Perfectionism, Writing

Flipping the Bird at Perfectionism


Attributed to Anne Wilson Schaef.

Sometimes a message only gets across when delivered at the right time.  Last Tuesday was one of the more hectic days of my life.  I had a red eye flight to catch that evening.  Before then, I had to finish packing, clean my living space since I was moving out, drive straggling items to my storage unit, figure out how to fit them into an already tightly packed space, return home to shower, change, eat dinner and drive myself to the airport.  In the midst of it all I decided to continue my habit of posting to my blog on Tuesday mornings, even though my multi-tasking scattered my energy and attention like fragments of a burst balloon. I had drafted the article over the preceding weeks. I made a few last minute changes, hit the publish button and continued my race towards the finish line. To choose productivity over perfectionism allowed energy to whoosh through my body, a kind of self liberation. I wasn’t going to let the chaos of life interfere with my self expression.

Not long after, a reader commented on Facebook that he was distracted by a misplaced modifier in one of the sentences.  I felt my insides contract into a familiar tight ball of pain and shame, as if I had been caught having made…A MISTAKE, one that would stain the entire article and render it unreadable. My fear of this pain, and of having my writing criticized, even mildly, had kept me from expressing myself with words for a heartbreakingly long time. That’s the job of the perfectionist critic, to keep us in thrall to its impossible demands and make us believe that everything we put forth always be highly polished and impeccable, lest someone have an opportunity to mock, judge or diminish. Yet every creative endeavor requires practice and consistent output, even if the work seems crappy at the time. Frequently I’ve posted an article that I didn’t think was my best work, only to reread it months later and be pleasantly surprised by a turn of phrase or an insight.

That day, because I needed to focus my energy on leaving, I didn’t have the perverse luxury of wallowing in the pain brought on by being “outed” for a poorly written sentence and agonizing over a remedy. I paused from my trip preparations to rewrite that sentence, thanked the person for his “good catch”, and motored along. But my persistent reader found another glitch in that revised sentence. In that moment I realized I had a choice. I could stop everything and placate the critic, both external and internal, taking precious minutes from other tasks, or I could redirect my attention towards my departure and let the subpar sentence remain on my blog for the world to see.

With limited time and energy, the answer was clear: I flipped the bird at the perfectionist. And, in my mind, I flipped the whole situation around. Could I welcome this situation with gratitude? I had at least one thoughtful, engaged reader who cared about my work! I could choose to be amused, in a cosmic sense, that, after blogging for two years and publishing more than 160 posts, he showed up on a particularly crazy day, perhaps to remind me that mistakes are inevitable and not a reason to become paralyzed with doubt.

Today is less crazy than last Tuesday, but I am in Montreal, with things to do and people to see.  I can sense the perfectionist creeping around my psyche, hissing that I should reread this post yet one more time before sharing it with the world.  I think I’ll flip the bird at it again, and also stick out my tongue.





About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.


16 thoughts on “Flipping the Bird at Perfectionism

  1. I wonder where the “pleasant sensation” is in having our flaws discovered for us and being given an opportunity to mend them.

    Posted by ziskin | May 13, 2014, 10:37 am
    • What a great “Feldenkraisian” question! I might need to explore that in another post. The word “flaws” implies that there is something amiss, which I’m not sure is the case. We all have areas to cultivate and grow and tend, but that does not necessarily mean “fix”. Even self-defeating patterns emerged at one time for a good reason.

      Posted by ilona fried | May 13, 2014, 10:46 am
  2. As a writer, I strive not to leave grammatical mistakes on the page. As a reader, whenever I encounter questionable structure or grammar, I remind myself to be forgiving.

    Winston Churchill is attributed with having once mocked an editor who criticized him for using a preposition at the end of a sentence. No one seems to know the exact wording, but the gist of Churchill’s reply was: “Correcting my grammar is something up with which I will not put.”

    If it wasn’t Churchill who said that, then please forgive me.

    Write on, Ilona!

    Posted by Ken Lutes | May 13, 2014, 11:06 am
    • Operative word is “strive”. And, in the past, I have been an unforgiving reader, especially of books, so thanks for the reminder to loosen up. Typos, poor word choice, etc. on the printed page are harder to take than when they appear on the screen. Love the anecdote, whether it was Churchill or not! Certain grammatical rules beg to be broken.

      Posted by ilona fried | May 13, 2014, 11:12 am
  3. Thanks for this post, Ilona. As a reader, I enjoy hearing the voice, expression and personality of the writer far more than I care if there is a spelling or grammatical error. Readers want to feel something and sometimes passages fraught with mistakes can be far more moving if they are real and genuine to the writer than something perfect with no heart. 🙂

    Posted by Christine Brallier | May 14, 2014, 9:58 am


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