Tag Archives: perfectionism

When There’s Too Much Anxiety in Your Way to Move Forward

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It turns out I have this unconsidered theory that what’s most important is to be comfortable.

And it’s especially true with huge challenges like writing.

One more cup of coffee, I think. Then maybe I’ll be in the zone….

There’s no coffee mug big enough for me. Or coffee hot enough, tasty enough, fresh enough. And soon, the way the perfect light hits the perfect spot on the floor has stolen 5 full minutes of my writing time. It’s not “wasted” time; actually it’s helped me recharge and get my thoughts in order. But it hasn’t gotten words on the page. And there’s a difference between taking a moment to appreciate the light, and stalling out.

Just keep showing up, I think, against all opposition. I was even geared up about it, or so I thought, seeking the answer to something, a recent idea I wanted to capture. So I came early before the day’s work because I know this is the way I work: the day must start here. So just get it down before anything else.

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But I’ve hit a wall and it’s a slog. I’m trying hard to remember the question I had, and it’s not there.

Just press on. You know writing isn’t always easy or comfortable. But when I get in this head space, there’s no denying it: my writing time for the day is slipping away.

There’s too much to do to waste this time, too many tasks and none of them can be rescheduled. The recent sweeping changes have created several places of real need and that’s led to some anxiety and overwhelm. We knew the move to Michigan would be fairly difficult, but the house has needed a lot of help and leaving our friends and family behind in Portland has been harder than we even expected. Bottom line, it’s become uncomfortable.

God knows I need challenges to push me out of my comfortable or nothing changes. I like to think I welcome change and even handle it well. But the truth is I fear it, and in most situations it’s something I resist—

What’s that? You want to introduce something new into my carefully circumscribed life here? Uh, no thank you. I’m good. Move along, please—

When I’m uncomfortable, I just want it to stop as soon as possible. Pain or struggle is evil and needs to be alleviated. It’s not useful for my good. How many times have I heard this truth espoused, and yet still I fight desperately to resist it?

I fight the truth, and I make myself uncomfortable in the process. I make myself uncomfortable in order to stay comfortable.

Which is insane.

We’ve all got to choose to respond to life’s inevitable challenges. Doing nothing is not a choice because doing nothing is still a choice. Believe it or not, accept it or not, life will change on you. Your only choice is how to respond. And when I respond by letting go of what I thought I needed, I’ll find a deeper comfort.

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I have to stand up and walk toward the window, face the light to get a hold of it, the thought comes in such a burst. But letting go of what I previously needed for comfort may be somehow the only way I’ll regain the sense that I’m safe and sound, that things are in control.

Because it will no longer depend on my own efforts to hold on to what I think I need.

In this life, nothing is what it seems. The greatest teacher was right: you have to give up your comfort in order to save it.

I haven’t fully figured this out yet, but I want to believe this. And maybe that’s enough for now. I can feel the release of it coursing through my body, holding me up, and convincing me it’ll be okay despite what it seems.

Accept the responsibility, choose to let go here and now, and you preserve your deeper freedom. You may not get to writing down words today, but there’s tomorrow and if God allows it, the next day.

There’s good, even when things look bad. The truth is always there just waiting to be acknowledged and accepted.

And surrendered to.

Am I required to do or to share anything else? Or is just living this simple truth today enough?

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And maybe next time I’ll remember this sooner, accept it more readily. When discomfort comes, can I surrender to it to keep my deeper comfort?

Only one way to find out, I guess.

“If only we try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow, and great disappointments, and will also probably commit great faults and do wrong things. But it certainly is true that it is better to be high-spirited—even though one makes more mistakes—than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent. It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength; and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much; and what is done in love, is well done.” – Vincent Van Gogh, (from Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh (Plume, 1995)

For the deeper, greater, and higher purpose,

 

Mick

Why Writers Never Have to Worry about Failure

They always say write what you know.

And what I know best is not my few successes, but my endless failures.

Oh, I’m a failer. I fail! Over and over. Stick around long enough and you’ll get to see it!

Or just wait a few seconds.

And I’ve been doing this editing thing for the better part of 20 years, managing book edits, and failing at it big time. All the time.

I miss things every day. I miss deadlines. I forget to call. I don’t follow up. I miss the point and end up frustrating people. Or worse, convincing them to try something that doesn’t work, overwhelm them, or even shut them down.

And worst of all, I miss the point. Again and again. For instance…

I’m not qualified. Honestly, I’ve never felt qualified for this. I just love books and especially writers, learning from them, and listening, asking them questions, and walking with them.

It’s what I love. I don’t love eliminating mistakes, correcting oversights, and condensing. I do it as best I can, but I fail at it.

And today I wonder if I accepted that failure more, if the work could become more, and maybe the books themselves too.

Maybe not—maybe writers don’t want such realness and honesty. Maybe they only want to see I’m extremely skilled and competent. It’s just extremely humbling how often I’m anything but. And when I inevitably mess up, I think there may be a higher purpose in that…maybe even a useful one.

Wendell Berry says it may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work. Practically speaking, if editing is my real work maybe it’s a good sign I don’t actually know how to do it.

But I think maybe my real work is being a good failer and demonstrating that very humbling reality as best I can.

Some part of me loves this idea–could be the lazy me. Or it’s the idea of rejecting that perfectionistic standard people have about professional editors. (Do I need to mention I was a pastor’s kid?)

Excellence is an important goal. But only grace can comfort us.

Can we really love people well without showing grace?

Ask your average writer what book they first loved. I’ve mentioned mine before: Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I loved the passion of Meg Murray. She was a misfit, but that made her special, and her keen observation set her apart. I couldn’t have expressed it when I first read it as an 11-year-old, but it gave me hope knowing that the very thing that made her feel like a fool, like a failure, like a misunderstood misfit, was what made her the chosen hero.

She just had to let it out. Let it show.

We like to think of our heroes, even Jesus, as strong and capable and standing victorious on the mountaintop with the wind blowing in their hair. Why do we think that’s what a hero is when all the stories we’ve ever loved show that’s not a hero at all?

In their failure, they made us feel known, seen, heard, understood, comforted. Loved.

Everyone wants to be chosen. Isn’t it in our weakness, in our wounds and our struggles, that we most need to feel that?

I even fail at this. Which means I can probably trust this is what every writer needs, what every person needs: someone to listen and ask them the simple questions that draw them out and make them feel comfortable and accepted. And I do this every day, and it brings me something too, the very thing I’m looking for. It begins manifesting in my own life, this comfort and acceptance. This assurance of grace.

I don’t know why I got so lucky, and a lot of people think they have the greatest job in the world. And maybe they do. Maybe if they get to do this and embrace their failure for a higher purpose too, I can believe it.

Oh, and I still fail to do it, or even want to daily. I just know every day brings the choice: will you fill your own needs today or fill others? And who among us doesn’t realize which is the best choice?

Yeah, still that horrible fear of not having our specialness seen, loved, chosen, it makes us all choose the selfish way sometimes.

But don’t we also find hope knowing that the failure that makes us feel unworthy is actually irrelevant?

Is this another way to show what sacrificial love means?

We’re afraid and incompetent and selfish and lost–and still worthy of deep, real love!

We can fail to write well. We can fail to write for others. And yet success is what every finished book eventually reveals, even as they’re written and edited by total failures.

Maybe what we need most is also what everyone needs most: grace.

Maybe it’s even okay we forget this over and over. Maybe we’re always going to fail to remember it and maybe that’s why we have to read it and reread it and fail at writing it so many times before we can truly live this way consistently.

I don’t know. Maybe we all just need people willing to risk failing us, willing to risk us failing them.

The struggling, disillusioned, the weary and weak, we all need to see that failure doesn’t matter. Grace is irrespective of failure. I want to start showing that more so my writers can write freer, and maybe (hopefully) start living freer, to show others how to be freer too.

It could be only in finding failure no longer matters that we find our greatest success.

And if so, maybe we don’t even have to worry about failing to remember that.

For the higher purpose,
Mick

Hold That Ideal Loosely

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.”
– Ira Glass

What makes it so difficult to know what we’ve said is knowing so well what we meant to say.

Missing the mark. It’s a definition of sin.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the “gifts of imperfection” and embracing failure. Is this what’s meant, or do we need to understand something better here?

I thought I’d get the new chandelier hung and wired so easily this weekend. It wouldn’t be that challenging to switch out the old light fixture for the new. Or so I thought.

It turns out there’s a difference between the plastic coating on positive and negative electrical wires. We never know what we don’t know, but it can cause problems, and an extra trip to the hardware store for a new wall switch.

Missing the mark can be intentional, but more often it’s simply unrecognized. Most of us know well what perfection would look like, but few of us, if any, are able to manage it.

This can cause all sorts of internal challenges and blown fuses.

Ira Glass said our difficulty as writers comes from having great taste and not being able to achieve that special quality we want our work to have. We know it’s missing something, but we don’t know yet what it is. When I turned the power back on, there must have been a pop at the wall because when I came back, there was no light.

How do we get clear on what we’re missing unless we let go of what we hoped for to recognize something is missing?

Is this a gift of imperfection, this awareness of what we lack?

With a new wall switch installed and the wires reversed, the new chandelier worked and I’d learned more about wiring than I had before. But it took far longer, a couple Youtube videos on using a voltage meter, and Sheri reading the instructions to me aloud to determine what had gone wrong. And in the end, even my inability to read carefully was a humorous gift.

Isn’t this why we say writing is a process? We have to learn to enjoy the learning and forget the product. Perfection is a fine goal, but the gifts of missing the mark that teach us so well what we truly need from the work.

If we’ll slow down, let another see our failure, and take the time to see what it means we must do, we can grow and acquire the hidden gifts God placed in the process for us to discover.

If only we can learn to hold more loosely that simple, perfect ideal.

Hold that ideal loosely. And press on today.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

My #1 Tool for Ultimate Productivity, Part 2

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
—George Orwell

Do all writers struggle with low productivity?
I believe they do. At least until they get free of having to perform for validation and acceptance.

DSC_0007What? You don’t do that? Well, let’s just see….

As I said last time, first we have to get free of the pressure to produce. Then, we have to get free of the pressure to perform. And if we could all let go of the idea that our worth was by some great talent or our perfect skill, we might finally realize it’s by consistency within inadequacy that we become the writers we really want to be.

And need to be. Because that freedom is also what every reader longs for.

But how do we actually get free of performance anxiety to become productive?

Last time, I shared my #1 tool for eliminating low productivity: instead of focusing on being productive, focus instead on showing up, and merely read what you wrote last. That’s being consistent.

DSC_0002This week, unfortunately, we’re not so lucky. Removing the pressure to perform isn’t so easy. We don’t like inadequacy. We write to feel validated and affirmed (I know, not you, but everyone else), you’ll feel pressure to produce only “good” work—and that causes you to try to control your output. It won’t be honest or true enough, and you’ll be producing junk.

I know. I’ve been there.

Ask any writer if they’ve lived this. Over and over, I’ve tried to remove the pressure by showing up and reading the previous days’ pages, then slowly getting back into it once I felt freer. But when I saw how my own feelings were intricately wound up in the main character’s, I feared writing a book that revealed my true feelings, even through fiction. And I choked.

I was almost 40 when I realized I was writing to have my wounds seen and the damage to my heart known and accepted. It never crossed my mind before; it was just “fiction.”

DSC_0009But it was never just fiction. It was fictionalized autobiography. And as the book grew and became more honest and I had less places to hide from my fear of family and strangers who’d read it and judge me, as I knew they would, I knew writing it would leave me exposed. I’d have to admit I’d felt silenced, dominated and unimportant. And many people experience that and worse, so I was also afraid my story would seem small in comparison. I may never be normal, but I had so much to be grateful for. Others may never know what it really feels like to be free as I had…

And yet. Had I ever been able to write in full honesty or get over my resentment and anger? In the end, it’s always been just too much, and the fear of what might happen if I spoke up held me back. Finally facing that and feeling it was the only way to recover a semi-normal working process. To share it all and escape and begin a deeper level of healing, I had to let it go.

Of course, therapy and loving community is essential too, however you find it. Even though I knew letting go controlling what people saw was the secret to productivity, I still couldn’t show up thinking I was going to write what will heal me. I couldn’t even show up thinking I was going to write, necessarily. I still had to let go of producing something so a non-pressured process could take its place.

And I’m ever in need of prayer and friendship, so the need for validation gets dealt with, diminished bit by bit.
Through showing up and just reading my previous words, I recall my truth, the fears I’ve carried and the wound I’ve caused by diminishing them. And facing that mess, I slowly move through the next stage of healing what led me to writing in the first place.

DSC_0005We can’t aim for it, but it’s only from this redeemed ground we recover anything that may help someone else. And perfectionism dies a thousand tiny deaths…

Sadly, I don’t know if years or books or experience or time ever fully resolve this. And I still want a silver bullet, some beautiful solution, but so far I haven’t found one. I say that with all the empathy I’ve been able to recover so far…

I don’t think there is one.

But there is a beautiful broken way to productive writing, a “secret” to consistent work. We show up, we look at the blocks we’ve set up, why we set them up, who was involved, what it produced, and when…and we can know this: we’ll get free.

Just by willingness to be inadequate, and to let the story deliver what we need.

And maybe instead of perfect examples, we’ll become true writers.

Sadly imperfect. But honest.

Hopelessly unimpressive. But free.

Roald Dahl quote

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why We Must Be Imperfect to Love Well

“No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” – John Ruskin

Oh, there are so many things I want to tell you about this past holiday weekend!

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We had such a great time and great food with family and friends, running in sprinklers and s’mores and watching fireworks in a big field and sparklers on the driveway.

But I have to tell you the real story: afterward I mentally berated myself for not being the gracious host I wanted to be.

Have you ever been there, realizing there are simply far too many things you’re not good at, and this is just more proof, more ironic proof, of just how far from perfect you really are even in this tendency toward raving perfectionism?

Isn’t it, in the end, just another layer of my old stubborn pride?

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And yet somehow, despite knowing my quiet temperament and embracing so many of my limitations, I still believe God holds me to a standard of perfection, even when the very nature of grace is to accept imperfections.

What on God’s great earth is that about?

It’s as though I believe Jesus came judging people and assuring everyone that he didn’t come to bring life, but to bolster our self-righteous efforts to appear wonderful and completely capable without him. Why do I continually try to remake him in my own broken image?

In fact, the Son of God didn’t come to condemn anyone but to save us:

“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” John 12:47

“You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one.” John 8:15

He came that I would have life and have it abundantly. And yet I so easily flick it away and become someone who believes condemning myself is the better, the good and important work.

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And isn’t this why I so often do it to others?

I’m so quick to find fault—it’s a great skill to have as an editor, no doubt. But I can become one of those who dedicates himself to opposing everything and everyone who is less-than (especially myself), and believing we need to “fight for the right” and ignore the dissent.

And it’s that mindset that cripples me in my daily life and my creative work, where my definition of imperfection becomes so outwardly focused and stretches like a holiday waistline to include anything and anyone who is simply different than me.

Family members with different personalities.

Friends with different needs and beliefs.

Neighbors with different ideas of decency and proper attire. (photo withheld)

Sure, I’m aware it’s not just me. This is an age-old difficulty and  I’m not going to solve it. Issue-debaters don’t even talk about the same things. The usual frustrations surface and the logical question for both sides becomes, “When will you listen to me?”

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In fact, writing realistic dialogue requires first understanding that people don’t have conversations that follow a logical flow. They talk over, under and around each other. Directness is rare and non sequiturs are common. If you’d like to write authentically, don’t have characters simply talk to each other, have them communicate with their unrealistic idea of the other person. And don’t assume they’re even thinking about someone besides themselves. Most speech is a failure to speak.

But can’t we hope for more? Doesn’t anyone want to really understand anyone anymore?

Or is there too much hurt in the way of our words?

Successful counselor-author couple and forever friends of mine, Milan and Kay Yerkovich, teach that if you weren’t taught to receive love well you’ll probably have to work at it as an adult. Everyone needs to feel loved by having our ideas and feelings validated. But that means we have to express them in a healthy, clear and nonthreatening way (their book How We Love shows spouses how to help each other communicate and bond well).

DSC_0009Getting what we want and need is the way to emotional health. But if we want meaningful dialogue, we must learn to communicate more than what we want: we need to listen for what others need.

Yet first, we need to help ourselves get what we need by expressing ourselves, even if imperfectly.

Why not love ourselves by learning to receive love? Why don’t we seek unity in our common imperfections and heal our divisions of pride?

I’d like to confess to you my feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. For I believe accepting these imperfections will help me come to accept others who often feel the same, and in time, learn to love them better.

“Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life… Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect…there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry…to banish imperfection is to destroy expression…to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.” – John Ruskin