Little Notes

Fighting Against Perfectionism or Why I Postponed Finishing My Bday Gown Until After My Birthday

I very much want to be good at everything I set out to do. I think most people do. That desire isn’t wrong or terribly unreasonable. But did you know that ability, time, unforeseen happenings, and being fallible — human— are all factors that affect outcome? I know that, yet sometimes I think I can overcome any challenge anyway. Insufferable, no?

My flaw of perfectionism became blindingly clear when I was in design school. It had crystalized when I noticed an emerging pattern of self-sabotage and quick breakdown in the face of relatively small road bumps. I was really upset with myself because I knew I could do better. The irony: You could be perfect if you weren’t trying so hard to be perfect. This was the very wrong conclusion because the end goal was still perfection. I’ve been reforming my behavior ever since. 

Pick Your Procrastination Flavor

I still want to do well, obviously, but I also want to give myself room for improvement and appreciate good effort when I make it. Perfectionism can manifest in a few different ways for me; it namely comes in the forms of self-sabotage, not following through, or not attempting a thing I’ve convinced myself I can probably do with no actual proof that I can. It’s messy. Let’s break it down.

Self Sabotage: I could be doing well, very well even, at a thing and then blow it up. Why? That’s for my therapist to figure out, but I think it may be for a few reasons: opens the release valve on the pressure to always perform at a particular level (what if I let myself and others down later?), I’m tired (“Tired” is pain for me now and I’ve grown very pain averse), the desire is gone (something shiny and new has caught my fancy). It doesn’t happen all the time, or even most of the time, but when it does I usually only can see it in hindsight. It hasn’t happened lately and I feel really positively about that.

Not Following Through: Self sabotage’s cousin. They have a lot in common but this happens when I fully expect to finish a thing and then I allow myself to get distracted, or l lower the priority for whatever reason sounds good at the moment. Sometimes it’s not a whole project but parts of it I don’t follow through on. Which may or may not take away from the greater picture but when it happens I’m always a little dissatisfied. Jumping through hoops to rationalize an action I didn’t take is a good sign perfectionism was fucking around in my head. This was the first symptom I recognized as a sign of my perfectionism which brought me to the idea of optimalism, popularized by psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar. It’s okay if a project is not exactly as I envisioned. It can always improve and as long as I gave good effort that’s good enough for me. I find this part I’ve gotten way better at over the years, but I still grapple with it from time to time as it can be come a double edged sword.

No Attempt: You can’t fail at something if you don’t try! Am I right?! I don’t have to deal with feeling disappointed or incapable or imperfect if I don’t do this thing that intimidates me on some level. I can convince myself of course I can (or of course I can’t) and then the matter is settled. I don’t have to prove anything because I already know. This is such a telltale symptom of perfectionism that I have to laugh at myself. The kicker is I know the only way to get better at something is to practice. I’ve done it a dozen times over for different things but every now and then it rears its ugly head. Try and try again. Take chances! Make mistakes! You can’t know without doing. Period.

So when you know yourself you can do better? I think so. I’ve been working very hard to clock when I’m behaving these ways and try to counter them. Face it head on and get honest with myself about what I need to do. It means taking inventory of all the irrational emotions I prefer to compartmentalize and giving myself a whole lot of grace. I could always be a lot nicer to myself and I have been.

Every year I like to challenge myself with learning a new technique or honing an existing one with these gowns. Learning something new is not helped when you are rushed and it’s certainly not enjoyable. So I’m not going to do that. Which is why 2021 BDay Gown is going to happen but not in time for the 28th. What I’m saying is it’s fine if it doesn’t.  My fear of not following through again (this is the other edge of the sword) is abated because I’ve resigned myself to finishing; just not by this arbitrary deadline that especially doesn’t matter this year because OUTSIDE IS CLOSED.

This is all in an effort to be gracious and kind to myself, to acknowledge reality, and still meet the ultimate goal of having fun when I’m creating. The goal to finish ahead of schedule was a valiant one and I’m proud of how far I got, but I can’t let it take my peace. It also means that I need to make good on building my bday gowns in the summer when I have less pressure in general. Just I’m morbid and always think “What if I don’t live to wear it?” Welcome to my mind. 

Do you ever find yourself dealing with perfectionism? Do you have tools or techniques that help you work through it? Is there something else you struggle with? Let me know in the comments! Maybe we can help each other out even if it’s just a listening ear.



image credit: Roberto Martinez

Leave a Reply