I have spent much of the morning trying to find the right sentence with which to start an article. I am playing with the phrase ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged’, but I don’t like borrowing from Jane Austen. I am aware it’s a clichéd approach, yet I can’t find an alternative. The harder I try to perfect my sentence, the worse it reads. I know I must stop soon or I will trip over a hidden rabbit hole I know only too well — that of being a perfectionist.
Feeling we must be perfect is a growing problem in our digital age: comparing our humdrum existence with the shiny lives of celebrities makes us feel that anything less than perfect is not good enough. Yet often it is those who shine most brightly and seem to have supposedly perfect lives who actually find life the hardest. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow. One study even links some types of perfectionism to increased rates of suicide.
In some cases, setting exacting standards can be appropriate — if you are a surgeon or a pilot, for example. But in my own less exacting life it is easy to apply perfectionist standards when they are not needed, or are inappropriate or even damaging. In the past, I have set myself overly high ideals and imagined there is no middle way between succeeding and failing: a frightening prospect. And because my standards were too demanding, I have often felt a failure, as naturally I have not always met those standards. I have concentrated on what has gone wrong, with little compassion for myself, rather than remembering what has gone right. What could be less motivating than focusing on our blunders?
How then to change? Start by thinking of someone you admire. Now consider. Did they ever fluff anything? Of course they did! Then, recognise perfectionism is often linked to a black-and-white thinking approach. I am either a brilliantwriter or a dreadful clichéd hack. Of course, neither are true.
Replace this approach with a gentler, more realistic narrative. Note what you have achieved rather than what you have failed to do. And remind yourself that by cracking on, over time your writing will improve (you hope).
I like the story of a ceramics teacher who divided his pupils into two groups. One group was asked to make as many pots as they could, and the other group to make one perfect pot. In the end, the group who focused on quantity rather than quality made the best pots. Their pots were smoother, with less bumps and a more pleasing shape, even though the students produced more, and worked more quickly. Why? Because those who made more pots were trying, failing and learning. Those who were trying for the perfect pot didn’t take any risks for fear of failure, which is why their skills didn’t improve. Fail more, but master more too.
As few of us have access to a kiln, I have adapted this idea into a flower drawing exercise. It is not about being brilliant and including every last floral detail. It is about giving something a go.
Imperfect action is better than perfect inaction. You could develop this idea by deliberately trying to do something less well, just to see what happens. Try giving yourself a time frame, as procrastination and perfectionism are linked. It’s harder to stay a perfectionist when you have a set time period in which to complete a task, which is not the same as an invitation to rush.
When you have finished your drawings, ask someone else about the images. Sometimes our anxiety about perfectionism is because we worry about what others will think, which holds us back. Yet in reality, others tend not to expect the level of detail or skill we feel we need to provide. Imagining their criticism demotivates us. That is a truth that’s universally acknowledged.
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We are thrilled to have British Author and Mental Health Advocate, Rachel Kelly, writing for InSPIre the Mind. Rachel has written as a journalist for The Times and has written books including Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me — My Journey Through Depression, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, The Happy Kitchen — Good Mood Food and her latest, Singing in the Rain: 52 Practical Steps to Happiness — An Inspirational Workbook.