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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

better than perfect

Back to the work-week after the Canada Day holiday. A sunny, easygoing weekend in a city largely deserted. Just when the city is at its most lovely, everyone flees it to wait in ferry queues or fight traffic on the freeways. The beneficiaries are those left behind.

After my "tortoise on Everest" post last Friday, I've been thinking more about my various hangups and difficulties in writing, and got to looking in a book I bought four years ago, The New Birth Order Book by Kevin Leman. An Adlerian psychologist, Leman specializes in the psychology of birth order: whether you're the firstborn, middle, last-born, or an only child. Apparently this is still not a very well respected field of psychological inquiry, even though the thinking behind it is not remotely mystical or superstitious, but based on straightforward, practical considerations.

I'm a firstborn, and like many such, as well as only children, I struggle with perfectionism. Leman devotes two chapters to perfectionism in his book. I've never considered myself a perfectionist, but when I reread his list of symptoms, I had to admit that I am indeed one, or perhaps a "recovering perfectionist."

Here is what Leman calls the "cycle of perfectionism":

The perfectionist is the originator of the motto, It's all or nothing. He tends to be a streak performer; when he's hot, he's hot, and when he's not, he's a mess.

This leads to biting off more than he or she can chew, perhaps the perfectionist's major problem. Perfectionists can always take on one more thing, even when his or her schedule is absolutely full.

The hurdle effect causes the perfectionist to panic. He or she looks down the track and sees all those hurdles ahead. The hurdles aren't necessarily there but they are perceived and overwhelming. How did I get into this mess? How am I ever going to get out?

As the hurdles seem to grow taller and taller, the perfectionist compounds his or her problems by maximizing failures and minimizing successes. If perfectionists make mistakes, they internalize them, chew on them, and go over and over in their minds what went wrong. If they manage to do something right, they think, It could have been better.

When the pressure becomes too great, the perfectionist may bail out, quitting the project or turning it in less than well done with the excuse, There just wasn't enough time.

Whether the perfectionist manages to finish or backs out, he is always left feeling he must try harder. He is the original victim of the Avis complex, sure that he is number 2.

He observes that perfectionists are procrastinators, and that never-finished projects are a sure sign of a procrastinating perfectionist. In his words:

It doesn't matter how intelligent, talented, or fortunate you may be; the only way to avoid failure is to sit back and do nothing.

Hear, hear! It's nice to be "failure-proof"...up to a point. Another great quote, not from Leman, is this:

Hard work and perseverance pay off eventually; procrastination pays off now.

I don't have the worst kind of perfectionism, for I do manage to finish some things (and start many more!). And while I find criticism painful and unpleasant, it is not so painful that it leads me not to finish things or to show my work. I do tend to keep things under wraps until I feel ready to show it--until it has passed the test of my own critical eye.

How is perfectionism treated? (And by the way, Leman is not joking: he regards perfectionism not as a cute quirk, but as a debilitating, life-ruining liability.) The therapy is to move away from an attitude of identifying with the result of one's efforts ("I am what I do") to identifying with the effort itself ("I will do my best"). Leman calls this attitude the pursuit of excellence. Pursuers of excellence do their best, and accept that whatever happens will be the best possible result, since they did their best. Perfection is not ours to attain, ever. But we can always do our best.

Would you rather be a perfectionist who does nothing, or an imperfect person who does his or her best?

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