Is It Perfectionism?

A computer next to a notepad and crumpled up pieces of paper.
I've been reflecting on my relationship with perfectionism, and if that's even the best word for what I experience.
Is It Perfectionism?

Not quite perfectionism

I’ve been thinking lately about my own relationship with perfectionism, especially in relation to writing articles and making videos for y’all.

There are some aspects of what people describe as perfectionism that definitely relate to my own experiences, but since there are some that don’t, I keep pondering whether I’m really a perfectionist or not.

The thing is, I get hung up on the word “perfect”. (And yes, it’s a very Autistic hang-up to say, “Oh, it’s not that word, and therefore the category doesn’t fit.” Sigh.)

My fear isn’t that it’s not good enough, it’s that it won’t get across what I’m actually intending.

My hang-up is because I don’t actually feel like I need my writing and videos to be “perfect”, or “just right”, or “this way only”. At least not most of the time. That’s not generally my hang-up. Where I get stuck is closer to a feeling that if I don’t say exactly what I mean, people will misunderstand me, and therefore something bad will happen or they won’t get anything out of it.

So I’ll rewrite articles, edit endlessly, or re-film videos over and over, until I’m saying exactly what I intend to say, in just the way that I intend to say it. Which sometimes means that they get quite long, because I need to get all of the nuances right, explain what I don’t mean, clarify the ways it could be misinterpreted, go through the exceptions, etc. etc.

Because my fear isn’t that it’s not good enough, it’s that it won’t get across what I’m actually intending, and therefore I’ll be misunderstood and something bad will happen. Or no one will get anything out of it at all, and it will be entirely useless, and then all of that effort will have gone to waste.

I’m wondering if you relate to any of this?

Figuring it out

I know this is a trauma response. It’s a very common trauma pattern for Autistics to be frequently and consistently misunderstood, misinterpreted, and to respond by over-explaining.

I’ve been working on healing these old wounds for many years, at first with a really good therapist, and then continuing on my own. Because of that healing work, I was able to start my blog (about four years ago) and my YouTube channel (about two years ago), and that’s been helpful in the healing process as well.

It helps my fears and insecurities to relax when I put something out into the world and it doesn’t ruin everything. To have no one yell at me, or get upset, or prickly, or give me the cold shoulder (or if they do, I don’t know about it because it’s online). It especially helps when people comment that they got something useful out of what I published.

It helps my fears and insecurities to relax when I put something out into the world and it doesn’t ruin everything.

These fears have been relaxing over time, especially in the last year or so, and I’ve been gradually getting more comfortable with letting things go out into the world, even when they are not exactly what I intend.

I’ve been letting videos go out that aren’t polished and pretty. I’ve been letting articles go out 80%-90% of the way that I want them. And it’s been sooo scary to do that.

But I’m still getting good comments. I’m still getting people saying that it was very helpful and that they got something out of it, and that’s calming the part of me that is deeply afraid that nothing will work at all unless it’s fully expressing my intended meaning.

The trauma of being misunderstood

Because here’s the thing. When I was growing up, I was misunderstood a lot. And because my logic seemed so reasonable to me, I couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t get on board with it. So I generally assumed that if they didn’t agree, it was my fault for not explaining myself well enough.

I didn’t yet understand that emotional complexities, subconscious associations, and all sorts of defense mechanisms drive people’s behaviors and decision-making that have nothing to do with logic.

I also vastly overestimated how much of my own actions were purely logical, but that’s a topic for another post.

Because I was so often misunderstood, my default strategy was to explain myself better. That became my go-to defense mechanism for a lot of things in life: explain myself better and say it just right. If I could just find the right combination of words, in the right order, it’ll make everything better.

Of course it doesn’t work that way, but a part of me still believes that it should and keeps trying to get all the words just right in order to feel safe; safe letting that article go out, safe putting that video into the world, safe being around other people, safe existing.

Healing the trauma

Over the last year, I’ve noticed that people keep telling me, unsolicited usually, they’re getting a lot out of the content that I’m putting out there. Even when it’s not “just right” (according to my internal standards), even when it’s not perfectly what I wanted to say, or not exactly how I intended to put something out there: people are still getting something useful out of it.

Even when it’s not “just right”, people are still getting something useful out of it.

And that’s when I talk to that younger, misunderstood part of me and reassure her that she’s doing a better job now at being understood, advocating for herself, and explaining things. I am so much better now. That younger part of me is beginning to trust me more and more that it’ll be okay, that it doesn’t have to be just right, and that lets me put out more content that actually helps people (like this one), rather than getting stuck on overly refining just a few items.

I still get occasional questions or disagreements in the comments. But that younger part of me is also feeling safer about having disagreement in her world. Not everyone has to like everything that I say or do in order for her to be okay. And that is huge sign of trauma healing and personal growth.

So, is what I’m describing here “perfectionism” or not? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m caring less about the answer. What matters more to me is that I’m getting more of the work done that I want to do; putting more out into the world that will hopefully make a positive impact.

If you’re interested in something else that may be going on when you’re resisting your own creative project; when you want to do something creative but keep getting distracted, freezing, or doing something else, I made a video on that which you can check out here. And no matter what’s going on, I wish you a neurowonderful day.

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2 Responses

  1. Personally I’d call that a type of perfectionism. You’re holding yourself up to an unreasonable standard. Perhaps however it’s helpful for you to distinguish it from other types of perfectionism.

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Picture of Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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