At the moment (though not, I hope, by the time you read it), this article is a mess of redundant, poorly phrased, haphazardly punctuated drivel. At the top, written in bold capital letters, is the working title I use for all new projects: shitty first draft. I owe this graceful phrase to writer-teacher Anne Lamott, who recommends the shitty first draft as an indispensable phase of literary creation—and, for that matter, any other human endeavor. A New Age-y friend of mine was once horrified to see my production title. "You manifest what you project," he cautioned. "If you want your writing to be perfect, you have to think of it as perfect." Maybe that works for him. Not me. I've never written anything within shrieking distance of perfect. Even trying scares me so much that the first time I did it, when I was assigned to write a poem for a middle school assignment, my doctor—my pediatrician, mind you—had to put me on Valium.
Most people realize that perfectionism, as Lamott puts it in her book Bird by Bird, "is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life." But seriously unwell people such as me run into trouble when we try to let go of perfectionism. We end up getting perfectionistic about our attempts to stop being perfectionists. I began finding my way out of this psychological morass when I heard the Buddhist saying "To be enlightened is to be without anxiety over imperfection." Years after adopting this perspective, I'm still a perfectionist, but here's the thing: I don't care.
I've found some reliable ways to reduce my anxiety about my imperfections, including my imperfection at ridding myself of perfectionism. I encourage you to try doing the following exercises—imperfectly.
Exercise One: Personify Your Inner Perfectionist
I've been using the term perfectionist as though it's something you can be. Actually, I think it's something people have, like brain damage. Separating your innate personality from your perfectionsim frees you to confront it, rather than get lost in it. To that end, I recommend giving your perfectionism its own name and face.
Can't picture this inner critic? Start by thinking about a mistake you've made recently. Let the voice of the oppressor berate you ("You dumb, clumsy, fat, boring..." etc.). Listen: Does that voice sound familiar? Does it belong to your wicked stepmother, your boss, your ex-spouse, an amalgam of your least-favorite movie critics? Try to summon a visual image of the tyrant. Scribble a picture of it, and do something insulting to this picture whenever your perfectionist acts up. In time, as you neutralize the destructive power inherent in this aspect of yourself, you may well lose all fear of it. By just externalizing and rejecting your inner critic, you can decrease your anxiety considerably.
We Hear You!