Perfectionism takes a toll on the psyche.
I remember, in kindergarten, the first time one of my worksheets was marked wrong. We were learning to write by tracing over numbers, the same number repeatedly, before moving on to the next. I got caught up in the rhythm and missed a transition, writing one too many sevens when I should have written an eight.
I was so ashamed, that on the walk from the bus stop to my house, I balled up the sheet of paper and tossed it into a ditch, hoping my parents would never find out I had made a mistake.
I was four years old.
My entire life, perfection has been the only standard that mattered. Excellence was a low bar to me. It never felt like success.
Graduating first in my high school class didn’t seem like success. It’s what was expected of me. Graduating second would have seemed a shocking failure.
I never aspired to become class valedictorian. During my thirteen years of public education, I was a good student without much effort. And that easy success inured me to any sense of accomplishment.
And so it continues today.
In true INFJ fashion, I create visions in my mind of how things could be. But execution never lives up to imagination. How could it? So instead of seeing the things I did well, I’m mortified by the things that fell short, even if no one else can tell the difference. After all, they didn’t see what was in my imagination. They don’t know how much better it was supposed to be.
The one place where I feel a true sense of virtuosity is in my writing. Through the magic of editing, I can craft a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter until every word is perfect. Or at least, until it feels perfect to me. That’s the gift that creative writing gives me.
In a blog post on Writers and Doubt, author James Scott Bell suggests that doubt is inevitable in any novelist worth reading. But creative writing is the one place where I never feel doubt. If the manuscript is flawed, I can fix it. If I don’t know how, I can learn.
I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life than I have on my novel in progress, now nearly complete after an eight-year-journey. And no effort has been so rewarding. I know the novel will never be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. Novels aren’t about perfection. They’re about humanity—our common struggles, failures, contradictions, self-sabotage, and rare brilliant moments when we grasp the longed-for and near-impossible prize.
I was born to write. That’s the positive part of my INFJ personality. The negative is that when I’m speaking with people, I feel barely competent to string words into sentences. And afterward, I obsess over all the things I could have done better. I keep trying to edit my life.
The four-year-old inside me still wants me to be perfect. But the great God-force inside me asks only that I share my gifts with the world. And if I’m grateful for those gifts, I must also be grateful for my limitations. They’re two sides of the same coin.
So when the doubts of my life feel overwhelming, I retreat to the one place where I always feel sure. The one place where struggle is the best teacher and failure the source of deep insight. The one place where I can get it right the fourteenth time instead of the first, and no one will ever know the difference.