I’ve mentioned recently in the blog that I’ve been working on recording the audio version of Intuitive Editing, and that means plunging deeply back into in a book I wrote more than two years ago and focusing on each and every word as I read it.
And guess what, y’all? I’m finding some typos.
Now, you can imagine that as an editor, writing an editing book, I took great care in making sure this baby was as letter-perfect as I could get her. Not only is that my calling card, but it’s a point of personal pride—I started in this business as a copyeditor, and I honed my skills doing that for more than a decade.
Beating Ourselves Up for Our Failings
Let me pause here for an illustrative story starring my mom (they’re usually pretty fun): On the day my most recent novel was published, under my pen name, Phoebe Fox, I sent out a newsletter post to my fiction subscribers sharing a bit about the writing of the book.
At seven a.m. on book-launch day my phone rang—my mom. (Hang on there, friends—this isn’t going where you think it is.)
“Oh, honey, I wanted to call you as soon as I could. I don’t know how to tell you this, but I didn’t want you to hear it from anyone else.”
(At this point, I am understandably a bit panicked. Mom continues.…)
“You have a duplicated word in today’s newsletter.” She goes on to explain where I did indeed double-type a word and hampered a sentence. “I’m so sorry—I knew you’d be mortified if someone pointed it out and you didn’t know.”
But here’s the thing, friends…I wasn’t mortified. In fact I found the whole thing pretty funny—and was also strangely touched by my mom’s well-meaning effort to save me from something that she felt would be embarrassing: a shortcoming in my professional efforts.
Now, I am an obsessive perfectionist from a long line of perfectionists, and I wrangle with those damn demons every day. [See sidebar –>] But it broke my heart a bit to hear those family demons from my mom, to the point where an error like that might have indeed mortified her.
What “Failure” Actually Means
Are you squirming a bit in recognition here, authors? I have to confess that I have heard from writers many similar sentiments to the one I heard from my mom, about their mistakes and oversights. Sometimes it’s about typos or grammatical errors, more often about what they perceive as their “failures” and shortcomings in drafts and revisions during our work together.
If this is resonating for you at all…if you have beaten yourself up for falling short of the standard of perfection you may be holding for yourself…I want to tell you what I didn’t tell my mom, and wish I had:
- Perfection doesn’t exist, and the quest for it strips away our ability to enjoy our efforts to create the best we are capable of, handicaps our growth as artists and as people.
- When perfection is our standard, any mistake becomes more than simple human error as we stretch and grow our abilities—it becomes a value judgment on who we are, a public flag announcing our inadequacy, and a private flog to beat ourselves with it.
- It robs us of self-esteem, of our confidence, of righteous pride in our work and our worth, our learning and our growth.
- Perfection is a hungry goddamned demon whose belly will never be filled as he holds the bar higher…ever higher…always raising it just out of our reach…demanding that we keep jumping high enough to prove our worth.
But here’s the thing, friends—the lesson I remind myself of day after day after day: You have nothing to prove.
Not to that fucking demon. Not to anyone—even yourself.
For me, I think my perfectionism lies in the insidious unconscious belief that I have to “earn my place” in the world, every single day, and I’m only as good as my last achievement or accomplishment.
And every day, all the time, in every instance when this pervasive little demon (who will be with me always and with whom I must learn to coexist) comes out of his little demon cave to stomp on my psyche, I remind him that I am not my achievements or the work I produce. I do not have to earn my ticket to ride. I am my ticket.
And mistakes, shortcomings, oversights, and even failures aren’t indicative of my worth. In fact they are all part of my glorious growth—which isn’t possible without them.
As I read Intuitive Editing aloud—my baby, my pride and joy, my life’s work to this point—I’m also finding some areas of the text where my thinking has continued to evolve: theories and ideas I developed and honed for years, and took great care to articulate as well and clearly as I could as I was writing this passion project of mine. Things I wish I could tweak or update or elaborate upon now.
But when that demon pops his little red head out of the cave, I just remind him—and myself—how marvelous it is that I continue to grow and evolve in my work…and gently send him back inside.
If you share this perfectionism demon, friends—or any other demons that trample your self-image—I’d love to share a few books that I’ve found transformative: Compassion and Self-hate by Theodore Rubin, M.D., quite literally changed my life. Feeling Good by David Burns (along with a very gifted cognitive behavioral therapist) quite literally have helped change my thinking in these negative spirals. And Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff helps me continue to learn to manage the demons.