be completed. I have a writer friend who just pours out her words onto the page and then goes back to edit them when the mood strikes. I dream of being able to do this as I know that if I don’t stop what I’m doing, that wonderful book that lies within me will never see the light of day. I also adored the lines in your article “We think creativity is something separate from life. But it is life, not something you do for an hour on a Saturday afternoon.” So true Josephine. Thanks for giving me hope that one day the perfectionist in me will be able to break free from my own creative shackles and release all those beautiful words that are just dying to get out into the universe.x

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