Perfectionism5 March 2021
Ten years ago, when I was a little pre-teen, writing was easy. Words flew on paper with the grace of a sailor navigating the ocean by the North Star. I wrote stories about princesses and their knights, blog pieces advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in India and articles about the forgotten mysteries of the internet. These stories never reached a coda. Looking back, that may have been part of the problem. I was so paralysed by perfectionism that I never finished anything. I’m still paralysed—as I write these last few words, I’ve had the desire to bang my head against a wall at least three times now. Musing over word choices, sentence placement and the point of this piece still lulls me into inaction.
Most people think perfectionism is an underlying factor of procrastination. You procrastinate because you are a perfectionist. You delay tasks because you’re afraid that they won’t be perfect in the end. The reality is that perfectionism stretches across many aspects of our lives, from careers to relationships, and after all these years, I’m now realising that writing was not the only part of my life perfectionism affected. I’m sure many of you can relate. We’re so focused on that perfect ending, or that perfect present, or that perfect career option that we never even make a start.
Even something as small as giving a gift becomes a chore. Last Christmas, I agonised for weeks over a Kris Kringle, a voice inside my head saying the gift needed to be perfect. It needed to be something my friend and I would love equally. I agonised over the possibilities—a shaving kit, beer brewing set, an expensive bottle of gin, another pride flag. It was all too impersonal. Nothing seemed right. I had to find the perfect gift. Impossible standards, I know. My friends told me over and over again, “Jesus, Sura, it doesn’t need to be perfect!”
But if you are anything like me, those words have the opposite effect. Being told that something is unattainable makes me want to pursue it even more. It is a dangerous habit, one that often lands me into narrow hallways with limited choices. After navigating those hallways, I’ve learned that it is the simplest of tricks that push me in the right direction. In the end, I gave my friend a hand-drawn present. He loved it, of course.
For the longest time, I shied away from choosing a major and, by extension, a career. Whatever I picked needed to be the right choice. I could not afford to make mistakes (or so I told myself). It had to be the perfect career. The one I was instantly good at. The one that fit me like a glove.
“On average, people change their careers two to three times in their life,” my therapist told me, as we worked our way through my issues. The simple realization that choosing a different path in the future was possible instantly helped me decide. What mattered was what I wanted to do now. I wanted to tell stories and I loved working with people. Looking back at my university career, I had immensely enjoyed my marketing class. And what is marketing if not telling stories for a brand? For now, a marketing degree it is.
While simple tricks and words are helpful, living with perfectionism is a long road. When it comes to writing, I am still learning how not to be paralysed. Anyone who has taken a university writing class might remember that the first instruction you get is to always carry a medium of recording your ideas. Skeptical at first, I reluctantly followed my tutor’s advice. For the longest time, neither carrying a notebook nor jotting down my spontaneous ideas turned me into Shakespeare, as I’d hoped. It did not give me a perfect beginning, middle and end.
But then it slowly dawned upon me, after months of agonising and trying to perfect assignments, that it was not the act of writing down ideas that helped but changing my medium. Instead of writing on my laptop, writing in a notebook gave me a proper start and then, that start gave me a middle. Endings are hard to come by, but sometimes, they settle into a ghost of their future selves and that can be enough.
When we circled back to my writing issues while talking about perfectionism, my therapist asked me: “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“It won’t be good enough,” I said. “I’ll be a failure.”
“But how do you know that when you don’t even start?”
“It is okay for things to just be enough. Perfection can come later once you have enough.”
The courage of words can sometimes be enough to nudge you out of paralysis. Just one step into the water, one steps towards your North Star, towards that dream of a place that is perfection. But until we reach that place, one step at a time into the water will have to be enough.