By Cheryl Reifsnyder
There should be a support group…
…for perfectionist writers. We’d all start off by introducing ourselves: “My name is Cheryl, and I’m a perfectionist” and then go on to share our stories of identifying, struggling against, and, perhaps, overcoming perfectionism.
I like this idea because perfectionists have a surprising number of traits in common with addicts.
- We’re good at denying we have a problem
- We often misdiagnose the problem (eg, thinking we’re lazy or disorganized)
Perhaps most important, perfectionists and addicts share many of the same cognitive distortions.
What’s a cognitive distortion?
Here’s a quick definition from the folks at Psych Central:
“Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.” –“15 Common Cognitive Distortions,”John M. Grohol
In other words, cognitive distortions are lies perfectionism whispers in the writer’s ear, lies that twist thoughts and feelings. A big part of tackling perfectionism is identifying those lying voices and confronting them.
“Cognitive distortions have a way of playing havoc with our lives. If we let them. This kind of “stinkin’ thinkin’” can be “undone,” but it takes effort and lots of practice — every day.” — “Fixing Cognitive Distortions,” by John M. Grohol
Want to beat perfectionism? Learn to recognize common cognitive distortions–so you can confront them for the lies they are!
Recognize Any of These Common Lies Perfectionism Tells?
1. Perfectionists often make “should” or “ought” statements.
Do you tell yourself you should be able to do something–probably something that you’ve just failed to accomplish? For instance,
- You should be able to write more than a paragraph a day
- You should be able to get up at 5:00 AM to write
- You should be finished with that chapter by now
“The underlying premise of these types of statements is the erroneous belief that you and / or everyone else should live up to your rules and expectations (which are often unrealistic).” —Recovery Ranch website
2. Filtering – magnifying the negatives while filtering out the positive aspects of a situation, and
3. Magnification or minimization – discounting or minimizing positive accomplishments while magnifying mistakes.
Did you walk away from a critique (or first-pages session, workshop, etc.) weighed down by all the negative feedback you received–even though your critique-ers provided positive feedback as well? You may be filtering, or focusing solely on the negatives without allowing yourself to process the positives.
Perfectionism also likes to magnify and shine a spotlight on your mistakes–which makes it darned hard to gain a realistic view of your strengths and weaknesses.
4. Labeling (or mislabeling)
We humans are hard-wired to name things, to give them labels. Unfortunately, our brains are also hard-wired to pay more attention to negative information (remember common lie #2, filtering? There’s a biological reason for it!) As a result, the negative labels are often the first we reach for when labeling ourselves and our writing.
Don’t believe me? See if any of these sound familiar:
- Scenario: You don’t sit down for your planned writing session.
Result: Your inner critic reminds you that you’re lazy or not very dedicated.
- Scenario: You skip writing for a few days or–gasp!–a few weeks.
Result: Your inner critic complains that you’re not very serious about writing.
5. Blaming – blaming yourself for things that are beyond your control.
While it’s important to take responsibility for your writerly mistakes and shortcomings, perfectionists often find themselves taking responsibility for things beyond their control. For instance:
- You feel guilty when you didn’t meet your word count for the day–even though a sick child kept you up half the previous night, making it difficult to concentrate.
- When an editor rejects your manuscript, you blame it on your poor writing/plotting/platform–even though she may have rejected it simply because she just accepted another, similar manuscript.
When you fail to meet your goal or expectations, do you automatically blame yourself? Do you find yourself weighed down by guilt much of the time? You may have fallen into perfectionism’s “Blame Trap.”
Sounds easy, right?
Okay, not exactly easy, but doable. Just ask this recovering perfectionist! And if you see me talking to myself…well, now you know that I’m just confronting those voices of doubt and perfectionism when they get a little too loud.
If you have trouble changing your thought patterns, try listing the advantages and disadvantages of staying where you are. Are perfectionism’s lies helping you be more productive and creative, or are they paralyzing you and keeping you from accomplishing anything? Are they motivating you to work harder, or making you feel like giving up?
I’ll leave you with a bit of inspiration:
- 25 Inspiration Sources for the Discouraged Writer
- Check the Label–and Avoid These Common Creativity Zappers!
- Featured Writer on Wellness: Jen Grow
- Fixing Cognitive Distortions
- 15 Common Cognitive Distortions
- 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block, by Hillary Rettig
- The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield