“We’ve all heard that the unexamined life is not worth living, but consider too that the un-lived life is not worth examining.” ~ Julia Cameron
Perfectionism. Let’s call it what it really is, fear.
I used to be flattered when people called me a perfectionist. To me, it sounded so noble. I took this title to mean I was a person with high standards.
“Thank you,” I’d say—and then carry on in my merry, neurotic way.
I convinced myself that the reason I wanted everything to be perfect was because I cared about the quality of my life. I didn’t want to settle for a career that I wasn’t passionate about, or be anywhere that didn’t align with my values, or make decisions without an in-depth risk analysis.
“Life is short and I want to make the most of it,” I touted.
Ironically, to make the most out of our lives, we have to be willing to take risks. We must be willing to share ourselves with the world, open our hearts, and embrace the unknown. Yet the risk of failure, embarrassment, rejection, and criticism are what I, as a perfectionist, have worked tirelessly to avoid my whole life.
Fear of failure turns our high standards into justification for not pursuing the things that may enrich our lives.
I used to be anxious about trying new hobbies. I avoided any situation where my lack of skill and knowledge were subject to exposure. The feeling of ignorance and the loss of control that coincided with being a beginner challenged my sense of self-worth, leaving me feeling inferior. I’m regretful of all the opportunities I rejected to protect my ego—but perhaps I had to reject those things in order to learn these lessons.
It took all of my 20s and several emotional breakdowns to realize that my happiness was a steep price to pay for predictability. It wasn’t my lack of intelligence, creativity, or work ethic that kept me from feeling fulfilled; it was my fear of moving forward in my life.
Fear tells us to stay in our dead-end jobs instead of venturing down an unknown career path. Fear helps us rationalize our dreams away, burying them with logic. Fear causes us to throw our hands up in despair and wonder, why bother?
Why bother learning how to write when we’re never going to be a New York Times best-selling author?
Why bother learning to dance or make pottery or speak Italian?
Before we know it, the mere idea of taking a photography class becomes a battle for self-worth rather than a creative endeavor.
But one morning, most of us inevitably wake up and find ourselves in a rut. We realize we’ve been so preoccupied with being perfect that we’ve allowed our fear to run our lives into stagnation.
So how do we break the fear-based cycle of perfectionism and regenerate creative momentum?
Here is a list of four tools that have helped me to break free:
1. Practice Kaizen.
Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that focuses on continual improvement through small, consistent steps.
When we worry about being the best, we overlook the power of tiny actions. We fill our minds with larger, complex tasks, while the much simpler next steps get neglected.
We tell ourselves we have to write a best-selling book when we’ve yet to put pen to paper. The idea that success requires giant leaps of improvement is overwhelming and discourages us into stagnation.
It helps to remember that no great accomplishment happens overnight. Books are written one page at a time and paintings are creating by a series of small, consistent brush strokes. When we feel stuck in our careers or unfulfilled in our creative ventures, we can generate momentum by asking, “what’s the next small step I can take?” Mentally, it’s more manageable to commit to writing one page than it is to attempt beginning a best-selling novel. If we repeat the process enough times, we might just end up with a book in our hands.
2. Grab a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
In her internationally acclaimed book (I now refer to it as my Bible), Julia Cameron inspires readers to move past their fears and unleash their creative potential. On the topics of risk and perfectionism, she invites us to make a list of all the things we would do if we didn’t have to do them perfectly.
After making my list, I realized I could be doing a helluva lot more if I gave myself permission to do things badly. I would take a hip-hop dance class, try an aerial silks class, take a creative writing class, speak in public, or start a blog. By the end of it, I was both surprised and liberated by the length of my list. As it turns out, my life wasn’t lacking creativity; rather, I was inhibited by my unwillingness to let go of expectations.
3. Bring back the fun.
Three months ago, my friend bought me a couple of pottery classes after listening to me talk about how much I wanted to give pottery a try. I was so excited and ready to get my hands dirty. Then I realized I was pretty terrible at it. It took me about a month to make anything that resembled a shape. I went into class every week and sat next to people who effortlessly turned clay into beautiful pieces of kitchenware, while I consistently managed to splatter myself (and everyone within a five-foot radius) with grey sludge.
But that’s just it: why must it be impressive? Why must we worry about impressing anyone when we’re learning something for the first time? Where’s the fun in that? When I decided to make fun a priority, my entire experience was enriched. All of sudden the studio space became warm and inviting. There were bright glazes and eccentric tools competing for my attention.
Trying doesn’t have to be about a fancy outcome. We’re allowed to just have fun.
4. Mind our own business.
When we make “being the best” a requirement, we start comparing ourselves to others. All of a sudden, we find ourselves berating our first attempts at writing because we just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and by comparison, our work is utter crap. Or we compare ourselves to our coworkers, loved ones, neighbors, and the cashier in the health food store with the “perfect” hair. It’s normal. We all do it.
But how effective is it? How realistic is it to compare our own uniqueness to that of another?
When it comes to moving my life forward, I’ve found it is more productive and enjoyable if I keep my comparisons between my current self and my past self. We all have our own route to success. Some of us start earning a degree later in life while others choose to travel. There’s no right way to live. If we’re constantly being distracted by measuring ourselves against others, we end up crushing our own momentum. It doesn’t matter where we are in our journey.
If we keep doing what makes our hearts swell, we will inevitably be better than we were yesterday.
I used to think perfectionism was the gateway to the place where our dreams become a reality, that place where best-selling books, thriving local businesses, and soulmates hang out and celebrate.
What I didn’t realize was that my well-intentioned desire for greatness was actually a disguise for fear of failure.
We all want to move forward in our lives and reach a point where we can look back on our achievements and successes with admiration for our growth. However, to get there, we have to be willing to acknowledge our fears and risk failure, embarrassment, and criticism along the way.
It’s quite the dilemma.
Author: Chezarina Moran
Apprentice Editor: Robbie Ahmed / Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May
...is a new feature on Elephant Journal—enabling you to instantly share your mindful ideas, photos, art, YouTube videos/Instagram links & writings with our 5 million readers. Try it Now.