Over the summer I saw a counselor for some self-esteem issues and she started me on this book called The Happiness Trap One of the main points of the book is that there are no negative emotions - emotions are just emotions and they’re temporary. There are no negative thoughts; thoughts are just thoughts, not reality. I think that it follows that there are no negative personality traits, just socially inappropriate applications of talent or expressions of opinion.
If that’s the case, then there has to be a positive aspect to perfectionism, right? And I don’t mean the positive spin we put on perfectionism when asked in an interview what our worst trait is. I mean a measurable and actionable positive. I wondered about this as I thought about the negative aspects of too much happiness and the positive aspects of grief. There is a point to every feeling, every action and every expression. The more I thought about perfection and it’s positives the more it became clear: perfectionism is a tool that we have been using wrong.
Perfection as the antithesis of progress
To understand where we went wrong with perfectionism we have to understand where we are now and work our way back. I see blog posts, news articles and inspirational Instagrams about the dangers of perfection. They warn how an obsession with perfection can keep us from starting in the first place and if let it we’ll never seek our dreams because we’ll be too afraid of not doing it right.
In fact, I’m guilty of telling patients this. “Start your diet now, don’t worry about doing it perfectly” and “don’t worry about exercising every day so long as you’re moving.” We’re not wrong - doing something healthy is indeed better than nothing. I don’t think we’re entirely correct either.
We are setting up perfectionism as the antithesis of progress. We turn it into a big monster that we can battle and defeat in the interests of getting started or “doing something, at least.” Doing something is indeed "something, at least" and God knows that if I waited until everything was perfect this blog would have never gotten started. But turning perfectionism into a strawman keeps us from seeing the whole picture. Knowing how to utilize it properly can get us the rest of the way through to success.
Anyone who has ever played a video game probably knows what an achievement is. If you don’t, an achievement is a sort of in game recognition of accomplishing a task. For instance, in Adventure Capitalist I can get achievements for purchasing my first oil rig or buying 1000 of everything on Earth. But since I am a perfectionist I am also a completionist. That means I want all of those achievements and I’m especially motivated to get everything on the list.
Non-gaming examples would include that special joy I get from being able to fill out all of the boxes on a form, or buying the last book in a series and being able to put it on the self with the others - a collection. It includes fulfilling a task well from beginning to end and being able to check all of the steps off as I go. These things result in the same quiet joy I get from posts on r/oddlysatisfying.
Completionism is an incredibly useful form of perfectionism, and if you can harness it properly it can be a powerful tool for building your practice. In fact, it is arguably a socially acceptable form of perfectionism. Almost everybody appreciates an employee or a co-worker who puts effort into properly organizing and completing tasks.
Making your neuroticism work for you
Harnessing perfectionism is simple, it’s controlling it that’s difficult. The easiest way is to implement systems for your tasks. Everyone has something they need to do every day or once a week which needs to be done in a reasonably similar fashion every time. For this example I’ll use my blog post system.
In Evernote I have a checklist in my systems notebook labelled “Blog Posts.” I copy/paste the check list into a Google document. Then, for every line of instruction in that template I fill in the blank. For instance I start with the focus - “What I’m really trying to say is [words]” Then I move onto title, keywords, subheadings/outline and blog post. By filling in every line I’m ensuring that when I get to the next steps some of the hardest work, like finding keywords for my SEO, is already done.
Once I’m done editing I add in my links, images, SEO junk and schedule it. There are 20 to 25 steps in every blog post I write and I’m constantly improving my process. The faithfulness with which I follow my list and check off each “achievement” has a direct and noticeable impact on the quality of my post. Perfectionism hones my focus and the resulting post is properly dotted and crossed so that it can be posted.
There’s always too much of a good thing
Perfectionism is neutral. It has it’s positive uses, but it does have it’s negatives. All of the warnings about perfection preventing progress mentioned above? Yeah, those are for real. I put Shelfhelpless off for nine months because I was waiting to come up with the perfect posts. I wanted a site that was nicely branded and ready to go. Instead I ended up with a business blog that is changing every day because of blogging pins I find on Pinterest.
I love Reverie. I don’t think anything I ever dreamed of for Shelfhelpless even approaches the fun I’ve had with this project over the past month. It’s so much fun because I just did it - ass in chair, hands on keyboard, damn the consequences. Perfectionism came along the way to sand off the rough bits because that’s what it’s good for. Use your perfectionism for the little tasks that keep things moving smoothly. Stow it for things that require reckless abandon and courage.
It’s easy to remember that too much sadness or too much anger is bad. It’s easy to forget that too much happiness is too. There is a good and a bad for every emotion, moment, thought, and personality quirk. Learn to work with your perfectionism instead of fighting it and see where it takes you.
Related links and posts:
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
AdVenture Capitalist by Hyper Hippo Games on Steam
More about how I moved from wanting Shelfhelpless to be perfect and diving into The Reverie Alone instead
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What do you find when you take a hard look at your "faults" and ask yourself how they have benefited you?