Overcoming Perfectionism: Stop Going Around in Circles

This is our dog Lyric. Lyric, I’m afraid, has OCD. I don’t know if it’s genetic or what, but this tragic handicap will probably impair him for the rest of his life.

Dog running in circles
Photo credit: Kristine Neeley

You see, our dog is a perfectionist. He has this bizarre ritual of walking around in circles and scratching the ground before he lies down. He does this every single time he takes a nap.

One of my Twitter friends tells me that this is an ancient nesting instinct that he simply can’t help. What drives me nuts, though, is when our poor dog doesn’t stop.

Maybe he’s nervous or just can’t get comfortable, but sometimes, he just keeps walking around in circles. Never settling down. Never stopping the obsessive spinning and scratching. Just going around and around. In completely pointless circles.

As a writer, I can relate. Maybe you can, too.

Dealing with my own perfectionism

Often with a writing project, I want everything to be perfect. I can’t finish unless it is “just right.” I can’t start something new until what I’m working on looks like what I have in my head.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for excellence, but sometimes, no matter what, it’s never good enough. And I keep going around and around in circles, anyway.

At those times, I’m being a perfectionist. And I’m making myself miserable.

The futile fruit of perfectionism

As my friend Ken Davis poignantly says,

A perfectionist is not someone who is perfect; it is someone who is miserable, because they can’t get it right.

Art is not perfect. Art is human. And I want to create beautiful art. Not stale perfection. I don’t want to “get it right.” I want to make it beautiful.

Let’s face the facts: This endless striving for “perfect” isn’t getting us anywhere; it’s only making us miserable. Moreover, this habit is unhealthy and can actually lead to serious mental anxiety. (Read ten telltale traits of a perfectionist to find out if you’re on the edge.)

So stop being a perfectionist. Seriously. Stop it. Right now. And get on with making your art.

What to do next

If you’re continuing to revisit a project again and again, worried that it’ll never be good enough, it may be time to ship. Even if it’s not ready, you’ll feel better that you put something out there.

And most importantly, you’ll be freed from the anxiety-producing curse of perfectionism that plagues so many creatives, while learning to embrace the practice of putting imperfect work on public display.

Do you really need another iteration, or are you just going around in circles? Share in the comments.

[Full disclosure: I reread this post about 10 11 times, editing and tweaking it, wanting it to be just right. Finally, I gave up and had to take my own advice.]

46 thoughts on “Overcoming Perfectionism: Stop Going Around in Circles

  1. 🙂 Yes, I totally resonate with this. Not only do I have trouble letting projects go, but sometimes I have trouble starting, knowing that the end result won’t be ‘perfect enough’.

    Lately I’m trying to remind myself that I owe it to the message to get it out there… if the message is important, I shouldn’t be holding it back.

    1. I agree, Erin. Something liberating happens when we release a project for others to see. We realize that it’s not totally ours, that we were just stewards of it.

  2. Great thoughts. I see myself as both a perfectionist (when it comes to certain things) and a guy who lacks drive (in areas where I know I need substantive improvement). It is a horrible quandary to be in.

    1. I’m the same, Doug. Question: Do you think you lack drive because of your perfectionism? I’m reading up on the subject, and it appears that many perfectionists have trouble starting things that they don’t think will ever be “good enough” (see Erin’s comment above).

  3. I wouldn’t say I am a perfectionist, well I guess in some areas I am. But where I become a perfectionist is looking at other people. Which is really sad, I hold them to unrealistic standards and when they do not live up to them I become frustrated. I am working on letting that go, because like Ken Davis said, they will never be perfect and I will always be miserable.

    1. I do that, too, Kyle. Very unfair of me. Trying not to hold others to my standards, especially without communicating those expectations. It can really set both sides up for some disappointment and frustration.

  4. I’m a recovering perfectionist (in most areas). Learning to just let something be finished in many areas is hard. I was a student who so hated having something incorrect I sometimes told myself it was better not to pass it in. Finally had to confront how much of a PRIDE issue that was. Not easy!

    Oh and yes it is mostly a dog thing definitely not helped by his breed. (Appears to be border collie or some mix of that?) They tend to be a bit extra OCD.

    1. Thanks, Suzanne, for saying this. You’re absolutely right. I’ve recognized that in myself, too.

      And yes, Lyric is part Bordie Collie. Is this an instinct for certain breeds only? I had no idea…

    1. Really well said, Matt. I think that this is often the case — we’re unaware of our own genius or assuming that we’re adding value somewhere else. Thanks for sharing, man.

  5. I spent a lot of years wanting to both appear and be perfect. When it comes to writing, I try to remember that a great story doesn’t require perfect writing; it just needs to be told! Thanks for sharing. And I love Ken Davis!

  6. As a recovering Type-A personality, I foudn myself as your dog expect I was not circling a place to lay down, instead I circled my work, my writing and my religion. I found myself becoming striving for prefectionism so much I lost touch with the simple aspects of life which leave the greatest legacy.

    To me, I am still in the process of overcoming the mindsent of prefectionism co-joined with a Type-A personality. I am gaining momentum each day. In fact, I am getting better. See I will not even correkt the word “correct.”

    I am getting there! Great thoughts!

    1. Well done, Chris! (As a recovering perfectionist myself, I couldn’t stand all those typos, but I got your point at the end. Too funny!)

  7. This post resonates with me on a couple of levels; first, as the firstborn child of my parents, and secondly as a writer. As a firstborn, I tend towards frustrated perfectionism–meaning, in practical terms, I’m done before I begin. That’s right: I don’t even start because I know it won’t be perfect. I suppose this stems from being an only child for several years, and a nasty habit of comparing my achievements to those of adults (and believe me, at least career-wise, my parents were high achievers).

    How this has carried over into writing is that I continue to compare myself to others who’ve been doing this (blogging) longer, who get more comments, etc.

    I used to try to write what I thought people wanted to read, but folds can tell when I’m being inauthentic in this way.

    How I combat this perfectionism is to pretend I’m a journalist on deadline, e.g. I have to write something everyday, and post it–good, bad, or indifferent. I pretend the control is out of my hands, and this paradoxically gives me the freedom to produce. That, and I finally gave up, and started writing for me. I’m resigned to the fact that it will never be perfect, but I can strive for excellence. In this regard, I like what Jon Acuff says about 90% and posted is better, and more beneficial, than 100%, and stuck in one’s head.

    Ultimately, the words are meant to be free, and I am but a conduit.

  8. Hi , new follower here.  I like your posts a lot, but for the record, while your dog probably does have OCD, there’s a condition called *OCPD*, and *that’s* what some perfectionists (not all) actually have.  I write a (second) blog on the subject at: http://www.perfectlyawfulusa.blogspot.com.  While the people who have it often have excellent hearts, they often drive themselves and their partners/children/co-workers up the wall.

    *Excellence* is an achievable, worthwhile goal.  Seeking perfection is crazymaking.

  9. Oh, that’s cute. Perfectionist dog 🙂 Mine does that too, but everything he has to do his…..”business’. He walks in circles 4-5 times then goes on to do his business. I’m pretty sure he’s trying to find the perfect location to ……unload.

    Perfectionism sucks when you notice that you do it even with the smallest and simplest of tasks. That’s when you realize you’re loosing precious time with something that should be fairly easy and quick to do.

    Here’s another interesting article about perfectionism: https://www.thinkbasis.com/blog/2011/business/does-being-a-perfectionist-hurt-you-and-ultimately-your-business.html?isalt=1

  10. Amen!   I recently published a novel, and a friend of mine did the cover art.  We worked for ages to get it all right, and then….after it’s already out there for folks to buy…. we keep finding flaws in our work.  Even when the reviews have been very positive.  At one point, I had to say, “Hey, look.  When I first saw the cover art, I loved it.  When you first read the manuscript, you loved it.  Everyone out there is going to go on their first gut reaction.  NO ONE is going to go over our work 392 times (like we do) to find every flaw.  We’ve got to let it go!”

    That said, when the second edition is released, there will be some tweaks! 

  11. Thank you! This is so true! I began working on some projects a few years ago but spent a lot of time waiting to get them “good enough.”  I’ve had to start setting myself time frames to prevent over-perfecting and never “shipping.”

  12. My dog does the same thing as Lyric…Joining the 5 Min Fridays link-up with The Gypsy Mama is one way I force myself to not give into my perfectionism…Thanks, Jeff, for another funny and useful post!

  13. Oh boy, do I need help with this! I can’t even write a Five Minute Friday post at The Gypsy Mama site in the allotted time because I want everything to be just right (which goes against the entire principle of the exercise). And don’t let me miss a typo on a post–I’d bug me for hours! I appreciate your encouragement and insight.

  14. Excellent Post Jeff.  Nice to know I am not the only one who goes ‘insane’ doing this.  There has been times where I am sitting at my desk sobbing in frustration.  As you said, you have a mental image of what you want the work to look like, sound like, hell, feel like, and it actually may, but perfectionism has blinded me to reality.  I can get so ‘worked’ up that I am more than likely not seeing the reality of the project, and so true, good or bad, this practice does nothing but stiffle any creativity, stops you from moving ahead on a new project, and like your wee furkid, endless circles seeking comfort. 

  15. When I know I have a post I do care about others seeing I’ll edit and re-tweak incessantly in order for it to be perfect. I want certain eyes on my post and get nervous wondering whether the people reading will like it, love it, or worse, hate it. Like any writer I just want people to enjoy my work.

    I’ve been struggling for years to silence my inner editor and struggling to kill my perfectionist nature. I have to start remembering that just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean my readers will think it’s garbage.

    Thanks for sharing a great post, Jeff. It’s great insight.

  16. Oh holy cow, I am Lyric! I related to her as soon as you mentioned her over doing the circle instinct. I am so afraid of my work not being “perfect” that I find it really hard to even start. Also, that quote is spot on. I’m stealing it. 😉

  17. Well, I took the quiz and it’s official…I am a perfectionist. I was really hoping to just be a “high achiever”! Looks like I need to go read more of your advice. Oh, and for the record, I love that you re-read your post 11 times. I do the same exact thing.

  18. How very true!

    I believe that Anne Lamott put it best when she wrote: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the
    people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life and it is the main
    obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. ’

  19. Oh wow, I’m reading a book by Ken Davis right now as a matter of fact.  You got some cool friends. 🙂  Wow, the Lord lead me to read your posts today… it hit the spot.  Thanks Jeff!

  20. A recovering perfectionist as well. Have any of you read Brene Brown’s book ‘The Gift of Imperfection.’? A great read!

  21. I needed to read this! I haven’t written a post on my blog for 2 months because I just haven’t felt like anything I have written is good enouch!

  22. My dad was a veterinarian. His explanation of the dog walking around in circles is how they lay the grass down in order to sleep and not be seen by predators. Digging into the carpet (aka grass) exposes the earth where the heat is. So, is he OCD, yes, but in the right way from millions of years of DNA being passed down.

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