Let’s Talk About “Situational Perfectionism”

Situational perfectionism” is when something causes your perfectionism to spike above its usual levels. (Which usually, in turn, causes your procrastination to spike!)

It’s a common phenomenon, with many causes. Here are a few:

A prior failure. Often, when we perceived we’ve failed, we get more afraid of future failures. (The solution is to not make such a fuss over failure.) But, paradoxically…

A prior success can also do it! That’s because you feel (often rightly) more scrutinized. Second Novel Syndrome is a classic example of this type of situational perfectionism, and even J.K. Rowling experienced it after the success of the first Harry Potter book:

“For the first time ever in my life, I got writer’s block…The stakes seemed to have gone up a lot, and I attracted a lot of publicity in Britain for which I was utterly unprepared.’” Fortunately, she got over it, but many writers and others, alas, never do.

Labels can be a problem! Labeling your project “urgent,” “important,” or “difficult” can obviously stoke your perfectionist fears. But even labeling it “easy” can cause problems by causing you to be blindsided by—and overreact to—the work’s ordinary challenges. Also, many projects that seem easy really aren’t. These include:

  • Seemingly simple projects that open up and get more complicated as you work on them.
  • Those with a tricky emotional or political component. Many people, for instance, expect memoir writing to be easy because “you’re just writing about what happened to you.” But writing about difficult personal events, or writing something that may upset family or friends, is far from easy.
  • Also, perfectionists’ mistrust of simplicity and “too easy / undeserved” success can cause them to overcomplicate their projects.

Other things that trigger situational perfectionism include:

  • Working in the face of pressure from coworkers, parents, partners, or others.
  • Comparing your life, process, or outcomes to someone else’s. (Regardless of the facts, a perfectionist will inevitably come out on the losing end of her comparisons.)
  • Tying your project’s success to some important outcome, like a big paycheck or promotion, or an increase in status or legitimacy. (“Once my novel gets published, then I’ll be a real writer.”)
  • Feeling the need to recoup/justify an investment. E.g.: “I just bought that new computer [or attended that expensive workshop] NOW I’D BETTER MAKE IT COUNT!” And,
  • Expecting to “make up for lost time” after a vacation or other break.

Like all perfectionism, situational perfectionism is solvable. Step #1 is recognizing that perfectionism never helps, and is always a dead end.

Here are some other solutions.

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