On Perfectionism

Perfectionism is something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. I’ve always strived to not only do well, but be 100% perfect the first time I try anything because that’s a completely normal expectation thankyouverymuch. Yes, yes, it is.

But it’s really not.

I remember, for instance, the intense frustration and tears when I was first learning to drive a manual. I got angry at myself for crunching the gears and not transitioning to the next gear smoothly enough. What. What even is that. As I’m writing this, and in hindsight, I know perfectly well that it is completely unreasonable to think I should be able to know how to drive from the moment I start and yet, there that thought was, springing up in my mind, whirling around, making itself known until the frustration caused by my mismatched expectations and reality got too much and tears came rushing out and I felt like a giant useless loser.

I have also experienced this frustration when I recently started to learn crochet. Oh boy. That was not a pretty sight to behold. Or hear. There was a lot of swearing. Poor Mr. birdandfox. And, also, ouch to my poor creativity. Perfectionism can be a bitch to the creative process, hey? Little doubts sneak in, as is only natural in the creative process it seems, and perfectionism attaches itself like a dirty little leech and sucks out all the self-belief, replacing it with more fuel to add to The Fire of Doubts until you just don’t even try because what’s the point. Urgh.

The paralysing power of perfectionism can also be found in my uni life. I expect myself to be able to understand complex statistics from the word go. I also expect to be able to write brilliantly and get everything correct in the first draft. I constantly question myself and my abilities – “Why can’t I understand multi-level modelling?”, “Why don’t I know how to write a manuscript for publication?” – and it often ends in me not even wanting to try, for fear of failure. Because, yes, in my brain, not getting it right the first time = failing. Never mind the fact that I’m still a student, still learning, still finding my way. Unwavering perfectionistic standards for myself begets professional-level procrastination begets paralysis.

So my expectations have a lot to answer for. I’m well aware of that. But figuring out what constitutes a reasonable expectation for yourself can be a tricky business. What makes it even more frustrating is that I don’t hold these same expectations for other people. If someone repeated to me some of the things I tell myself, I would tell them to cut themselves some slack. I would tell them that you’re not expected to know how to do everything right off the bat and not to cry and also please don’t throw things. Ahhh, double standards. How I loathe thee. But do thee so well!

I envy the people who say that they accept, and often expect, they will make mistakes when learning something new. How are they comfortable with this? How did they come to think this way? Tell me your secrets! Teach me the ways of this magic! But I digress.

Writing these points on perfectionism has been rather cathartic for me and I think there’s something in that. Writing your expectations down, talking about them, or simply getting into the habit of questioning them yourself, can go a long way. Because once you start challenging those impossible, towering expectations, they begin to come undone. So pull on that loose thread. Unravel that jumper. Or knitted overalls, whatever. And watch your unrealistic expectations come crashing down around you, making room for learning, fun, and creativity. Don’t let your perfectionism paralyse you.

Jacquie

P.S.
You’ll be pleased to know that I have since learnt to drive a manual and am now a very competent driver. It just took more than a few hours to get it right.

P.P.S.
Crochet is still not happening.

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Jacquie is a 20-something maker and writer from Melbourne. She enjoys eating virtually anything that is labelled salted caramel and, contrary to popular belief, has forgotten how to ride a bike. She feels ambivalent about writing in the third person but thought it might be fun. It was.

6 comments

  1. Annette

    Yay for this post!!
    Great writing and such an important topic. I’ve had similar moments of “what the actual hell?” at my expectations, glad to report those moments are fairly irregular.
    Here’s to creativity and freedom from the inner critic.

    Reply

    1. birdandfox

      Thanks so much, Annette. I’m very glad to hear that those moments are few and far between for you! It’s something I’m getting much better at – it’s a little startling just how easily I accepted my expectations for myself in the past. Creativity and freedom from the inner critic – I’ll cheers to that.

      Reply

  2. Isabel

    I love this piece, Jacquie. Was it just by chance that the Random Quote on the left read ‘β€œIt is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default?” I love that quote. I love JK. You are not alone in being a perfectionist. You’re right, our expectations of ourselves often tower high and above our expectations of other people. I also got so MAD at myself learning to drive a manual car! And even learning Chinese, which is damn hard, I’m sometimes like ‘Why can’t you just SPEAK it fluently already, Isabel? Why are you so stupid?” Um, hello, self, you are not stupid…just give it time. Make mistakes. You’ll get there. Every time you are nice to yourself and cut yourself a bit of slack is a small slap in the face for perfectionism πŸ™‚ x

    Reply

    1. birdandfox

      Ha! Yes, that was just a lovely coinkydink! I love J. K. too, she’s the best.

      Exactly – just give yourself time, like a NORMAL person and you’ll get there. I really need to work on accepting that mistakes are just part and parcel of learning and life! I like the idea of slapping perfectionism in the face haha. Thanks Isabel! x

      Reply

  3. Emily

    I must have missed out on that gene Jacqui, as frustrating as it is I’m sure it has helped you get where you are today. The great thing is that these days we know we can change ( if we want to ), so theoretically I could become a perfectionist and you could learn to give yourself a break when learning new tasks. It’s amazing the power of writing things down and challenging expectations or other crazy things we do to ourselves sometimes ( eg negative self talk or limitations ). I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on perfectionism . Good luck with your crochet and putting that perfectionism to the side while you learn . Emily x

    Reply

    1. birdandfox

      That’s very true, Emily. I’m getting better at challenging myself and not just blindly accepting what that inner voice says. Thanks for the well wishes re crochet! Fingers crossed! Thanks for commenting πŸ˜€ x

      Reply

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