The Paralysis of Perfection
Several years ago, I dreamed of becoming a TV writer. A sitcom writer to be exact.
I'd loved writing my whole life and humor was my go-to method of coping with - well, everything - so when shows like "Arrested Development," "The Office," and "30 Rock" arrived on the scene, it felt like whoever wrote those scripts - the scenes, the characters, the jokes - "got me." It felt like maybe there was a place in the world for my quick, sarcastic, slightly-dark-and-twisted sense of humor - and I loved making people laugh.
I applied to a screenwriting program in L.A. and - miraculously - I got in. I was soon sitting in a classroom for 8+ hours a day learning about screenwriting.
I selected the TV track, which meant attending extra classes in the evenings and working with executive producers from shows like, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "That 70s Show," and "JAG" (remember those?!) to learn how a TV writers' room worked.
I was in heaven. Thinking fast. Creating stories. Writing jokes. Bouncing ideas off funny, creative people. The energy - even in a pretend writers' room filled with wannabe TV writers - was electrifying to me. I knew exactly what I wanted to do:
I wanted to become the next Tina Fey.
I invested in a MacBook (ahem, creatives don't use PCs - or so I was told) and screenwriting software. I started writing spec scripts, samples that could be sent out to producers and agents and studios to get fellowships or maybe even a low-level assistant job on a TV show. Even though I still lived in DC, I had Hollywood on my mind 24/7 and spent my free time writing scripts and outlines, meeting with other writers, and studying the craft of TV writing.
"One thing lead to another" (and that's a lazy writer's way of fast-forwarding the story - my teachers would not be pleased) and a few months later, I was packing my bags for Hollywood. I had a job as an Event Planner at the Museum of TV and Radio in Beverly Hills. I found a roommate and a great apartment in Glendale. I moved 3,000+ miles away to begin my journey to become the next Tina Fey.
But a funny thing happened when I got there:
I would sit down on my bed with my shiny little MacBook and start typing:
INT: A DARK BEDROOM
No, no, no. Delete, delete, delete.
"That can't be my first scene."
"UGH. This is so unoriginal! I bet EVERYONE'S scripts start like this. Mine has to be unique. It has to be the BEST. It has to be EMMY-WORTHY. Every word. This is crap. All of it. What if someone sees this and thinks I'm not funny?!"
Delete, delete, delete. Close laptop.
"I'll try again tomorrow. Maybe I'll go to that coffee shop in Burbank near Warner Brothers. That's a big writers' hangout."
I'd walk in, shiny MacBook in tow, to find a sea of glowing Macbook screens. You see, the joke in L.A. is that everyone is working on a screenplay. Only it's not really a joke because it's true.
"All of these people are working on TV scripts," I thought. "Look at that girl over there in her ironic classes. I bet she wants to be the next Tina Fey, too. What if she already is?! I can't. I can't work here!"
And I would go home and tell myself, "you'll try again tomorrow."
I didn't write a single word in the 3 1/2 months I lived and worked in L.A.
I was there. I had a great job. I was making connections with people in the industry. I was doing everything I needed to become a TV writer except...well, writing.
But one day, after a spectacularly bad day at work, I packed up my truck and drove 3,000 miles cross-country back to DC. I remember sitting there in my boss' cubical, watching her mouth move as she was blathering on about Pilates or the green algae shake her nutritionist wanted her to drink and how when she asked me to bring her something off the printer, that she meant like - NOW.
I gave up DC - an amazing boss, an office with a view of the US capitol building, a gym I loved - for THIS?! Not to mention, I moved to L.A. to become a writer and wasn't writing anything. And frankly, why should I??!
I wasn't funny enough.
I wasn't original enough.
I wasn't edgy enough.
I wasn't ENOUGH of anything.
I never wrote another script. I closed the door on becoming the Tina Fey. It was over.
It took me 5-6 years to understand what the heck happened. How and why I had thrown away all my hard work and opportunities in L.A., only to run back home to DC.
Working with a coach years later, I slowly began to see there was a pattern in my life that was keeping me from getting what I wanted:
I put pressure on myself to be perfect --> I feared failing and making mistakes --> I hit the escape button (ran, backed out, left, quit, etc.)
The pattern repeated itself over and over, in every area of my life: at work, in relationships, with my workouts and nutrition. If it wasn't good enough (and it rarely was), then I pulled the plug. It was all or nothing (and usually nothing.)
For the first time in my 30+ years of life, I was starting to understand why I never finished a lot of things, why I couldn't commit to things, and why I wasn't getting what I wanted. It became more and more clear that my perfectionistic tendencies - which I previously credited for driving me to perform at a high level - were actually not a badge of honor. Being a perfectionist wasn't a good thing I used to make myself more disciplined, work harder, or strive for bigger and better things. It was dead weight, and it was ruining my career, my relationships, and my self-image.
A Proudly Recovering Perfectionist
While perfectionism can certainly play a role in how we think about our food and exercise and lifestyle choices, this is bigger than that. I shared this "DC to LA to DC" failed writing career story with you because for the most part, it has nothing to do with nutrition or exercise or fat loss. It is a story about the stranglehold and consequences of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a dream killer.
It's been three years since I started working on NOT being a perfectionist, and I'm getting more comfortable with trying new things, even if it means I won't do them perfectly on the first, second, or third try.
I've actually accepted that in order to get better at something, I HAVE to try it and fail at it. Perfectionism holds us back from growth and improvement. If I want to be good at something, I HAVE to try it and make mistakes.
"Research confirms that the most successful people in any given field are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in your way. Waiting for the surgeon to be absolutely sure the correct decision is being made could allow me to bleed to death.” - Dr. Thomas S. Greenspan, "Alarming New Research on Perfectionism"
What if that "thing" you're afraid of actually came true? Then what? How would you deal with it? What would that look like?
This is an actual exercise I use to cope with Perfection Paralysis, and I'm sharing it here in the event that you, too, feel paralyzed by perfectionism and need to get unstuck:
1. Write down your fear.
Name it. Put it in black and white. Make it REAL.
"I'm scared of not being original and funny." or "I'm scared of not being accepted" or "I'm scared people will judge me for the way I look." Let's go with that one, since it's been a very real fear for me in the past, especially before a big event like a Les Mills Quarterly, when my perfectionism flares up BIG TIME and tempts me to start a strict new way of eating or an aggressive training program.
2. Take it to the next step. Ask "What If?"
Now that you've identified your fear, ask yourself what would happen if it came true. The answers don't have to be logical or rational. Just go with it.
"What if someone judged me for the way I look? What if someone saw that I have ((gasp!!)) cellulite?"
3. Reframe it: Decide how you would handle it in a positive way.
"If someone saw that I have cellulite, they might think, 'Hey! She's just like me! If she can wear shorts and be confident, so can I!" And just like that, big scary fear is transformed into something good.
This exercise is something I constantly revisit and it always helps me move forward when I'm spinning my wheels. It helps me put words on the page and click "publish" or "send" even if I KNOW they aren't perfect. It helps me teach group fitness classes to people I don't know, who I would otherwise fear ar judging me for not being good enough. It gets me out of my own head and moving forward.
The next time you catch yourself setting impossibly high standards and beating yourself up for not meeting them, ask yourself, "What if? What's the worst that could happen?"
Chances are, it isn't that bad - and it probably won't happen anyways.
Are you a perfectionist? Can you relate with this story? How do you feel perfectionism has held you back? Start the conversation below and SHARE this post with your friends on Facebook!