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Posts Tagged ‘perfectionism’

I normally don’t write a post for Thanksgiving Day because I figure a lot of you will be too busy inducing food comas and hanging out with people to read any blogs. But some of you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and others of you might want a well-deserved five-minute break from all activities Thanksgiving, so this year, here I am.

And guess what. I’m not even going to be talking about gratitude. Revolutionary, I know.

Although I will post a vanity pic of my first ever homemade cranberry sauce.

Instead, I want to talk about emotions. Our culture often puts certain value judgements on emotions. We have the “We must always be happy” myth. We also have the “tears are for wimps” myth. And we have the “Emotions are bad and must be suppressed–yay detachment!” idea.

I’m the first to agree that the ability to reframe and see the positive side of life is a great gift. Those of you who are regular readers have seen me write about that several times. Positivity helps with emotional resilience, and I think it tends to make people generally happier. All of which is fabulous.

But it’s fine when we have emotions besides happiness. It’s fine to sit there and admit to yourself that something really sucks. It’s fine to be frightened, or angry, or sad, or confused. It’s fine to be completely and utterly miserable. It’s fine to have a bad day. It’s fine if you don’t like Thanksgiving, or if your family is stressing you out, or if you’re worried that the mashed potatoes aren’t going to turn out. It’s fine if you feel shy because look and see all of these people you don’t know.

You don’t need my permission to feel however it is that you feel right now. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Go ahead and feel it. You don’t have to do anything about it, after all. A feeling doesn’t have to propel you into action. It can simply be.

We can repress and get down on ourselves when we aren’t feeling exactly what we’re “supposed” to feel. Or we can celebrate the fact that we’re alive right now and we get to feel the full spectrum of emotions. Some of them are tougher, for sure. Some of them we wish we weren’t feeling. But most of them happen to most of us at one point or another.

The idea that we must be constantly happy at all times is not particularly helpful. In fact, I find it downright exhausting. My favorite people are the ones that are okay with me however I happen to be feeling right then, even if I’m feeling cranky, or stressed, or really sad. The ones that need me to be happy all the time are not privy to the entireness of Amy, and I think that’s too bad. But regardless, I get to experience the entireness of Amy, just as all of you get to experience the entireness of who you are and how you feel. This is a beautiful thing. And it is part of being human.

Maybe there’s some irony in me being positive about not being positive and having emotions like sadness and fear and anger. But I don’t think we hear this message enough. It’s okay to feel how we feel. It’s okay if we don’t exist in an ecstatic cloud of happiness all the time.

It’s okay to accept the humanity of emotion.

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I stumbled across an interview with Brene Brown (whose TED talk I mentioned last week), and at the end she says if she was going to found a museum, she would call it “a Museum of Epic Failure.” At which point I instantly emailed a link to the article to my friend and said, “This is the title of my next blog post!”

Photo by the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institute

We have such strange ideas about failure and success. I meet people again and again who assume that, having failed at something once, it makes sense to automatically give up and not try again. They wonder at the fact that I have written THREE novels, even though none of them are yet published. They make comments that call into question the entire premise of one of my failures, as if I have now automatically learned better.

Sure, sometimes a failure, and the lessons we learn by failing, cause us to change directions. Sometimes we decide we’re better suited to doing something different, or we’ve found a new passion to pursue. Sometimes our viewpoint has changed so that we no longer want the same things we wanted before. But failure can also mean that the next time we try, we’ll apply what we’ve learned this time around and do better.

Meanwhile, when we stop doing something we’ve been successful at in some form or another, people get confused and tell us it’s “too bad.” And if they like us (aka social success), they tell us to “never change.” There’s this idea that once success has been achieved, we need to hold onto it tightly while avoiding change at all costs.

This is an example of black and white thinking at its finest, where success is positive and good and to be cherished, while failure is negative and bad and to be avoided.

What is often overlooked is the necessity of failure. When we take a risk, it is risky because there is the possibility of failure. If we were one hundred percent sure we’d succeed, it wouldn’t be a risk at all, would it? And so many great successes and helpful learning moments come from the willingness to take a risk and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

Most great art–be it visual, literary, musical, or theatrical–comes from reaching to see where we can go, from exposing ourselves in the act of creation.

Most great relationships–be they platonic or romantic–come from opening up and being authentic with one another, while not knowing how we’ll be received.

Most great entrepreneurial ventures–be they tech start-ups or service businesses or local merchants–come from taking the leap into the unknown and committing ourselves and our resources to a particular vision.

When we are engaged in these activities and being honest with ourselves, we know we are taking risks. We know we may fail. And it is when we allow ourselves the space to fail (say goodbye to perfectionism!) that we are capable of our best work.

Which is when we realize that failure isn’t inherently bad. It teaches us, it pushes us, it leads down paths we wouldn’t have noticed by ourselves. It makes success, when it comes, more meaningful, even while it keeps us grounded and connected. And when failure comes instead, and we feel flattened by its impact, we can remind ourselves of the alternative: staying safe, cramped, and complacent while being too afraid to really try.

We are each in the process of creating our own personal Museum of Epic Failure. I’ve already collected many interesting exhibits in mine. And each one has helped to shape who I am today.

Even things that are uncomfortable can have reasons to be celebrated. Is there a failure you’ve experienced that you learned something important from or that you’re grateful for now? Feel free to share in the comments.

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I just got back from L.A. and the annual SCBWI summer writing conference. I got to spend a lot of time with some truly incredible human beings, I got to hear Matthew Kirby be intelligent (if you ever have the opportunity to hear him talk, go!), I got to be inspired and fired up and reminded of a critical component of my own identity.

But I’m going to talk about something that was said at the conference that I disagree with. One of the keynotes given was “The Power of Quiet,” presented by Deborah Underwood. It was a good talk about, among other things, creativity, recent neuroscience research, the usefulness of daydreaming, and the importance of allowing for quiet time in our lives. But… Towards the end, Ms. Underwood basically said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that we don’t owe it to ourselves to make time for quiet, but rather that we owe it to the children who will read our books.

[Insert appropriate noise of pain and frustration here.]

Then today I was linked to an article by Amanda Craig in which she says, “Yet putting yourself last is one of the best things that can happen to a writer.” (This article, by the way, is a great way of inducing rage in yourself as it is one of the more misogynistic and offensive pieces of writing I’ve seen. Happily the commenters seem to agree with me, which does help prop up my hope for humanity.)

Both of these examples reference writers in particular, but I see this idea of selflessness, self sacrifice, and the deprioritization of self care all over the place. Our society propagates it, and while it is a popular idea, it can also be quite harmful. It is tempting to link it to our society’s issues with gender and the role of the female as the nurturing caregiver who puts everyone in front of herself, but actually I believe it’s a universal message that simply sometimes differs in presentation depending on gender.

This is not an idea I can support. Yes, it is good to be kind and treat each other well. It is good to help others. It is good to fulfill your responsibilities. Sometimes you have to compromise or put other people’s needs ahead of your own, particularly if you have children. Sometimes you have to juggle priorities and put important personal ones on the back burner for a while. Life happens.

But having needs is not only okay, it’s human. We all have needs. It is not necessary to put ourselves last in order to be virtuous or good writers or good family members or good citizens. It is not necessary to give ourselves permission to do something good for ourselves (and in this example, good for our careers as well) only because it might help other people down the line. It is not necessary to value ourselves so little. It’s as if we’re afraid that by giving ourselves permission to take care of ourselves, the ugly Selfish Monster will burst out of our foreheads and wreak havoc on the world.

Well, guess what? It takes a lot more for the Selfish Monster to show itself.

Putting yourself last is NOT the best thing that can happen to a writer. It keeps you from writing. It keeps you from feeding your creativity and inspiration. It keeps you weighed down on the floor instead of being able to fly. It encourages you to make poor business decisions. It keeps you from taking care of yourself, which means that stress and bad health are going to take their tolls…both on you and–shocking, I know–on your writing.

Give yourself permission to fly.

Putting yourself last is not the best thing that can happen to ANYONE. Sometimes it happens. But think about it. Putting yourself last literally means you’re putting the needs of every person you know, and society at large, and probably also random groups of strangers, in front of your own. All the time. How long is it possible to survive this way? Why do we valorize behavior that leads to unhealthy perfectionism, people pleasing behavior, and nervous breakdowns? How can you be the best possible version of you, which is on its own a huge service to the world, if you’re treating yourself so badly?

Someday I hope I’ll have the opportunity to give my own speech on this subject. But in the meantime, take care of yourselves. Cherish yourselves. Respect yourselves. Not just because you’re doing worthwhile, noble work (although that is awesome), but because you allow yourself, your life, and your experiences to have their own inherent and deeply personal value.

Please believe you’re worth it.

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Let’s talk about failing.

Remember Adam Baker, producer of the documentary I’m Fine, Thanks? (The movie, incidentally, has now reached its funding goals, hooray!) He had this to say about how people overcome falling into complacency:

“They started to become comfortable being able to fail. I don’t mean they LIKED failing. Or even tried to fail. But they were o.k. with that being part of the process. Often, the desire NOT to fail was what kept people trapped for decades!”

How often do we hold ourselves back because we’re afraid to fail? Maybe people won’t like our final product (or us, heaven forbid). Maybe people will say no to us. Maybe people won’t buy our book, or listen to our songs, or even know we exist, even when we’ve given it our best shot. Maybe we’ll sound stupid. Maybe we’ll realize a major flaw only after our idea/plan/creative work has already been made public. Maybe maybe maybe.

So in order to protect ourselves from all those maybes, those things that might happen in the future, we fail before we even start, by not allowing ourselves to start (or finish). In this way we can preserve some illusion of perfection, of possibility, of “I could have done this if I’d really wanted to.” Some of us have been taught that failure is an unacceptable and unendurable sort of experience, and thus, we protect ourselves from the imagined agony it will cause.

Except. Failure only has the power over us that we grant it. Failure only causes us agonies if we allow it to do so. When we reframe failure to be okay, to be a learning experience, perhaps even a way of being able to tell that we’re saying yes to our own potential, then it loses its power to wound so deeply.

Even in the hero’s journey, the hero fails before succeeding.

“Boldness is genius.” I read this post by Sarah Peck recently, and it suits my current frame of mind (I even gave a spirited live reading of it, which I wish I had video of so we could laugh about it together). I’ve been trying to be more bold lately. And you know what has mostly happened?

I’ve failed. A lot more than usual. Things have fallen through. People have told me no. Vast quantities of uncertainty have wrapped their tendrils throughout my life. I’ve miscalculated the risks involved. I’ve been disappointed and frustrated. Sometimes I have a sensation not unlike banging my head repeatedly against a hard object.

But you know what? Failure? It’s not so bad. I haven’t disintegrated into a pile of green goo. My sense of self worth still exists. Sure, I don’t particularly enjoy being disappointed or frustrated, but I’m pretty sure I’d feel those emotions no matter what, and this way I’m not giving them power over me in the same way. I feel frustrated? Let’s try something new, take a break from whatever is getting under my skin. I feel disappointed? I’ll only dwell on it until I try the next thing. And if I’m being bold, that means I’m trying the next new thing a lot sooner.

The idea that failure always equals disaster is just plain wrong. Boldness IS genius. Comfort with failure unlocks many doors. And allowing ourselves to separate from all those crippling maybes is freedom.

How are you going to be bold this week?

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I don’t really like pain, and I don’t like to feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I daydream about my ideal life, when I have fixed all my problems, have everything I want, and am exactly where I want to be in my career.I will never achieve that ideal life. And thank goodness, because if I did I’d be bored stiff…in which case I would have a problem, wouldn’t I?

Seth Godin published an insightful post last week entitled “Trading in your pain,” in which he outlines two common problems we can have due to our relationship with pain.

The first is the “if only” syndrome. We think if only something (fill in the blank) happens, then everything will be great and we won’t feel pain/discomfort/ uncertainty anymore. If only I meet the right person. If only I buy the right house. If only I remodel. If only I get an agent. If only I sell my first novel. If only my sales figures exceed a certain golden number. If only I win this award or make that bestseller list. If only I get this promotion. If only I was better or had more or …

That’s not generally the way things work, though. Whatever “if only” you’re hoping for (and I’m holding out for several myself), even if it happens, it will open the way to new challenges, new problems, new if only’s, and new pain as you strive. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing well. It doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It’s just life.

The second is the “fear of change” syndrome. We sometimes become comfortable with a certain flavor of pain or discomfort, and we hold onto it really tightly so we won’t have to deal with another, unknown flavor instead. We become frozen. Stagnant. Afraid of success and the new problems success will bring us. Afraid of a different failure mode and how that will make us feel.

Behind the GateWriters who don’t write are having this second problem. They are used to dealing with the failure mode of “I suck because I’m not writing” and don’t want to address whatever issues might come up if they actually did write: “I suck because I’m not selling” or “I suck because I’m not selling enough” or “I suck because now I have to make business decisions” or whatever.

But I see this problem everywhere, not just in writers. We make ourselves at home with a certain problem, and settle in for keeps. And in the process, we get stuck. We can’t move on; we can’t grow.

Our identity and our personal narrative become entwined with our pain. I’m the girl whose mother died when I was only nineteen. That’s not who I am anymore. It is, however, who I could have been. It is who I was for a period of years. And then I let go and moved on. Instead I’m the girl who loved her mother very much.

Pain can be your friend. It will be lurking nearby for your entire life, and that’s okay. It means you’re alive, and it reminds you that you care what happens. It can push you forward instead of holding you still. It can give you focus instead of causing you to scatter. It can make our priorities clear to us.

If you could shed one “if only” or do one thing that makes you frightened, what would it be?

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I stumbled across Brenda Cooper revisiting her predictions for 2011, and my interest was completely captured. “What a fun game!” I thought. “Maybe I should make some predictions myself for 2012.” Then I thought again. “But many of my predictions will end up being wrong.” The unimaginable horror of that idea paraded through my brain.

So of course, now I have to write 2012 predictions to take my first good whack at my perfectionism this year. And not only that, but I am going to write them quickly, without obsessive researching, and I’m going to write them boldly without resorting to wishy-washiness.  Are you ready?

Publishing

  • E-books will continue to gain share in the marketplace. Based on the huge amount of Kindles that sold this December, I’m going to say that by the end of 2012, we’re going to see e-books up to 35% of the market…at least.
  • Publishers will hold firm at a 25% net royalty for electronic sales…except for the biggest author names.
  • A couple of major name authors will strike out on their own and release titles themselves. Because they are big names, they will easily be able to continue commanding shelf space at B&N.
  • Publishers will begin (or continue?) to commit more resources to building stronger relationships with readers (more aggressively building their email lists, for example) and developing brand recognition for their publishing imprints apart from author names. (This one, I am afraid, might be overly optimistic, but I can’t help myself!)
  • There will be no definitive answer in the traditional vs. self-pub debate. Some writers will go all in one way or another and be super judgmental of anyone doing something different. The smartest writers will do both. There will continue to be a stigma, although not nearly as strong as it was even a few years ago, against self-published work by writers who haven’t already been traditionally published. Interestingly, there will be no stigma against those writers who raise money for projects using crowd-sourcing platforms like Kickstarter. (Maybe because Kickstarter mainly works for those writers who already have an established fan base?)

Current Affairs

  • There will be the usual hoop-la of a US election year. Romney will win the Republican nomination, and Obama will win the election, but it will be a hard fight. Voter apathy will be more of a problem than it was in 2008.
  • The Euro will still exist as a currency at the end of 2012. No promises for 2013, though!
  • Some major shit will go down in Egypt this year, what with elections expected in the next six months. The military won’t let go of power easily.
  • Syria’s government will collapse by the end of the year.
  • The economic turmoil in the EU and the political turmoil in the Middle East won’t do the US economy any favors. Oil prices will go up. Volatility in the stock market will continue. I don’t expect unemployment rates to improve substantially (although I’d be very happy to be wrong).
  • My husband says the cinema industry will begin to tank this year, but I disagree. I actually think 2012 will be better than 2011 in terms of box office sales. The foreign markets for movies will continue to be robust.
  • Social media sites will try to collect ever more information about their users. Some people will continue, inexplicably, to think that they should overshare mundane data with their “friends.” Facebook, Google+, and Twitter will all continue to exist healthily at the end of the year. Klout, on the other hand, will have lost its klout in most circles due to both its basic dullness and its arbitrary algorithms (how I can lose or gain influence over 1000 people in the course of a single day is beyond me).
  • Houses will begin to become “smarter,” both due to Kinect technology and chips that talk to each other over WiFi and Bluetooth.
  • Scientists will push stem cell research farther this year, and will succeed in regenerating a more complicated organ (they’ve already done bladders and tracheae).
  • There will still be no flying cars or Asimov-esque robots in general use (and no, I don’t count the Roomba).

Care to play along? What predictions can you make about 2012?

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At this time of year, I always feel like I’m straddling the flow of time. Half of myself is looking backwards and evaluating what has gone on before, while the other half is looking forward to what the next year may hold for me. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions per say because I prefer a continuous evaluation process, but thinking in terms of units of time can be helpful when trying to look at the bigger picture of my life.

So, without further ado, here are a few reflections on 2011 and few wishes for the year to come.

Cute little Nala and me

Writing:

2011 was an exciting year because it was the first year I had something published, thus realizing a dream I have cherished since I was seven years old. Hooray! In fact, I had three short stories published this year, one of them to a pro market. I was also able to join SFWA as an associate member.

My wish for 2012 is that I am able to use the lessons I learned this year to increase both my productivity and my enjoyment in writing. (Being greedy, I also wish for more sales.)

Health:

The first half of 2011 was dominated by crazy dental problems. While that silly crown still often aches, the level of pain has subsided to the realms of the tolerable. I also had more ankle problems. But on the plus side, my knees continued to improve in a most pleasing fashion. I also began to eat more healthily, trying to limit my consumption of saturated fats in particular, and have done fairly well with it (although not when traveling. Eating healthily when traveling is ridiculously hard).

My wish for 2012 is to keep growing stronger so I have less overall aches and pains, and to continue following my moderate diet.

Travel:

2011 was the first year in a long time that I didn’t leave the country. Various health concerns dampened my travel ambition somewhat, and I mostly stayed close to home. My favorite trip of the year was my first time in Washington D.C. in March. I would definitely return there for a follow-up visit someday. We also attended the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, visited Disneyland with friends, and relaxed over Thanksgiving at our favorite Maui vacation spot.

I was able to attend five writing conferences and conventions, two local and three an easy traveling distance: Potlatch, FogCon, SCBWI LA, WorldCon, and World Fantasy. I particularly enjoyed attending the inaugural FogCon and moderating my first two panels, and catching up with my wonderful writer friends (and making new ones) at the larger conventions was fabulous as usual.

My wish for 2012 is to leave the United States. We’re thinking either Japan or certain favorite Western European locations…

Personal Growth:

I wrote about the two most important lessons I’ve learned this year last week. I feel like I’ve made a fair amount of progress on the people pleaser front and have developed a stronger backbone. I’m more likely to stand up for myself and less likely to take responsibility for everyone else. So, yay!

My wish for 2012 is to continue tackling my vicious perfectionist streak and to do further work towards trusting myself and my abilities. I’d also like to be able to reach out more to other people.

Happy upcoming New Year, dear readers! What are your wishes for 2012?


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Some of my astute readers might have noticed that I initiated a massive life re-haul and personality shift this year. I have written a fair amount about being a people pleaser, developing a backbone, and being a perfectionist because these were things that were on my mind. I decided, somewhere in the haze of extreme tooth pain, that I needed to change, and I set about doing just that.

I’m still in the middle of it. It has already been completely worth it.

It is one of the hardest things I’ve done.

Here is what I have learned: You have to respect yourself. You have to believe that you are worth it. And you have to do whatever it takes to convince yourself you are worth it, even if it means muttering silly mantras to yourself and being glad you work at home so no one suspects you are crazy.

I have spent my entire life believing that if only I was good enough (oh, hey perfectionism), people would love me, respect me, and treat me well. I really wish this were the case, but I was flat-out wrong. The truth is, if you are willing to let something happen, the odds are that it will happen. If you are willing to tolerate being lied to, then people will lie to you. If you are willing to let people ignore you, then they will. If you don’t take a stand against bad behavior towards yourself, then that bad behavior will continue. The world doesn’t give you a voice, you have to demand it.

And in order to demand the respect you deserve, you have to give it to yourself first. You have to believe you are worth it.

Photo by Anita Hart

This self-respect is not the same as thinking you are perfect and infallible and can’t possibly make a mistake. Therein lies another problem (oh, hey narcissism). And it doesn’t preclude feeling compassion for people, even (and especially) the ones who are in the middle of making your life difficult.

What self-respect does give you is the ability to empower yourself. It gives you the choice of surrounding yourself with people who will lift you up instead of pulling you down. It gives you the chance to speak up. It gives you permission to refuse to take on every single problem as your own, when so many of them aren’t really yours at all. It gives you the strength to confront the parts of yourself that you don’t like. It gives you the space to say “No.”

No, I am not your bitch. But thanks for asking.

Remember that you are worth it. That is what I have learned this year.

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When I was entering the job market in my early twenties, I tried to be proactive and prepare for the inevitable interview process. The hypothetical question that all the articles told me I had to be ready for that freaked me out the most was the perennial: What is your greatest weakness? I still hate this question. I mean, there you are, trying your best to sell yourself in a high pressure situation and then you’re forced to talk about your less than ideal points? Plus, according to said interview advice, what you were really supposed to do was choose a “weakness” that you could spin as a positive, meaning that the entire exchange was just an elaborate test of whether or not you could bullshit effectively. Ugh. Anyhow, I chose perfectionism as my flaw, which was one of the examples used on the internet as a good choice. Because perfectionism (I thought) shows that you are actually very diligent, hardworking, detail oriented, and competent.

I never got asked that question in an interview.

Which is just as well, because after having spent years and years of my life as a recovering perfectionist, I can say with authority that the negatives far outweigh any positives. And if I had answered the way I’d planned to anyone with insight into human character, it might very well have cost me the job.

Nothing and no one living is always perfect. (Photo by jfh686 on flickr)

Not convinced? Let me draw your attention to some perfectionism highlights:

1. Freeze/block: Yes, perfectionism can cause things like writer’s block. I know because to this day it gives me trouble while I’m writing. Once a perfectionist realizes there is no way to get a given job done perfectly, it becomes oh so very difficult to do that job at all. At least, if we actually care about the job at all. The less we care, the easier it is to avoid the freeze.

2. Inefficiency: Unless the perfectionist’s target IS efficiency, of course. Because it’s so hard for us to leave something alone and actually call it done. If we just made another little tweak…or a hundred. If we only had time to start over. You’d better hope your perfectionist is feeling perfectionistic about deadlines, or it’s all over. (Happily, I am in fact a perfectionist about deadlines, so at least I get to finish, whether I like it or not.)

3. Stress: If you aren’t a perfectionist yourself, just imagine a world in which everything you are even tangentially involved with has to be perfect and go exactly as planned. And if it’s not perfect, you have failed and it is All. Your Fault. And if it doesn’t go as planned, then life is ruined. And if only you could be a little better, maybe all the problems in the universe would disappear. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Yeah, I’ll get right on that.

4. Obliviousness, otherwise known as self denigration: Because perfectionists hold ourselves to such impossible standards, we often fail to notice, or give ourselves appropriate credit for, the awesome things we may accomplish. We may not notice positive character traits, and if we do, we think they’re no big deal. If we achieve something big, we focus on what we didn’t achieve yet, something we failed at, or explain why it isn’t important: Well, but I’ve only made one pro sale. Well, but I’ve only sold one novel. Well, but I was only able to succeed at x because I failed so spectacularly at y. Well, but I’m not that intelligent because I don’t have a PhD/don’t have a deep understanding of quantum mechanics/don’t speak six different languages fluently.

So yes, all is not fun bright times in perfectionism world. While perfectionism does often create driven personalities who go on to achieve great things, I think there are ways of being driven and ambitious without being quite so hard on ourselves. One of my favorite parts of The West Wing was when President Bartlett had dealt with a problem, often less than perfectly, often when there were no good solutions or easy answers. He’d always turn right around and say, “What next?” What next allows us to focus on what we can do instead of dwelling on our inability to be perfect.

Any other perfectionists out there? Any strategies you use to help you work through it? Any aspects you find especially difficult? I’d love to hear from you.

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