I’ve been doing a bit of research into perfectionism after finishing a magazine feature on Friday and feeling totally incapable of enjoying the fact that I’d been commissioned in the first place, that I’d handed in the story on time and that it had been well received. Why’s that, then? Well, needless to say, in my eyes it wasn’t good enough.
Now, if this wasn’t a sad state of affairs, it’d be funny. But, the truth is, it’s a sad state of affairs. Fortunately, it seems, I’m not alone. I’ve been chatting to some other creative types over the past few days and many share my feelings. I’ve spoken to theatre directors who cringe at the thought of anyone seeing their plays or would-be authors who are terrified their books will see the light of day. And then there’s me, who, despite my friends’ excitement at my soon-to-be-published article, would rather hide under the bed when it comes out.
This has got me pondering the other “successes” of my career thus far and whether I’ve been able to enjoy them. Did I ever pat myself on the back after those exhausting reporting trips to Iraq and Afghanistan with Tony Blair? Did I bask in the glory of my boss’ praise over my Brazilian feature on plastic surgery? As far as I can remember, I was always too busy wishing I’d found a different quote, written a snappier headline or taken a different angle.
And did I enjoy the trappings that came with many years in a well-paid job at Reuters? Did I buy something I’d always wanted or go on that amazing holiday I’d always dreamt of? The answer, unfortunately, is no. This doesn’t mean it was all doom and gloom but there was a notable absence of any real ability to appreciate the fruits of my labours or enjoy my achievements – which begs the question why did I try so hard to achieve (and still do)?
Well, when it comes to writing, it seems I have a compulsion to do it. I didn’t realise this until I tried to stop. I was getting so frustrated seeing other people’s stories appearing in papers or magazines or their books being published that I had to do something about it, even if the thought of having my work publicly scrutinised horrifies me. Of course, I’ve been publishing stories for 16 years but at least 12 of those were via international news agencies and those stories – despite probably having more impact – never quite seemed real. They got filed electronically into a black hole and you had no idea who was reading them, until they’d show up in print in The Washington Post or Sydney Morning Herald and you’d get sent a cutting by a friendly local correspondent – months after the fact.
This fear of public scrutiny and this sense of our work never being good enough seems to be the case for many “creatives”, as I’ll call the body of writers, actors, directors, painters, illustrators etc. We can’t stop doing it but we want to run a mile when it’s judgement day – when the audience takes their seat, the reader opens our book or someone stumbles on our magazine article in the hairdressers.
So, back to the research. I was particularly interested to read about ‘maladaptive perfectionists’ who, according to Wikipedia’s entry on perfectionism, believe that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable. It goes on to quote Don E. Hamachek, who’s written a number of books on psychology. He said normal perfectionists “derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labours of a painstaking effort” while neurotic perfectionists are “unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things [well] enough to warrant that feeling of satisfaction.” Oh dear – lots of bells are ringing!
Psychology Today describes perfectionism as a one-way ticket to unhappiness and says it’s typically accompanied by depression and eating disorders. It’s also linked to procrastination, according to this article, ‘What flavour of perfectionist are you? It matters!’ More bells!
All that said, I can’t be all that bad as at least I’m out there writing stuff. I’m not actually hiding under my bed, even if I might do that the day my story comes out. And maybe next time a story comes out, I’ll just stay in my room and sit on top of the bed. And the next time maybe I’ll actually leave the house. And finally, one day, some day, I’ll be inviting all my friends round to drink pink fizzy stuff and to celebrate!
I’m also remembering that the feelings of inadequacy that are so strong in the first days after I’ve finished a piece of work diminish over time. It was the same when I refurbished my flat. For the first few months, all I could focus on were the bits I’d got “wrong” – the radiator I’d chosen that was too small or the ill-informed decisions I’d made over kitchen cupboards or the small holes in the newly laid floor. Now I turn a blind eye to the imperfections and just look at the lovely, big picture. (It has been a few years though!)
In the meantime, I’ve decided I want my next big feature to be on perfectionism. After all, who better to write it? And I’ve also started taking some action to fight back. I finished a piece of work today that’s not due until Friday and I’d considered asking for an extension on to give myself more time. And I’ve written this blog entry very quickly and am about to post it, despite the potential for grammar and spelling mistakes!
And I’ve also decided – as foolish as this might sound given what I’ve just said about the torment that comes with publishing my work – that I really want to write a book. I even set out some chapter ideas last night and actually got excited at the prospect. Yes, it’ll likely be a torturous process but, somehow, I feel compelled to do it. I’m sure some of you can relate.