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Paralyzed by perfectionism

In January, I set a goal to complete a rough draft of my next manuscript this year. For the last six months the subject has been rolling around in my head, and for the last two, I have been itching to get the project underway. The words are dancing on my fingertips, hovering over my keyboard. I feel emotionally and spiritually ready to tackle the topic that represents the next chapter of my life. Everything seems ready to go.

writers-blockBut I just can’t bring myself to actually start. Every morning for the last eight weeks, I’ve vowed, “Today’s the day.” But by late afternoon, with no progress made, that vow becomes, “Tomorrow’s the day” – followed by an evening of more distractions and other business – and the next day the whole cycle repeats.

So far, it’s been a frustrating year.

Initially, I thought my problem was procrastination: even with my task immediately before me, I kept finding excuses to do other things. But as the days trudge on, I am starting to think the problem goes much deeper than that.

In reality, I want to get started. I want to immerse myself into the subject matter, to get into the zone for an entire afternoon. I try to will the words to start flowing through my fingers and onto my blank screen – but with each passing day that the word count doesn’t grow, I get crabbier.

The heart is definitely willing. Yet whenever I open the file on my computer, I feel frozen. By what, I am not certain, but it is enough to block the ideas. I get so frustrated that I want to run away.

Finally I shared my struggle with a friend in my home community. Immediately she said she was familiar with the problem – and for her, paralysis was caused by perfectionism.

That resonated with me.

perfectionist-imagePerfectionism is that god-awful affliction which stifles innovation and strangles creativity. It’s stealthy: we seldom recognize it as the root problem, instead blaming our paralysis on everything else. It’s clever, trapping us with fear and pride: fear because we might fail; pride because we’re too proud to take that risk.

We fear we won’t do it right. We fear our efforts will be rejected, mocked, or brutally criticized by others, and our egos will be irreparably damaged. So we freeze.

In my case, I have subconsciously refused to budge until I can guarantee my magnum opus on the very first try. That is a tall order for even the best writers. No one gets it right the first time. So, because I can’t guarantee perfection, my fingers won’t move.

It is in this perfection-based paralysis that I currently dwell. Yet now that I know why it’s there, exactly how do I overcome it?

In the paralysis itself, I find the answer: Turn the stillness to advantage. Don’t despise the dead air; embrace it.

Dwelling in silence, especially with God, can be one of the most meaningful experiences we can have. The psalmist says: “Be and still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). This imperative conflicts with the very essence of American culture. We push goals. We reward achievements. We exalt  “busy-ness” to the point of burnout.

But the psalmist declares otherwise. Intimacy with God comes not through activity, but through stillness. It is in the silence—even paralyzing silence—that the still small voice often speaks. It is at this point that I must become aware enough to set aside my agenda for God’s. Perhaps he wants me to meditate more deeply on a scripture passage I am reading. Perhaps he has a more significant use of my time than writing the next great tome, or whatever my other goals are. Maybe there is something he wants to say to me.

perphictIn my case, God appears to be homing in on my idol of perfectionism. Instead of typing my first chapter, suddenly I am facing questions far more important in God’s eyes: why is perfectionism so important to me? How can I possibly think I could achieve perfection to begin with? Is this project for my own glory or for God’s?

Whenever I am stuck in paralyzing silence, I can learn to see it not as a failure, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to check my heart, and listen.

When God chooses to unblock the dam, he will—probably in a way I could never imagine. But for now, in the dead silence and writer’s block, I will listen.

The words at the edge of my fingertips will come soon enough.

Published inPatiencePerfectionismPsalmSurrender

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