Wednesday, January 13, 2016

On Fear and Perfectionism

We weren't married long before my observant husband told me that every time I have a big project, I dance around and around it, and plan and prepare and think and make lists, but I don't just dig in and DO it.

He, who attacks projects like our 8 cats launch toward their dish after clawing 3 feet up the glass patio door, when Jenny feeds them in the morning, he was understandably mystified.

While I have progressed a few miles on this in 31 years, I still fight that barrier.  Which is why the upstairs hall hasn't been painted in years.

If you don't mind spending a little time in my head, I'll explain something I learned about myself recently. Then you can play Life Coach and tell me what to do.

The catalyst for this self-discovery was, of all things, a bookmark I was trying to color.

You know how adult coloring books are all the rage now.  I'll bet half the women in America got one for Christmas.  I did--from Jenny--and it's wonderful.

But I haven't started coloring in it yet.

This is significant.

A few months ago I decided to take a ride on this wagon and downloaded and printed a document with four bookmarks all doodled and swirled and lined with cool black ink lines.

I cut out the bookmarks and tried to start coloring the first one. And I felt paralyzed by fear.

Fear of beginning, fear of choosing colors, fear of getting it irretrievably wrong.

Yes.  Just that afraid.  Of starting to color a 3-cent bookmark that could easily be tossed and reprinted.

I realized I felt that same paralyzing fear with the following projects:
1. Painting a room.
2. Cutting out a dress.
3. Writing a novel.

My friends on Pinterest who know me in real life can attest that I pin pictures of cute dresses by the hundred but actually sew them in far smaller quantities.  Ideas are easy to come by, wild, exciting, energizing.  But choosing a fabric and pattern and making that first cut--that's just overwhelming.

I think we might be discussing perfectionism here, that fear of beginning because it's such a big step and there's no turning back and WHAT IF I GET IT ALL WRONG??

I have danced around writing a novel for some ten years and am still both intrigued and utterly terrified by the idea.

How do you overcome fear and perfectionism, that's what I wonder.  If I came and asked myself for advice, I'd probably start with, "Just grab your markers and color that silly bookmark!"

Quote of the Day:
"The Bernie Sanders Society meets downtown every Saturday morning."
--a lady at a book sale in Eugene.  Somehow it struck me as a uniquely Eugene thing to say.


  1. No help here. I live where you do. We have just started a kitchen renovation and I have been awake nights in terror that I did choose the wrong paint and counters and this is a lot of money. It is doubtful that I will ever change and after almost 38 years hubby is used to my fretting and knows he cannot help me.

  2. Altogether identify. And it feels very unholy, so the guilt element swirls recklessly with the fear element and creates a deadly cocktail.

  3. I understand mostly because I live with a spouse who struggles in this way. I tend to the opposite. After Letting go of judgment I realize we need each other to be the way we are. It keeps the balance in life going somehow. What if we did have a world full of people like your husband, (and me)? Who would temper them?

    1. Oops. I meant to say a world full of people that were all the same.

  4. This is so very much like me, and my husband is like yours in his ability to "just do it." I often pray for the Lord to show me where to start, and I do this repeatedly throughout the project. We do not typically see things linearly (I picture my mind map looking like a starburst with the big idea at the center), so the linear arrangement from imagination to implementation has to be formed very intentionally, and I think it's a God-sized job. Sometimes we can't even see it until the project is done. Post-it notes are a friend for people like us. Any random thought can be jotted down and a pile of notes can accumulate while your brain churns along trying to make logical connections between them. When a clear next step emerges, THEN we just do it. Arranging the sticky notes might happen, or might not.

    I think recognizing perfectionism as an enemy is an important step in slaying that beast. Doing so runs counter to maxims we've heard like "Ïf it's worth doing, it's worth doing right." We probably should have heard something like this: "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing wrong." "Reasonable service" is a trustworthy standard--not perfection.

  5. Recently I realized that I was living with a vague feeling of being a failure. It was mostly buried, but would crop up when I made a mistake. I would often hear myself saying, "I just can't get it right." I became aware that it was wrong to say that, so I started wondering what was behind it. I asked God to take me back to the root and then I remembered a job I had in my early 20's in which I felt like I had failed. So I asked God for the truth about that job. He showed me some things that helped me believe that although some aspects of that job didn't go well, that didn't make me a failure. Just a little truth to replace the lie made a big difference. Now I can overbake the casserole without feeling like a complete failure. It's very freeing. :)

    I wonder if a similar approach of asking God to show you the specific thing (possibly in childhood) that started you feeling this way about big projects, and asking for truth about that, would be helpful?

    I agree with Miriam's 2nd paragraph above. I do not believe that we are doomed to struggle with things like paralyzing fear and perfectionism all of our lives. They are our enemies and God wants to free us from them.

  6. A "dive-in and do it!" friend watched me struggle with the planning of a fairly simple home project for months. Finally, she asked me what I was aiming for, with all my lists, and thinking, and research. I looked at her like she was kinda dumb, and said, (huffily), "The RIGHT way to do it!" She, being a patient friend, pointed out there wasnt going to be ONE right way, but probably several RIGHT ways. Huh. She also gave me a motto that I really need to embroider on a pillow--"Perfect is the enemy of Good." Maybe I should have t-shirts made. I really need to remind myself every day.

  7. Wow! This was a great read! Including all the comments! Dorcas you touched on something so many of us struggle with. I could sure identify with the painting hesitation. God bless us all as we turn to Him for help.

  8. If I may play shrink for a minute... I wonder how much a thrifty Amish Fear of Waste plays into your experience. Painting a room? --What if that gallon of expensive material turns out to be the wrong color? Cutting out a dress? --That lovely fabric, possibly ruined by a careless cut or an overreaching pattern. Writing a novel? All those hours and hours of precious time spent "doing nothing" (if nothing material comes of it in the end).

    The fears you're talking about extend beyond that--to overwhelming sequences and the need to get it right. But I wonder about that fear of investment, worry about committing time/ energy/ money/ heart to something that turns out to be no good. (I may be very wrong. You can ignore me.)

    I am postmodern enough to believe that the creative process itself is worth something, even if failure results. Sometimes failure itself is worth something.

    But I think you talk about that too. When you're not standing with scissors in hand over a cut of fabric. :)

  9. Thanks for all the empathy, everyone!
    And all the insights and wise words.
    It all helps.
    Miriam, the starburst thought process is exactly, precisely how my mind works. I'm going to use the post-its idea for the preps for my three, big, multi-step-process, multi-tangled-ideas talks at the CLP Writers Conference.
    And Shari, yes yes YES, that Amish Fear of Waste is spot on as I first realized yesterday when a friend commented on Facebook that I can just throw away my projects that don't work out and no one will ever know. No! I can't! I grew up Amish and poor, and to --as you said--throw away that fabric or waste that paint, that conjures ghosts from the past that I am not willing to confront.

  10. Although I've never been Amish, I have the same paralyzing fear of waste. I've learned to work around it by considering (A) what the consequences of failure are in the grand scheme of things and (B), setting up the attempt in such a way that the consequences of failure are minimized. It's been incredibly freeing.

    If the freshly painted room looks funny, well, if it looked so great before, then why was I painting it? New recipes get halved; if dinner tastes funny, we give thanks that we have food at all and move on. As for sewing, I've discovered the joys of muslins made from stuff in the dollar bin when I try a new pattern. If it turns out wearable, that's gravy. If not, it can be cut up for other muslins, used for rags, and recycled.

  11. Since you asked for advice, I'll share what has helped me deal with perfectionism. First, I read the book "The Cure for the Perfect Life" by Kathy Lipp and Cheri Gregory. Not all of the chapters will resonate, but mine is covered in pink highlighter. Really good stuff, Biblical perspective. The second is to really focus on how deeply and passionately God loves you. Not just loves you, but is crazy in love with you. I used to believe that when I did something wrong, God was just so disappointed in me. I had ruined my witness. And then the bullies in my head (an idea from the book) would take over and it was not pretty. But now I know that when I mess up, I can just go to Him and say, "Jesus, I messed up. I need another helping of grace." And He is so, so happy to give that to me. It is his delight. The more I have focused on His view of me, the less I need to perform. Also, learning about fixed vs. growth mindset has been very helpful. I believe that fear is the result of a fixed mindset, which says if I make a mistake, I'm not smart or good or someone will figure out just how much of a fraud I really am. But a growth mindset says, I'm learning. I get to make mistakes. When I catch myself being fearful of making a mistake, I remind myself that I am cultivating a growth mindset and this is a great opportunity to practice. That is what has been working for me. I hope it helps you too.

  12. You wrote, “If you don't mind spending a little time in my head, I'll explain something I learned about myself recently. Then you can play Life Coach and tell me what to do.” Well, I’m certainly no Life Coach, so I won’t be telling you what to do. But I can share some ideas about how you can find the answers you need to solve the recurring dilemma you describe. In a nutshell, to paraphrase . . .

    Why do I do the way I do it? Why do I feel frozen with fear while trying to color an expendable 3-cent bookmark? Why is choosing a fabric and pattern and making that first cut just overwhelming? Why do I procrastinate and delay painting that upstairs hall for years?

    You answered your own question in a sense when you wrote, “I think we might be discussing perfectionism here, that fear of beginning . . .” Well, yes. That could be the reason for the knots in the stomach and tightness of the throat. But what is the root cause behind irrational perfectionism? I’m going to quote Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “L’Envoi – When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted” which should trigger some rhetorical questions about why we do the way we do it. [Note: The poem’s phrase “…tubes are twisted and dried…” refers to artists’ little tubes of paint, like miniature tubes of toothpaste.]

    When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
    When the oldest colors have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
    We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it -- lie down for an aeon or two,
    Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.

    And those that were good shall be happy; they shall sit in a golden chair;
    They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets' hair.
    They shall find real saints to draw from -- Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
    They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!

    This is a thought-provoking poem, vast in scope and vivid in imagery, which gets to the heart of our motivation behind undertaking various painting projects and other plans and purposes. The third verse in particular just begs for a listing of the rhetorical questions I proposed above.

    [Sorry! I'm having to split this because the program will only accept 4,096 HTML characters. Let's hope it works with the split! If it does, I'll immediately post the second half so that you can continue reading. Hope that works, too.]

  13. And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame;
    And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
    But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
    Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are.

    Here’s a start on brainstorming those questions:

    Why do I want to do this project? What is my motivation? Is it for praise? Is it for money? Is it for fame? Why do I feel panic? Am I afraid of criticism? Am I afraid of failure? Do I doubt my skill? Is my ego or reputation at stake? Are there off-putting schedules and deadlines involved? Do I have time to finish this? Will I be wasting my time and resources? How far down is this project on my priority list? Is there a practical reason that is pressuring me? Is this an idealistic or altruistic endeavor? Am I subconsciously or secretly competing with someone else? Who will be my audience or the beneficiary of my effort? Does that matter? Will the sheer joy of the process be my reward? What else?

    When I was ten years old I memorized this poem for a fifth grade class assignment. That is why it came to mind immediately when I read your blog post about your bookmark coloring project. I must caution you, though, not to take this poem too seriously. Just use it as a rhetorical device to help you brainstorm for ideas about why you slip into panic mode at the thought of an overwhelming project. The poem is theologically flawed and its underlying assumptions unbiblical, which you probably noticed, even when allowances are made for poetic license! Kipling himself claimed to be a “Christian atheist.” Well, now, what’s that supposed to mean? Can you say “oxymoron”?

    Furthermore, the poem does not really answer your question. It just takes you on an interesting but fanciful tour of infinite time and space and prompts a number of additional questions. You wrote, “How do you overcome fear and perfectionism, that’s what I wonder.” With the Scriptures as your guide, rather than a “Christian atheist”, you can find the answer to that question. This comment is already over long, so I will stop for now. But hopefully later today I will send a second comment that will suggest some Scripture passages that should be of immeasurable help to you in conquering this difficult problem. So tune in later.

  14. Recently in church I heard my nephew quoting his grandpa (my dad) that that mistake was really not so costly, depending how valuable you consider the experience you gained. LRM

  15. My biggest motivation is watching my kids burst through the early stages. Time is gone so quickly. Today, this month, this year... NOW is the best time for important things. And that 'seize the day' attitude filters down to the fun things too. I do struggle with the mundane. A sink full of dishes at 10 pm? Big whoop, they'll be there tomorrow :/

  16. My biggest motivation is watching my kids burst through the early stages. Time is gone so quickly. Today, this month, this year... NOW is the best time for important things. And that 'seize the day' attitude filters down to the fun things too. I do struggle with the mundane. A sink full of dishes at 10 pm? Big whoop, they'll be there tomorrow :/

  17. Remember that Satan is the “accuser of the brethren” who works overtime to put debilitating thoughts into your mind to unsettle and defeat you. He will subtly, deceitfully attack you at your weakest, most vulnerable point. Make no mistake. You are in a constant spiritual battle stoked by the sly wiles of the relentless, powerful enemy of your soul. I know from personal experience how easy it is to get lulled to sleep and forget about this key fact in the spiritual struggles we all face. If the devil can get us to focus on something else—something like perfectionism?—he will! We are warned about him for good reason:

    1 Peter 5:8
    8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Note the vocabulary: adversary; roaring lion; devour. There’s nothing vague here. Those are strong words. We are not in a kindergarten cake walk. I realize that you, as a mature believer, know these things. I’m just reminding you. Remember to stand fast in the full armor God has given you in Ephesians 6:10-18. Wear your helmet, keep your sword and spear at the ready, note the command, “and having done all, to stand”; but especially notice how that passage ends:

    Ephesians 6:18 "praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints—"

    Just so you know, I’m going to take this verse (Eph 6:18) to heart and put shoe leather (or should I say knee pads?) to it for the next 30 days, specifically on your behalf, Dorcas, that this overwhelming fear that you so often face will be defeated! Prayer is essential. It engages the limitless power of God. I ask others in this conversation to join in a groundswell of strong, faithful prayer support as well, asking for help from the Creator God of the Universe, the One who holds all things in His hands. Please give us an update on or about February 15—one month from now, Dorcas, to let us all know what differences you have noticed.

    Here are other passages which are pertinent to your situation:

    Hebrews 4:16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

    II Peter 1:2-3 Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue…

    Notice that we are given peace, power, knowledge; we are given all things that pertain to life and godliness. All things. We have the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit to overcome any trial we face, including debilitating fear.

    Philippians 4:6-8 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; 7 and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.

    He commands us not to be anxious but prayerful and thankful. He promises the peace of God to guard our hearts and minds. His peace! One of the fruits of the Spirit! Then He tells us how to think—what to meditate on, in very great detail. These truths, and commands and promises from God's own Word, are at the core of the answer to your question about how to overcome paralyzing fear.

  18. Recently I read an extremely helpful sermon by Charles H. Spurgeon. The title of the sermon, published in 1904, is "Anxiety, Ambition, Indecision". Since Spurgeon was a theologian in London over 100 years ago, the writing style and language are "Old English", but don't let that be a stumbling block. This sermon is packed full of help and encouragement--no matter what trial you face right now! This will resonate with you. Just "Google" the line below to get to the Spurgeon Archive site and find Sermon No. 2871.

    Copy and paste the following line into your browser and "click" or hit "enter":

    The Spurgeon Archive, Sermon No. 2871: Anxiety, Ambition, Indecision

  19. Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book, Big Magic, is about this very thing. I am about 3/4 of the way through it and finding it full of understanding, encouragement and motivation.

  20. I understand part of this. How did you ever start a family? Or go on to expand it to 6 children?! That's pretty brave!


  22. Mistakes are a GIFT! Mistakes are a stepping stone to something greater. See how many you can make today. Louise