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.]