Anne Lamott on Perfectionism

Anne Lamott on Perfectionism June 3, 2015

bbb.001“Perfectionism is another way we avoid vulnerability, and it also happens to be my favorite sin… I tell myself that if I do it perfectly every time, then no one can critique me, and I don’t have to feel vulnerable.” Shrink, p. 148.


I’m a recovering perfectionist. So every now and then I force myself to read Anne Lamott’s short chapter on the subject from her book, Bird by Bird. Here’s some of what strikes me as wise:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” p.28

“Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force… perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave too much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground.” p.28

“Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.” p.30

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” p.25

“One of the most annoying things about God is that he never just touches you with his magic wand, like Glinda the Good, and gives you what you want. Like it would be so much skin off his nose. But he might give you the courage or the stamina to write lots and lots of terrible first drafts, and then you’d learn that good second drafts can spring from these, and you’d see that big sloppy imperfect messes have value.” p.30

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  • louismoreaugottschalk

    Ppl I have known w ocd have made me wonder at the source of their pain. The state of disconnect & disconnecting behavior seems to keep them in a kind of arrest. I am in awe at what kind of complexity of trauma one might experience that would trigger such a fear based need for one to be compelled to keep one in one’s own custody. Any addiction exists to keep ppl at a distance; a defense against assault I think! But this is a violent offense albeit a passive aggressive one I feel. It seems to have it’s benifit of a kind of achieving a kind of mindfulness that keeps one busy persuing a meaningful (to the afflicted one) goal but does so at the sacrifice of ever being at peace w god or another human bc one has become a frienzy of anxiety at the core of one’s being & nothing else. Finally at the end of the life lived in this kind of torment one has no there there. Sad! )=

    • jekylldoc

      But does so at the sacrifice of ever being at peace w God or another human

      Wow. If that is Hell, then perfectionism is a taste of it. A nasty vision of how bad things could be.

      I like Lamott’s “clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.”

      • louismoreaugottschalk

        although this was a month ago, I don’t even remember writing it, today I am so glad that you brought it to my attention because I’m going through something with someone that has puzzled me about how I feel about them. we seem to be on the same page all the time lately except for this one thing. until now I haven’t been able to identify it. I think it’s a form of perfectionism that has crept in under the guise of this person thinking he has his s*** together. really what I think has happened is that he is in a stuck place where his distress pattern has landed him and there’s some kind of a truce going on between his soul and an addiction. it’s complicated! what raises red flags for me about his convos is that he doesn’t believe God cares about us personally and that he claims that he has reached the level of enlightenment, as one of the few fortunate beings on the planet, that gets to play all the time and just have fun and that’s his goal in life. from talking to him I guess he is basing this on some discipline he encountered in the subset form of Dianetics called Idenics. I don’t know what that is exactly.
        seems it might be a kinder gentler form of Scientology. I know from being involved in
        Cults myself that the delusions can have life threatening consequences and that one can become a stumbling block for others. anyway all this to say that perfectionism is the stress pattern generally & often manifests in myriad ways
        that trap a soul in the delusion that one is in control of people places and things & and one is a powerful being, one has arrived at a place in one’s life because of some special knowledge
        one has uncovered and that one can maintain a high,
        have an edge, be a master of one’s own fate if one can follow the Orthodox
        discipline that dictates and promises perfection of the state of the enlightened.

        • jekylldoc

          Louis – interesting. I certainly agree one can smuggle in a truce between soul and addiction as some illusion of mastery. Been there, done that. I don’t know how easy it is to talk about it with someone in that position – I certainly was not in the Listening Place. I do think that connection gave me the strength to pull out of it before “hitting rock bottom”. But substituting relationship for perfectionism has been a long, slow journey.

          Maybe unconditional acceptance will help this person, but I think you might also want to protect yourself in the meantime, as my wife did from me. (It all sounds very melodramatic, but there was nothing that the outside world ever took notice of, and on one level we maintained a functioning marriage the whole time. She just knew better than to trust me.)

          • louismoreaugottschalk

            wowza! I certainly AM grateful to you for your wise counsel. I just didn’t exactly know where to turn to with what I was feeling. I love it about the internet blogs that one can write down what one thinks and occasionally find a response out there in the vast wasteland. I shall certainly look forward to more of your posts! you did a valuable service to meet today! god bless you!