In a very popular recent piece in the Atlantic magazine (“The Confidence Gap”), Katty Kay and Claire Shipman describe perfectionism as a “confidence killer”:
“Study after study confirms that it is largely a female issue, one that extends through women’s entire lives. We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer, we don’t submit a report until we’ve edited it ad nauseam, and we don’t sign up for that triathlon unless we know we are faster and fitter than is required...The irony is that striving to be perfect actually keeps us from getting much of anything done,” they wrote.
This was certainly true for me. I wasn't going after the things I wanted to do. I made up excuses: I was too busy. Had too many ideas. I resisted choosing. Sometimes I told myself it was just too hard.
But it wasn’t too hard.
What was hard was keeping up with an idea of what I thought I should be and could do, namely, to create a whole, perfect, infallible thing. And that isn’t just hard; it’s impossible. So I wasn't doing anything at all.
I’ve started to slowly liberate myself from my perfectionist prison, but it isn’t so much a jailbreak as an emotional Shawshank, chipping my way out, a little each day. To do that you need to recognize what is holding you hostage. You may think you’re not getting anywhere, but you are — you can tunnel your way through until you see a little crack of light.
I’d like to say that I’m a functioning perfectionist, which is to say: I get done what needs to be done when someone’s waiting for it. Because the risk of disappointing someone is worse, for me anyway. The problem is that when someone isn’t waiting for it it (i.e., an idea for a book or an article or a business), my perfectionism allows me to put it on ice.
On the career front, I’ve found that risking failure is the only way to learn something new. In dating I learned to brave rejection (and I recommend you not just risk rejection, but seek it out). On the day-to-day front, I know that regular, imperfect maintenance is better than none at all. But most importantly, I’m learning to push through the friction of fear.
The perfect image you have of the “you” you could be isn’t real at all. Perfectionism is a warped mirror. And there’s nothing worse than letting a made-up idea of who you should be dominate the woman you are.
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