Why perfectionism and fear can make you hate yourself
As we progress further and further along this journey, I have to touch on various topics that may unrelated at first sight. The reason I do this is because I realize that even though everybody wants a silver bullet to instantly solve all of life’s trials and tribulations, it’s just not that simple. C’mon, you know this. You’re not gonna make it anywhere if you’re solely a good writer, or just good at software development, or only good at drawing. Multidimensionality of character, that’s where the true power lies.
This blog is not a Buzzfeed-style “how to get the job you love, the (wo)man of your dreams, and eternal life in 5 simple steps” type of place (although I may do one of those list-style blog posts one day, but it will be the exception and not the rule). We all know that you have to go through quite the journey to eventually get to where you want to be. Step-by-step you go, and I will do my very best to be there with you in the process. With that out of the way, let’s get it on.
Perfectionism: Doing The Thing
You might think that, of all things, perfectionism is absolutely the least applicable concept to your life right now. I’m only just getting started man, I’m nowhere near being an overachiever that has the luxury of being able to worry about being a perfectionist. That’s totally understandable, I would think the same thing really. I also thought that this topic would be largely irrelevant to my blog, until I listened to episode 147 of the Back to Work podcast (hosted by the dynamic superhero duo of Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin). They had a really thought-provoking discussion about the conventional definition of perfectionism versus a more nuanced view of it.
Look, one of the most fundamental concepts that I base this blog on is useful action; turning all that insanity that’s going on inside your head into productive action that will move you forward in life. So I try to look at it from both sides of the equation: barriers you need to break and positive habits you need to create. Destruction on one side and creation on the other. Perfectionism, certainly in the way that Merlin defines it, seems to fit perfectly with the first side of the equation.
Just cast your mind back and think about the number of times you considered doing something ‘ambitious’ (or someone encouraged you to do so) but you decided not to do it. For example, the time you thought of taking your hobby of designing/drawing videogame characters to the next level or getting serious with your love for coding, but you didn’t because you thought “nah c’mon, who would ever look at that… who would ever use that?” These are random examples, but I’m sure if you dig real deep you’ll be able to find something small – not necessarily something dramatic like I wanted to become a surgeon but I thought I wouldn’t be good enough so I didn’t go to med school – where your perfectionist alter-ego killed off your brief flash of ambition to do something. You didn’t do the thing not only because you completely dismissed your ability to make something that was worthy enough, but also because you set this standard for ‘worthy enough’ unrealistically high.
Suddenly, if you look at it from this perspective, it really seems to be a lot more relevant than you would have thought from the start. It becomes more interesting when you delve even deeper into what Merlin said or, in this case, if I make a small, nitpicky personal adjustment to that: ‘I can’t envision this thing being anywhere near good enough to be able to present publicly and avoid public shame or embarrassment from my peers regardless of any effort, so therefore it is something I will not do.’ In my opinion, it shows that perfectionism is actually deeply rooted in fear. Fear of disapproval, fear of losing face, fear of not being good enough. This fear is seriously dangerous stuff, as Merlin clearly recognized when he said that “it becomes at best procrastination or, at worst, self-hate.”
It’s easy to see how perfectionism can so quickly spawn self-hate. You think that you’re not good enough to do the thing and make it good enough, so you never do it. Due to your lack of accomplishments, you don’t have the confidence to do other things so there’s an even smaller chance that you do something ambitious (success breeds confidence right?). This continues into the future, crippling your faith in your ability to do anything. You begin to think you’re useless because you can’t do and haven’t done anything that you can be truly proud of. Round and round the carousel we go, until you have a dangerously cancerous perception of your personal value as a worthwhile human being.
I really hope that I’ve done enough in stressing how dangerous this issue is because it’s something that can escape your attention very easily. I’m no psychologist so I don’t want to overstep my bounds by getting too psychoanalytic about this, but I really want you to ask yourself this with complete honesty: have you stopped yourself from ‘doing the thing’ because you thought the end-product wouldn’t be good enough, no matter how much effort you put into it? The answer to that question might be a heck more revealing to you than you expect.
Fear and loathing: What to do?
This rebooted definition of perfectionism relates well to my previous discussion of mental health and really shows how many sides there are to that story. As always though, the question is "what can I do to combat this problem?" Well recognizing the problem is a good first step, so at least that’s out of the way. Secondly, you have to learn to divorce the process from the outcome. What does that mean? It means that your goal has to be to simply show up every day and do the damn thing instead of driving yourself insane with thoughts like “but what if it fails? What if people ridicule me? What if I don’t get enough likes or shares or re-tweets to this thing?”
Wanna build that app? Stop dallying over how it has to be perfect and just make the damn thing. Wanna launch that blog? Stop shitting yourself with anxiety because you don’t think it’s spotless and just focus on writing the very best content you’re capable of writing.
Sure, at the end of the day it is about the outcome but, well, it’s really not. It’s about proving something to yourself and saying ‘look man I can f-ing do this. I can commit to starting and finishing something, no matter how great or shitty it might turn out to be. This process of doing this thing is something I have to do to prove to myself and my own personal honor and pride, that I’m not some lesser being.’ This stuff is hard, it really is, and I’m definitely also guilty of allowing the madness in my head to sabotage my pursuits in life. But you have to practice this over and over and over again. Introspection is key, remember?
Funny enough, this reminds me of Vegeta, the great Prince of the Saiyans. A man so possessed with pride and so driven to prove that he’s worthy. Fair enough, given his many flaws there are probably far better role models to follow than him, but there are definitely lessons to be learned from the Royal Prince’s relentless commitment to facing challenges, regardless of their nature. And he’s just a total badass.
Finally, as Merlin says in that same episode, you cannot compare your backstage to other people’s onstage. This means that you shouldn’t compare your current state in a process to what somebody else has already finished. It’s like if you are, for example, starting a business and you compare your first few months here to your mate’s million-dollar startup. His company is already on top of the game so it’s absurd to compare something you only just started to something that he has already ‘finished.’ Sure you can aspire to be great or famous one day, but you have to first focus on you and on how much good work you can do every single day.
As the saying goes, comparison is the thief of happiness so if you’re doing this type of backstage-onstage comparison you will view other people’s completed work as a minimum baseline which you need to pass right now. Yet that brings us back again to the issue of “I can’t envision this thing being perfect/good enough regardless of any effort so therefore it is something I will not do” because your definition of perfect or good enough is determined by this benchmark. So, to close this one out, remember this: focus on yourself and the process, then just do the damn thing.
Good luck, Space Cowboy.
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