Monday, January 7, 2008

Perfectionism and Procrastination

A client recently wrote me an e-mail with this same subject line.
She was remarking on how that combination comes into effect in her life, in particular how that is related to an expectation or fear of disapproval. Of course, we can tease out two threads here, that seem to me distinct: one is the fear of rejection, the other a sense that there is an ideal--there is something that is perfect--or perhaps it's just a deeply seated rejection of self.

The first thread--the fear of rejection--of course, is familiar to all of us, from the elementary school classroom, to our search for jobs, or love, to, perhaps in the most fundamental form, our fear of rejection by our parents. I have known that fear of rejection, have felt it churn my guts, shorten my breath and set my heart racing; I have known it, as I think we all do. But what are we to make of it? Do we let it rule us? At the end of her chapter "Rejection", in her book "The Forest for the Trees", Betsey Lerner, writes "One thing, however, is certain: the only person whose rejection really counts is your own. No matter how may people return your work, the only one who can send you packing is yourself." Now, in an academic program, this last sentence is not quite true--Lerner is talking about writers seeking a publisher, not students depending on the approval of professors--but the principle still applies, at least with respect to procrastination. As an academic you can't let your fear of rejection stop you from producing work, because rejection is certain in academia if you produce no work (at least before you get tenure).

The second thread--the search for and belief in perfection--is another question altogether. There are several levels on which one can think about the question of perfection. For the moment, I just want to mention the idea of Wabi-Sabi, which I find to be a useful philosophical framework through which to dispose of perfectionist principles. The idea of perfection is central to most Western philosophy, but what is perfection? Wabi-Sabi, a theory of impermanence and imperfection, is an interesting place from which to approach a written project--especially if one has been struggling with perfectionism-related procrastination.

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