My name is Lisa and I’m a perfectionist.
I’m not sure I like the word ‘perfectionist’ because it presupposes that I think I can be perfect, which I don’t. Maybe driven is a better word. Or intensely self-critical. Yeah. That’s it. And, sadly, I don’t think there’s a ten-step program for that.
All of our individual character traits have both positives and negatives. Stubbornness is the flip side of persistence. Self-sacrificial, the flip side of generous. Self-critical the flip side of insightful/perceptive. These are personal attributes I am all too aware of, along with my tendency to fall on the negative side of all of them.
As a writer, I need to be insightful and perceptive, open to experiencing the world in all of its beauty and terror. But that very necessary sensitivity has its own shadow that emerges as being overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed. Which feeds in to negative self-talk and self-criticism. Couple that with a desperate need to please others and you have a perfect psychic storm.
And as a woman who came of age in the 80’s, I am no stranger to the messages I internalized of ‘having it all’ – family, career, success – all while tap dancing backwards and in high heels. Okay, maybe not that last bit, but I came to understand that anything that meant setting limits or prioritizing self was wrong. When I was in my 30s, I hit the metaphorical wall. I was working as a physical therapist, parenting 2 young children, and working to reclaim my personal creativity through writing. Always on the edge of exhaustion, always berating myself for not accomplishing more, always feeling as if I wasn’t doing any parts of my life well.
I did a course of therapy with a hypnotherapist and while I won’t relate the details of what we worked on together, I do want to share this piece: The therapist took me deep into trance and gave me the suggestion to consider that I was good enough.
I had a full blown panic attack in trance.
When the therapist took me back to the surface, we talked about the experience and it was then it truly hit me that I couldn’t let myself be good enough. That good enough was clearly NOT good enough.
It took me years to come to a place where I could accept that who I was and what I did was good enough without the attack of negative thoughts that used to accompany it.
So what does this have to do with writing?
Pretty much everything.
I have been reading a friend’s book as a beta reader and it’s marvelous. The voice, the world building, the sense of foreboding, the characters, the plot – it’s got it all going on. I am trilled for her. She’s a terrific writer and this is a terrific book. And then the small, insecure voice inside me starts to repeat old stories: My work isn’t as good. Why can’t I write like her? No wonder I’m not successful.
What I’m finally starting to understand is that those voices aren’t relevant. Whether they have any objective truth or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that I write the books *I* can write. That perfect isn’t a goal or a possibility. That I accept my work is good enough, while striving to learn, grow, and improve my craft – and not seeing those two elements as contradictory.
I can look over the arc of my writing career to date and see that I’m a better writer today than I was 10 years ago. Or 5 years ago. Or last year. Or even last month. That doesn’t mean my earlier work is terrible and that my current work is perfect. Accepting the power of good enough is accepting that you are doing what you can do with the skills and resources at your disposal. Good enough is a process and an acknowledgement of our limits.
Twenty years after that very intense therapy session, I have learned to be a lot kinder to myself. I understand the power of self-care and how it allows me to be healthier and more productive, not less. And thinking about being good enough no longer makes me panic or wallow in self-hatred.
I have learned to take pride in my good enough. I hope you can, as well.
LJ’s most recent novel, DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE, is book 3 of her SF series, Halcyone Space. You can find links to all her available work on her website.