Are You Sabotaging Your Writing Because of Perfectionism?

You sit down to write. Finally, you found some time to work on your book. You feel prepared; you’ve thought through the scene or talking point you want to tackle today. You’ve cleared your plate—the kids are at school, the dishes are done, and you’ve dealt with your email.

But as you open your Word doc on your computer and your fingers hover over the keyboard, a sense of unease trickles in.

The eager anticipation starts to feel like dread, and the doubts form into excuses. “Maybe I need to think through this scene a bit more.” Or “I probably should do a bit more research before I start.” Or, even worse: “It’s going to suck.”

And those thoughts trigger all those familiar feelings.

Doubt. Irritation. Depression. Hopelessness.

All over the thought of writing a chapter in your book that won’t be perfect.

This type of perfectionist behavior is common self-sabotage. But why do so many of us slip into this way of thinking?

I spoke in previous chapters about some effective hacks we can adopt to get past our resistance to writing. And while we each can conjure up some great hacks that get our minds and motivation on track, if we succumb to the trappings of perfectionism, those hacks may fall as flat as pancakes on the floor of our determination to be productive.

There are many ways we self-sabotage our writing productivity (among, perhaps, many other things we attempt to accomplish), and perfectionism is especially heinous.

The Need for Perfectionism Has Various Causes

I want to take a hard look at perfectionism because it has numerous sources, and identifying the source(s) of your perfectionism (or apparent perfectionism) might help you squash it.

Is perfectionism a bad thing?

Good question. I think having some desire to create the perfect scene or nonfiction chapter can be positively motivating. Healthy striving to reach higher and better benchmarks presses us toward excellence.

But something bad happens when we feel we must be perfect and failure equates with worthlessness.

Basically, here are the differences between healthy striving and perfectionism according to the University of Texas (Austin) Mental Health Center:

Perfectionism

  • Setting standards beyond reach and reason
  • Never being satisfied by anything less than perfection
  • Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment
  • Being preoccupied with fears of failure and disapproval
  • Seeing mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
  • Becoming overly defensive when criticized

Healthy Striving

  • Setting standards that are high but within reach
  • Enjoying process as well as outcome
  • Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment
  • Keeping normal anxiety and fear of failure within bounds
  • Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Reacting positively to helpful criticism

It’s a myth to believe perfectionists accomplish more than non-perfectionists. In fact, because of the insecurity pressing perfectionists, they often give in to procrastination, miss deadlines, and suffer low productivity. They tend to be “all or nothing” thinkers, and that type of mind-set can cause overwhelm.

When a perfectionist accomplishes something, it’s usually in spite of her perfectionism, not because of it.

Some Great Hacks for Bypassing Self-Sabotage

 While you’re working hard at identifying those triggers and changing them into positive habits, adopting a few helpful hacks might aid you to get your writing done. While we’ve looked at these before, they are great hacks to work around the sabotaging tendencies.

  • Set the timer and just go for it. Push through the negative self-talk and fears of failure and need to be perfect and make yourself write for fifteen minutes without stopping to edit, criticize, reread, or make excuses. Just do it.
  • Use the two-minute rule. If you can’t write for even fifteen minutes, give yourself two minutes to do something, such as write the first line of your scene. It’s easy to get quickie tasks done and out of the way, and while it may not produce a huge sense of accomplishment, it’s a way of starting when you are in freeze mode. It bears repeating that big, daunting tasks paralyze us. So instead of sitting down and thinking how we have a huge book to write, focusing on getting one sentence or one paragraph done isn’t intimidating. And we’ll often find that once the two minutes is up, we want to keep writing.
  • Change your environment. Certain colors are soothing; others are unnerving. This goes for smells and sounds as well. Think about the temperature in your work environment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to leave a Starbucks or the library because it’s just too darn cold for me. Something as simple as that could be interfering with your concentration and triggering those sabotaging behaviors.

A Word about Expectations 

If we hold unreasonable expectations of ourselves, failure to meet those expectations can demoralize us and send us headlong into that cycle of self-sabotage. It would be helpful, if you’re struggling with these issues, to examine your expectations.

If you’re expecting perfection every time you sit down to write (and we’ll be looking at perfectionism next), you will never meet your expectations, and you’ll sabotage your future attempts at writing.

If sitting down, in itself, is a trigger to self-sabotage, you have some work to do. I have a few friends who’ve been talking about writing their book for years. But every single time they sit down to write, regardless of how well prepared they are to get the words onto the page, their cycle of sabotage is triggered. Just the act of sitting in the chair and opening up a blank Word document sends them into paralysis due to the dialogue triggered in their head.

They long to write. They have so much they want to say. But they can’t rewire the triggers. All the coaxing from friends seems to fall on deaf ears. Ultimately, only they can work through this, and only if they really want to.

It could be their expectations are way too high. Instead of thinking they have to get a whole chapter done, it might help to aim for one page of rough material. Just getting something down on the page can help break a stubborn trigger.

Are you a perfectionist? What insights have you gained here about perfectionism, and what will you now do to work through that to be more productive?

9 Responses to “Are You Sabotaging Your Writing Because of Perfectionism?”

  1. Michael Rimm June 19, 2017 at 3:54 am #

    Susanne…great advice on “Perfectionism” and the traps it creates. It’s funny, because I’ve never had what one would call “writer’s block”, and I guess I’m fortunate that words just flow whenever I sit down to write. My problem is that I spend TOO much time trying to “edit” and “revise” as I’m in the process of working on a story or a scene, instead of just writing without fear of anything, and then later going back and working on the revision process, as endless as it sometimes feels. So, yes, in some ways, I AM trying to write the perfect sentence, page, or scene instead of just sitting down for an hour or two and writing.

    As always, I appreciate and respect your advice Susanne…thanks.
    Michael

    • cslakin June 19, 2017 at 7:50 am #

      Thank you, Michael. There’s nothing wrong with trying to perfect your writing. Getting a critique can also help take the mystery out of whether your material is top-notch and ready to publish or still needs work. We second-guess ourselves sometimes because we can’t tell how effectively we’re writing. So getting that feedback can help break through that stuck place.

    • Bethany Reid June 21, 2017 at 10:18 am #

      I SO agree. Like Michael, I have a terrible time giving any thing up. And perfectionism has been a blog topic I keep circling back to (to perfect it?) as well. But I recently came across the etymology of “perfect,” which is to bring to completion — things get perfected by getting them done!

      Thank you for this great post!

  2. Kelly Freestone June 19, 2017 at 9:11 am #

    I’ve got my WIP all planned out and I’m ready to go, until I sit down.
    I find myself avoiding it. I’m so tired of running away from writing. Not sure where the fear comes from yet…but I won’t learn unless I jump in!

    • cslakin June 21, 2017 at 4:59 am #

      I hear you. Fear of failure is one problem. But sometimes it has to do with not being sure how to proceed. So spend some time really nailing structure and character development, then open up a blank document and tell yourself you’re just doodling and this isn’t a keeper. That really allows me to experiment and stretch myself. And usually I do my best work that way.

  3. Mindy June 19, 2017 at 11:22 am #

    This post made me feel (in a good way) that you’d been spying through my office window. I love how you differentiated between striving as a perfectionist and learning to perfect your writing. Thanks for the hacks by by-passing the self-sabotage. I’ll be hacking away today! Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Audrey Kalman June 20, 2017 at 8:46 pm #

    This is a great and relevant topic. I just facilitated a writer’s sharing session over the weekend for my branch of the California Writer’s Club on writer’s block. In researching it, I realized that “writer’s block” isn’t just fear of the blank page, but encompasses pretty much anything that holds us back from writing, including striving for perfection. Many of the people in the session mentioned that they found timed writing to be particularly helpful as a cure.

  5. Anna June 25, 2017 at 3:51 pm #

    This is exactly my problem. I am a newly aspiring writer. I have, literally, hundreds of ideas always floating around in my head all day long. And I have a regular 9-5, which I spend about 50% of the time day dreaming about writing. But the problem is, as many times as I start (which is a huge process in itself) I always give up due to “self-sabbotage”. I am going to try your advice, try to tone out those voices in my head and press on! Thanks so much for this article. New to the site, but loving it already!!!!

    • cslakin June 25, 2017 at 5:03 pm #

      I’m so glad! Be sure to check out the book Crank It Out! It has all the content I’ve been putting up on the blog and more!

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