Noticing you’re “in it”: what does perfectionism look like?

This is the final post in my May article series on perfectionism and how it interferes with our creativity — and how we can recognize it before it has its way with us! There’s plenty more on this site about perfectionism, as well as its partner in crime, procrastination — just click on the Categories listing on the right.

It can be tricky to recognize when we’re in the grip of perfectionism, because we often applaud ourselves for the very behavior it creates. I struggled so much with overachieving as a child that by the time I was fifteen years old, I burned out and literally had no clue as to why I did anything at all — all I knew was that nothing I did gave me the sense of satisfaction I wanted it to give me for very long. The why beneath what we do is important; in fact, it’s essential.

Perfectionistic behavior is fear-based. We’re acting to secure what we think we’d be lost without. We do more because we fear that if we don’t, we won’t have enough.

When we take action from a place of wholeness and authenticity, we act based on the conviction that we are already secure. We do more because we enjoy it, because it enhances our lives. We stop when we’ve had enough.

So, how can you tell you’re in perfectionism’s clutches?

You can tell by the way you feel. For me, that’s often urgent, anxious, overly driven (I feel I can’t stop or slow down), a tight stomach, clenched jaw, contracted body, slumped-over posture. I physically “clench up”, become smaller than I actually am. Sometimes I feel extra-irritated and want to snap at people.

(Can you imagine the extra burden we place on ourselves when we sit down and try to create from this feeling, from this place?)

Sometimes, though, I’m not necessarily in touch with my feelings or my body. I’m totally in my head, and although I know lots of techniques for getting into my body, I don’t always do them because my mind is telling me I don’t have time, or there’s no point (tricky, tricky mind!).  This is when I can look to my behavior for clues.

For me, perfectionism manifests itself in the following behaviors:

* Going above and beyond just because I can; staying really, really on top of things (i.e. responding to emails immediately; setting daily goals that are way bigger than they actually need to be because my ego likes the way they look).

* Saying YES a lot, when I really mean maybe, or no. Often I do this to avoid conflict. Will saying no really create conflict? I can always say, “Let me think about that,” instead of “yes.”

* Finishing what I’ve planned to do for the day and then doing more, rather than, as we like to say in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle, “declaring myself satisfied!” A similar version of this is sneaking “doing” into time I’ve set aside for “being.”

* People-pleasing and all its graspy little offspring. This can look like refusing to set boundaries around my time and energy, or affecting an “always smiling” persona so I don’t “upset anyone.”

* Cutting back on, or cutting out, fun activities until I’ve “gotten it all done.”

* Using the terms “should” and “have to” a lot.

Any of these behaviors are good pointers, alerting me that I’m “in it.” The value in noticing them is that when they go unchecked, I get further and further cut off from my true feelings, my true needs. Stopping them before they snowball can prevent the build-up that creates “the backlash” (a term I got from Cynthia Curnan, author of “The Care and Feeding of Perfectionists”), where I burnout, crash, and want to remain immobile for hours or days at a time because I’ve pushed and criticized myself for so long.

What behaviors alert you that you’re “in it”? Jot down a list of these (writing them down really helps you remember them) and the next time you notice yourself doing them, pause and course-correct until your actions stem from what you authentically want. It is so worth it.

If you struggle with perfectionism (or what can often be its flipside, procrastination), check out my one-on-coaching, here. I have a ton of tools in my arsenal to help you!

Image is PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS © Ronalesa Salstrand | Dreamstime.com

Don’t let perfectionism keep you from getting started (or from finishing)

This is the first in a series of several articles I’ll be publishing on perfectionism and how it keeps us from doing what we most want to do, or from enjoying it when we do accomplish it!

I finished a first draft of my novel yesterday. I had to declare myself finished. This draft had been sitting for more than three years when I returned to it early this year.

I had a hard time starting the novel way back when because I wasn’t sure I had the “just right” story, and I wasn’t sure I had the “just right” point of view (I even wrote 200 pages of it in third person and then rewrote it all in first, which, if you write fiction, you know is a lot harder than just changing “she” to “I”). I kept rehashing and rewriting these 200 pages, polishing scenes, cutting scenes and creating new ones, changing the order. At one point I went back to third person and wrote from multiple points of view. Then I went back to first.

At some point, I realized I needed to make some choices, stick with them, and continue — even if the draft wasn’t exactly the way I envisioned it.

So I did. And as I finally neared the end of my draft this week, everything felt bittersweet. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the writing of it (generating the writing is my favorite part; I like editing and rewriting much less). But mostly, I wanted to feel I had the best possible ending. I wanted to feel like, wow! This ending rocks. (That was how I felt when I finished the first draft of my other novel, a few months ago, which you can read about here.) I’d venture to say we all want that from our endings, and our readers, of course, want that too.

But this was a first draft, and at some point, I realized I needed to call it enough. As Anne Lamott tells us, it’s totally okay for first drafts to be shitty. My friend and mentor Jenna Avery said, “How about calling it enough for now?”

Yep. “Enough for now” felt exactly right.

Those of us who tend to be perfectionists can forget the concepts of “enough” and “for now.” We want it to be right, we want it to be brilliant, we want it to be perfect. Only the thing is, in wanting that so badly, we often don’t actually do our work, don’t get it to those who can benefit from it and appreciate it, because we don’t get started, or we don’t ever allow ourselves to finish.

A first draft is just that. It’s something rough, something messy, something that takes chances and probably contains lots of mistakes.

That is good. What if we could apply a “first draft” mentality not only to our first drafts of our writing, but to our lives? I know I love the things I love in part because they are messy, and rough around the edges, and imperfect. Not because they’re polished to a high shine, but because they move me, in all their imperfection.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with starting and finishing. What helps you begin something you’re afraid of, and what helps you say I’m done, for now?

Also: Today, May 10, is the last day to register for Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. It’s through my participation in this group that I’ve now completed drafts of two novels. (I’m also one of the coaches.) If you can’t seem to get started on something you’d love to create, or you’ve gotten stuck, check it out here!

And: I have a couple of spots open for new one-on-one coaching clients. Find out more here.

Making Friends with Discomfort (even when you don’t want to)

My mother once told me that she sometimes skips to the ends of the books she reads because she can’t stand waiting to know what happens.

“Mom!” I said. “That ruins the whole experience of reading it!”

“No it doesn’t,” she said. “It allows me to calm down enough to really enjoy the book. I don’t have to be anxious. I know what’s going to happen.”

Although I don’t share my mom’s inclination to skip to the ending of the book I’m reading (in fact, if it’s really good, I don’t even want to skip to the next paragraph, because I know it’s going to be delicious), I get where my mom is coming from. Probably too well. I’m the girl who’s always wanted to skip to the end of her own life so I can know what happens. So I don’t have to make any choices (because what if I make the wrong one, and that creates another wrong one, and so on, and pretty soon my entire life is derailed?). So I don’t have to be in process.

But let’s face it: When are we not in process? Our lives are one giant process, and each day of our lives is made up of tiny processes. And the thing about process is, it’s a big question mark. We talk a lot about results and outcomes, but as soon as we reach one, it’s already in the process of changing. Our lives simply don’t stay the same for very long, because, if we are committed to our own growth, we don’t stay the same. And even if avoid change like the plague (and some of us do!), somehow it happens to us anyway.

But this process stuff can be really, really uncomfortable. And because it’s uncomfortable, and we read discomfort as pain, we try to do anything to get out of the discomfort.

For me, that has sometimes looked like:

* leaving a relationship before I really understood what was going on because I felt so uncomfortable, and then recreating the same relationship elsewhere;

* leaving a job before I really understood why I didn’t like it and then recreating that same job situation elsewhere;

* impulsively getting into a relationship or taking a job I didn’t even want in an attempt to outrun my discomfort;

* eating when I wasn’t hungry;

* buying things I didn’t truly want or need.

You get the idea. Here’s the thing: We can’t outrun our discomfort. In fact, if we’re in a big hurry to do something, or to get away from something, it’s a pretty sure sign that we are attempting to outrun some kind of negative emotion.

Changing the situation is not going to get rid of our discomfort. We can’t outrun ourselves. I can move to Australia or outer space to try to get away from my discomfort, and once the dust has settled, I’ll still be me.

So what’s the answer? Acknowledge that if we are going to live fully, connected to our emotions and committed to creating the lives we want, we are going to be in discomfort regularly.

Being in discomfort does not mean something is wrong.

If we’re in discomfort, we can:

* Stop (for the moment). Feel the discomfort in our bodies. It’s nothing more than a sensation. What does it feel like?

* Notice whatever emotion is coming up, and, if we are in a safe place, let it come up. Let it come up and out.

* Notice the thoughts we’re having. Our thoughts create our emotions. Our thoughts create our discomfort. Notice your stressful thoughts and work with them. Do The Work of Byron Katie, or talk to a friend or a coach or a therapist you trust who can point out to you what you may not be able to see yourself.

Being in discomfort does not mean we need to flee, look for jobs, relationships, or projects that don’t trigger discomfort (there won’t be any), or resort to the go-to belief that there must be something wrong with us. It just means we need to find a way of creating a relationship with our discomfort. Because it’s not optional – discomfort is going to be there from time to time, whether we like it or not, and especially if we choose to do things that challenge us.

Note: I’m reinventing my free Creativity Consultations, and I will not be offering them in this format again beyond the first week of May! So, if you’re struggling with a creative project or feeling stuck (or really, really uncomfortable!) now’s the time to grab one.

And: Stay tuned for my article series on Letting Go of Perfectionism — for People Who Really, Really Hate to Let Go.

Things I’m noticing while I write, list #2

Here’s the second in my series of lists of things I’m noticing as I work on my novel.

1) It’s fun to write with friends. This morning, some members of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle sprinted with me. We checked in with each other before and after the sprint. Writing can feel so solitary. And sometimes that solitude feels good. But it’s also nice to know there are others out there doing it too, struggling with the same stuff I am.

2) It’s okay to go back. Although I’ve been really encouraging myself in this draft to move forward, forward, forward (since I have a tendency to go back and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and therefore not to finish my drafts), something kept nagging at me and I knew I’d taken a wrong turn. The story didn’t feel as alive as I knew it could, because two chapters earlier I’d gone left instead of right. So I went back, and made that right turn. And that right turn, was, well, the right one. My story felt alive again, and it just starting writing itself (righting itself?). When a story writes itself, fun things happen. (Like, who knew there was a ghost living in my main character’s apartment? The ghost wouldn’t have revealed itself if I hadn’t gone back and course-corrected.)

And by the way, you can do this in life too. You can always course-correct, no matter how far off the path you’ve wandered. And sometimes, wandering off the path becomes your new path.

3) I do better when I write earlier in the day. In keeping with my last post, about trusting my own process, I’ve noticed that there’s a world of difference for me when I write earlier. Maybe it’s because, often, writing is the most difficult thing I have on my plate, and when I get it done earlier, I know I can handle anything else that comes my way that day.

4) When I’m writing what I know I must write — when it’s coming through me and I’m aware that I’m not really the author, I’m just the conduit – I’m not concerned with how good it is.  This doesn’t mean I won’t look at it with editor’s eyes later on in the process and see how it might be improved. It’s just that there’s a huge difference between “I want to write something terrific” and “This writing was just waiting to be born. And now it’s here.” (Am I making the writing, or am I allowing the writing?)

And by the way, the more I make it about me, the more blocked and stuck I get.

What are you noticing while you write? I’d love to hear how it’s going for you.

Are You Stretching or Pushing Yourself? How to Tell the Difference.

I wrote recently about how perfectionism can be such a creativity killer. It may seem like perfectionistic striving helps us get things done, but its constricting energy actually puts a stranglehold on the flow of our creativity. Still, most of us learn from an early age that there’s value in pushing ourselves, in being hard on ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to someone who’s feeling scared and stuck, and at some point in the conversation they say, “I just really need you to give me a kick in the butt so I can get going.”

Sorry, but I’m never going to do that.

What I will do is suggest that you look at how it feels when you have the thought, “I really need a kick in the butt to get going.” How do you proceed from there? Does it feel enlivening? Does it instill confidence in yourself? And, even more importantly, does it create a feeling of trust in yourself?

When I attempt to proceed from that thought, I feel angry. My stomach tightens. My jaw clenches. I also feel some sadness, because I am attempting to motivate myself through force and fear. And I decided a long time ago that that’s not the way I want to live.

The “kick in the butt” method is an example of motivating ourselves by pushing ourselves. If someone pushes me in line at the grocery, I will probably refrain from pushing them back (or maybe I won’t!), but I really want to push back. And similarly, when I push myself, something in me pushes back. I may be feeling resistant to whatever it is I want to do, but pushing myself only creates more resistance. When I proceed from a mentality of pushing myself, I create an inner struggle.

So what’s the solution? For me, it’s changing my mentality from the concept of pushing to the concept of stretching. I’ve always loved the feeling of stretching myself — whether it was stretching my arms and legs in a ballet class as a child, or stretching myself to write that one more page in my journal last night that was just dying to come out, even though I was getting tired.

For me, stretching feels good. It may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar — as when we are beginning to use muscles we don’t usually use, whether we’re in ballet class or starting our first novel — but it’s a challenging sort of uncomfortable. It feels juicy, a bit scary, maybe more than a bit sometimes, but what stretching says is: I trust you to grow toward what is life-enhancing for you. I trust you to more fully become yourself.

What pushing says is: If I don’t push you, you’ll never do it.

I much prefer the message of stretching.

Also, stretching is a good antidote for resistance. If I focus on the feeling of excitement and challenge and discovery that comes with stretching myself, I feel less resistant to doing whatever it is I want (but am scared) to do.

I’d love to hear your experiences with stretching vs. pushing yourself. What have you discovered?

And don’t forget, I offer free Creativity Consultations. Check them out here!

Join Me for Muse Office Hours, tomorrow!

Feeling stuck, scared to begin, or flat-out immobilized around something you’re creating? Does it feel like you just can’t stop procrastinating? Do you need some support to get going again? I really know how you feel, and I want to help you get started. To that end, I am offering Muse Office Hours, tomorrow, Feb. 24, from noon to 2 p.m. Central Standard Time. (If you need help figuring out the time zone difference, click here).

What are Muse Office Hours? They’re a two-hour window of time in which you can call in and get fifteen minutes of free, focused coaching from me on any creative issue you’re experiencing. If you’re feeling stuck, scared, so excited you’re freaking out, or anything at all around something you’re creating, and you need some feedback or support, this is totally for you. And the “something” you’re creating can be anything from a novel to a business to a new way of life.

The “muse” in Muse Office Hours does not mean that I, Jill, am your muse — no way! You carry within yourself your own very specific muse, precious and utterly unique, and my purpose with Muse Office Hours is to help you awaken it. Or maybe you just need to get back in touch with it, cheer it up, or knit it a fancy scarf so it will feel warmer and more connected to you. I can help with all that, too.

I love talking to creators about their fears around creativity — and by the way, if you’re having these fears, you’re totally normal. We’ve all got ‘em. It’s talking about them and getting support that allows us to get unstuck.

To take advantage of Muse Office Hours, call in to +1 708 689 9480 at any time during the two-hour window, up to fifteen minutes before the window ends — if you get my voice mail, it means I’m coaching someone else; leave a message and I will call you back as soon as I’m able! Muse Office Hours are first-come, first-served.

Thanks to my friend and fellow coach Melissa Wirt for dreaming up Muse Office Hours. :)

And stay tuned for my article on the difference between stretching and pushing ourselves, coming soon!

Image is FAIRY © Darrenw | Dreamstime.com

Think Small!

I continue to notice how doing just a little each day can make such a difference. This is true for my writing, it’s true for my coaching business, it’s true for the decluttering process I’ve got underway in my house. I wrote last week about how doing just ten minutes of writing one night made the difference I needed that day.

You might think that doing just a little isn’t enough. But what I’ve learned is that, when we think we need huge blocks of time to get something done, or when we see our project as so big we are overwhelmed, our tendency is to never begin. And then we feel frustrated and defeated.

Start small. Chip away. Make a dent in whatever it is you want to do. You’d be amazed at what you can accomplish by doing a little each day, over time.

On that note, TODAY, Jan. 19, is the last day to sign up for Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. I’ve written here and here about what a wonderful experience I’ve had as a participant in this Circle. (I finished a draft of my novel in the Circle by writing approximately thirty minutes a day, five days a week.) I’m also one of the coaches, and we’d love to have you join us this session, which starts Jan. 23. You can sign up for the Circle here.

Also: Be watching for an announcement from me early next week. I have something fun coming up — and it’s FREE!

To Create or Not to Create? Assessing Your Energy Levels

I’m totally committed to working on my novel five days a week. But today, it got a little challenging. We got a decent amount of snow here in Chicagoland, and in the time between two coaching calls — time I’d scheduled as my writing time for today — I realized I was going to need to go out and shovel. It was just one of those practical, mother-nature-induced, daily-life annoyances that I was going to have to deal with.

It ended up taking longer than I’d imagined it would. The car windows were wrapped in ice. The recycling bin fell over as I tried to pull it over a bank of snow. And so on.

“Screw it,” I thought as I trudged back up the steps to the house, my cheeks pink and my forehead clammy with sweat. “No writing today. I’ll just have to chalk it up to a snow day.”

Around 8:30, I wrapped up my last coaching call. I was hungry. I ate some leftover mostaccioli and opened my iPad and started playing the Fluff Pets Rescue game I’ve become addicted to over the past week, my “reward” for doing all the stuff I had on my to-do list. I took it as a given that I was too tired to write. But I felt a little bit hollow; the “to-do” list for the day wasn’t truly complete.

And then I felt a little pull in my stomach: a tingle of excitement. I noticed something: really, I wasn’t too tired to write. I wanted to write. So what if it was almost 9 p.m.? I could sit there rescuing fluffy pets (and who doesn’t want to sit around doing that?) or I could get up, go to the computer, and do a little writing.

And that’s what I did. I didn’t do much — just ten minutes of new writing. That was it. But, tonight, that was what it took to give me that feeling that I’d done enough. I moved the writing to the place where I’d done what I wanted to do with the story, with the language, for today. It felt good. I felt satisfied. I’d kept my commitment to myself, even if it wasn’t as much as I’d planned to write. It was enough.

Now: had I gotten off my last call at 8:30 and realized I was physically depleted, my eyes were starting to close and I truly needed to wind down for the night — had it felt like forcing and pushing and having to literally drag myself to the computer to make myself write — that would have been a different story. Had that been the case, I would have called it a day for today — no writing. I would have chalked it up to a snow day and left it at that. And it would have been good.

Geneen Roth once wrote, “Sometimes doing it looks like not doing it.” Sometimes, when we need to rest, that is exactly what we should be doing. This doesn’t mean that at those times we are not creating. Something in us, I believe, is still at work; our unconscious may be knitting together that impossible story problem while we dream.

And sometimes, like tonight for me, doing it looks just like that: going to the desk, sitting in the chair, typing the words into the computer, or scribbling away in your notebook (I still often love to write the old-fashioned way, in a hard-backed Cambridge notebook).

You can always listen to your body for information as to what you need most in this day, this moment. When you think about creating, do you get a little flicker of “yes!” in your chest, even if you’re tired, even if you’ve had a headache since noon? Then by all means, go for it, even so! If, when you think about creating today, your stomach plummets to your feet, your tired bones feel like they want to be in bed and maybe you’ve tried dragging yourself to the computer and sat there for a while and nothing’s really coming out, then, by all means, call it a day for today. You can, and will, start again tomorrow. Trust that implicitly.

By the way: Watch for a special announcement from me in the coming days — I have a cool gift for my readers that I’ll be writing about very soon!

Moving Through the Fear

In early September, I had two unfinished novels sitting around, and I’d built up a huge amount of fear, resistance, and guilt in relation to them. I was ready to just trash both of them and start afresh, pretend they’d never existed. And that would have been okay, if it was what I genuinely wanted to do. But it wasn’t. I felt like I’d left parts of myself in those unfinished pieces. And I had a deep desire to go back and complete what I’d begun.

Enter Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle, a.k.a. The Writer’s Circle. I joined the group, started logging in my daily writing progress on the website, got support from group members, and, as I wrote about here, I completed a draft of one of my novels in late October. Now, I’ve gone back to my other unfinished novel and I’m working on that one.

This stuff felt too scary for me to touch as recently as four months ago. But I’ve been able to get to it with the help of this group, and by taking small, manageable, daily steps. And I have to tell you, it feels pretty darned powerful.

I’ll be one of the coaches for the next session of the Writer’s Circle, which starts Dec. 26. The last day to sign up is Thursday, Dec. 22. If you have a languishing creative project, or would like to start writing again, or write for the first time ever, this can be a great gift to give yourself. And it’s not a bad way to start the New Year, either.

You can sign up for the Writer’s Circle here. I’d love to see you there!

There’s Enough Time. Really.

This week, I had quite a few conversations with creators around the idea of time. The general consensus seemed to be: There’s not enough. I have too much to do — which, by the way, I wish I’d done ten years ago — and there’s too little time in which to do it. Frequently when I hear people say this, I want to agree with them, so they know that I sympathize. “Oh, I know, isn’t it true? There’s just not enough. There’s too much to do. No wonder I can’t get to my (fill in the blank — novel, artwork, yoga, relationship).”

Here’s the thing, though: It’s not true that there isn’t enough. Whether we’re talking about time or money or love.

What we really mean when we say “There’s not enough time” is: I’m trying to outrun my painful thoughts about not accomplishing enough. I’ve got to hurry up. So let me add more and more to my to-do list, so I don’t see more evidence for what I haven’t accomplished. If I can get it ALL DONE, I’ll feel better.

Do you see how backwards this kind of thinking really is? (Because, fellow creators, it doesn’t come down to time — it comes down to our thinking. Always.) The thought “There isn’t enough” creates feelings of urgency, anxiety, sadness, regret. In a nutshell, fear. Then we take desperate, urgent, anxious actions based on these feelings. And no matter what results we get, they don’t feel like enough, because all of these results have, as their backdrop, the belief that there just isn’t enough. We’ve cycled right back into our original thought, and it all continues — no matter what we have, no matter what we’ve created, it isn’t enough, because our belief is that there isn’t enough.

Unless: We look at our thoughts about time. Is it true that there isn’t enough? How much time do I need to feel good about creating today? To feel good about anything today?

I’m going to suggest that the “time issue” is not about time at all. It’s really about our stressful thought that, at some point, our lives will be over and we won’t have done what we wanted to do with them. It’s really about our lack of self-acceptance, about the fact that we’re afraid to meet ourselves, to accept ourselves, exactly where we are. It’s about a belief that there’s a finish line we should have crossed years ago, and we haven’t even made our way to the starting gate.

What if we were to believe that what we need more of is not time, but acceptance — of ourselves, of our lives, of where we are, who we are, now? How would we move forward from that belief? If we are okay exactly as we are, my hunch is that we are more likely to create for thirty minutes today and celebrate that, rather than wait two years for the day when we have a block of six hours to create.

As my awesome mentor Jenna Avery says, “Start small and start now.” What we really fear is not that there isn’t enough time, but that we won’t accept ourselves if we don’t live up to our perfectionistic standards, if we don’t do more, more, more. Do me a favor: do less. Write for fifteen minutes. Sketch for fifteen minutes. Dance for fifteen minutes. And do it today. It takes no time to accept yourself exactly where you are, right now.

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