My Perfect Prison

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It is hard to begin writing. I stare at the blank page that stares back at me and continues to stare even as I frustratedly slam down my laptop screen and rush out to do something else in an effort to get distracted from the blankness. I enjoy writing. I’m even fairly decent at it, but I seem to suffer from a chronic writer’s block. There are dozens of topics I would like to turn into words but as soon as I sit down with purpose to write, the words cower somewhere to the far corners of my mind and I’m left with an aggressively white screen and an ever-growing, pounding irritation towards myself, the keyboard, and in some cases, life in general. I claim to know what is at the root of this issue, and so I should simply confront it, fight it, eliminate it. But of course it is not that simple. Why is it never simple? While I dare not call it a disadvantage, in this case knowing the problem does nothing to help me solve it; like the hindrance of many an endeavour, mine alike is fear – the fear of failure. Perfectionists are more often than not seen as straight-A-students, career junkies and generally hard-working, successful people. While this observation is not entirely wrong, it merely scratches the surface.

The word, perfectionism, carries the weight of its origin, perfect, which, in turn relates to faultlessness, precision, correctness and absolution. It must be said, and I’m stating the obvious here, that while a perfectionist’s ambition might be to reach perfection, even to embody perfection, perfection itself is not an innate quality to one striving for it. In other, more sensible words, that straight-A-student who always seems to succeed can still fail – a fact known to and accepted by everyone else but said perfectionist. And really, what all of us perfectionists have in common is the terrible, paralysing fear of failure. In fact, perhaps we are not driven by our goal of perfection, but rather by the fear of failing to achieve it. The difference between the two might seem trivial but it draws a line between ambition and obsession. I never considered perfectionism a struggle comparable to things like ADHD or OCD, but merely another personality trait among others. In the world where competition is encouraged and success rewarded it seems natural to set the bar higher and higher. I strongly identify with the term “perfectionist”. However, like any other label it easily becomes a way for me – and others – to minimise my experience. For instance, feeling stressed out I might bring it up to another person by stating: “Oh, I’m such a perfectionist I can get anxious just about anything”. What a wonderful way of simultaneously asking for sympathy and shitting on myself. When the statement has escaped my lips it’s as though I’ve given a permission for everyone to perceive me the way I perceive myself.

“Chill out! You’re such a perfectionist.”

“That’s just who she is, a total perfectionist.”

“It’s not a big deal. You don’t have to do everything so perfectly.”

Words are powerful. When uttered frequently enough they start to represent truth. They reinforce the idea that this is what it is; this is how I’m perceived so this must be who I am. As it becomes common knowledge that I always strive for perfection, my fear of failure increases. Now it isn’t only myself whom my shortcomings will disappoint but everyone, absolutely everyone. What if I they find out that I’m a fraud, an imposter, only pretending to be something special? What if I fail to meet the expectations that my perfectionist armour suggests are reasonable? What if it turns out that I will only ever be average at best? Ambition can be an incredible force for good when paired with passion, courage and resilience; unless, for whatever reason, it morphs into an obsession fuelled by panic, where the slightest misstep is a ground-shaking disaster.

Fear, like cancer, spreads by contaminating its surroundings, turning a body against itself. The fear of failure, if allowed to feast on its carrier, shrinks one’s universe into a very small reality where everything is so controlled by a looming terror that the simplest task becomes an arduous chore. In the midst of this turmoil, the perfectionist has completely ignored the fact that no one really expects her to never fail, and that the outside pressure is only her perception of how she is perceived by others. How to start a project of any size or amount of required effort when every idea is immediately plagued by the hypothetical failure at the end? “Just do it”, says the Nike tagline, but what if the anxiety is so paralysing that choosing which brand of non-dairy milk to go for, or whether to set the alarm for 7AM or 7:10AM becomes an ordeal. In such a fearful existence creativity does not come easily: it has to be fought for. Annoyingly enough, just doing it, really is the only way to stop the cycle.

The blank page has turned into a less intimidating mishmash of characters, lines and paragraphs toning down the irritating brightness. Now the only disconcerting element is the ‘Publish’ button. I allow myself to opt for ‘Save Draft’ and go obsess over something else for a time. The true challenge of perfectionism is accepting that whether you try or not, you still won’t be perfect so you might as well go for it. Trying and failing may even lead to you being the worst of all, which is singular in its own way, whereas remaining passive just gives your voice to someone louder.

So there, getting up close and personal right out of the gate. Now that I’ve minimised my own and everybody else’s expectations of this blog we can get started, hopefully with less of the aforementioned looming terror and more with  embracing Salvador Dali’s words:

“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it”

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