Powerful Ways to Counter Perfection’s 7 Most Common Lies

Powerful Ways to Counter Perfection’s 7 Most Common Lies

Photo of Cheryl Reifsnyder


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

Solution: Examine the Evidence
Take a look at how you’re defining what you “should” be able to accomplish. Are you comparing your current day’s productivity to a measure you achieved–once–on an ideal day? Or are there external circumstances that interfered with your writing plans?

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.

Solution: Take a Survey
Sometimes, you can overcome perfectionism traps #2 and #3 with an “examine the evidence” approach. If you think you might be minimizing your achievements or filtering out your strengths, for instance, it can help to stop and take a hard look at the situation. Sometimes, listing out all the positives and negatives about the situation is enough to let you recognize where perfectionism has twisted your perceptions.
Sometimes, though, you’re too close to see a situation clearly. Maybe you’re convinced that your expectations for yourself are perfectly reasonable–but you still find it impossible to meet them. When that happens, it’s time to check your thoughts with a trusted friend, critique partner, or even a therapist. You’ll probably find that you’re being too hard on yourself.

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.

Solution: Try the “Double Standard” Method
Next time your inner critic is getting too noisy, ask yourself whether that’s how you’d talk to a friend. If not, it’s a signal to take a gentler tone with yourself. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be as compassionate and understanding with your writing self as you’d be with your best friend, critique partner, or writing buddy!

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.”

Solution: Change the Scapegoat
When blame rears its ugly head, ask yourself whether it’s possible the situation is actually *not* your fault? Identify external factors that might have contributed–not to let yourself off the hook, but to gain a more realistic view of the situation.

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: 

enjoy the ordinary

Anti-Perfectionism Resources


  1. Love it, Cheryl. It was as if you were talking directly to me. Now I need to go work on my cognitive distortions!

    • Glad to know it resonated with you, Ceil! I think there are a surprising number of writers who wrestle with this:)

  2. This is awesome, Cheryl–thank you! And it’s also rather eery since I wrote a similar post for my own blog a few days ago and it’s scheduled to come out this Thursday! I heard a speaker say once that we need to stop “shoulding all over ourselves” and Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., author of NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION, believes “should” is one of the most violent words in the English language because it robs us of choice and “…disconnects us from our own core.” I say, let’s ban it and all of it’s relatives: have to, must, supposed to, etc.

    • Wow, sounds like we’re on the same wavelength, Denise! Love the quote you shared–that “should” “disconnects us from our own core.” Just had a conversation with my son about this–that feeling like you “should” do something often means that you’re motivated by someone else’s reasons or what you think someone else wants/expects. I think sometimes we get so caught up in conforming to the expectations of others (real or perceived) that we lose touch with what WE actually need and want.

      I’m with you: let’s ban “should”, supposed to, etc, from our conversation!

  3. What a great post, Cheryl! These are all really important points. Very helpful to me is the one about being as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend. “Should” may be a word we should (there it is again) ban when it relates to our writing habits.

    • Thanks, Pam! My writing coach first introduced me to the idea of talking to myself the way I’d talk to a friend–after she called me on how self-critical I was being. It’s been a helpful concept! Glad to hear it’s helpful for you, too.



  1. Powerful Ways to Counter Perfection’s 7 Most Common Lies | Cheryl Reif Writes - […] perfectionists and addicts share many of the same cognitive distortions. Head on over to the Wild Writers blog to learn…

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