The paralyzing effects of perfectionism

I remember sitting at my desk in elementary school struggling to write a story for a history assignment. I was told to write about a Native American girl and her life before the Europeans came to America. This should have been an easy assignment, because I loved writing stories based on characters I’d read about in books, and I had just finished a book about Pocahontas. But I found myself staring at the paper, the pale blue lines stretching from one side of the page to the other, completely unmarked by any penciled letters. The desire for perfection paralyzed me. I did not know what to write, and so I did not write anything at all. I sat at my desk and tried to start the first sentence, erasing my words over and over until the paper was smudged gray and my pencil point was dull.

This is one of my earliest memories of writing; I was paralyzed by my desire for perfection.  Eventually, I was able to mostly overcome my crippling perfectionism. One way was though journaling and other personal writing projects outside of school. I always enjoyed this type of writing because no one else was evaluating my work. I realize now that the reason it was so difficult for me to write in an academic setting was because each word that I wrote was a way of groping for truth, for a way to articulate thoughts that were not yet formed inside me. I was self-conscious about other people seeing my writing when it was so unformed and obviously flawed.Becoming more comfortable with my ideas and ways of expressing them definitely increased my confidence as a writer.

Learning about the process of writing multiple drafts also helped me to become less of a perfectionist in my writing. At first, I thought the purpose of a final draft was simply to correct spelling errors, but eventually I learned how to revise more globally, looking at issues such as organization and content as well as spelling and grammar. Because I no longer felt pressured to write perfectly and say everything I ever wanted to say in one draft, I was less inhibited in my writing.

I’m currently taking a writing seminar for my senior capstone course, and one of our assignments was to write a page about problems we’d faced in our writing. Perfectionism was a problem that came up multiple times. If you’re struggling with the paralyzing effects of perfectionism, you are not alone! It can be difficult to shut out the voice of our “inner critic,” but freewriting exercises and journaling can be a good place to start. Remember, you have something to say in a way that only you can say it, but it’s okay if you don’t know what that is yet. Write to find it. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.


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