A Toronto Transformation

Perfectionism Paralysis: How to do Things You’re Bad At

Start the thing hideously, start it wrong, start it ugly, but start. There’s time for perfection later.  Perfection is not a starting point.

One of the great things about living in a city like Toronto is access to all manner of continuing education courses at the local post-secondary institutions. Want to brush up on your culinary skills? Your carpentry? Great. Going for your Project Management certification? No problem.

While the idea of going back to school full-time gives me hives, I can’t seem to resist the urge to head back to the classroom at least once a year for a structured look at some topic or other, either to satisfy my curiosity or to add another skill to my resume.

I’m currently enrolled in the seventh con ed course I’ve taken since moving to Toronto, and aside from my ill-advised foray into the wacky world of web design a few years back, it’s the one that has me the most out of my element.

I think it’s normal to gravitate towards the things we’re already good at, whether it’s something we have prior training in or just a natural affinity for, but while it has been great to polish and buff my existing skills, I really wanted to give some attention to related areas of knowledge I may have neglected.

For me that means stepping out of my usual arena of monkeying around with pretty words and ideas and delving further into the business/strategy side of communications.

The first few classes weren’t too intimidating and I felt I was following along with the lectures all right. Although I missed the camaraderie of the last class I was in. It was a smaller group with livelier, friendlier discussions.

My first attempt to participate in a group discussion this term was shut down rather frustratingly when I brought up the topic of the #nomorepagethree campaign (encouraging folks to boycott a newspaper until they end their tradition of featuring topless women on the third page of their publication) during the part of the class where we discuss current social media trends/events etc. I was explaining the online campaign and its rising popularity/possible success when a man in the class loudly interrupted me, not to comment on the tactics, or the interesting use of social media, but to deride the campaign itself, exclaiming “Well if you don’t like it, just don’t buy the paper!”

Sidenote: if you’re a man, and a woman is telling a brief story about sexism, maybe DON’T INTERRUPT HER!


Anyway, I haven’t felt much like piping up since.

So I was dismayed to find that our first assignment, worth a substantial part of our mark was to include a presentation.

And, despite my diligent note-taking in class, I felt ill-prepared to tackle this particular assignment. The words “analysis”, “strategy” and “measurable objectives” jumped off the page and made my poetic heart pucker in protest.

It wasn’t long before I’d decided I couldn’t do it. I didn’t understand all the nonsensical business lingo involved, I’d never done anything like this before or even seen an example of what we were being asked to produce, so how could I possibly do anything other than a totally horrible job and embarrass myself in front of everyone else in the class who would undoubtedly use their umpteen business degrees and superior brains, experience, knowledge and talent to put together their presentations in their sleep.

I tried to be proactive about it. Sort of. I asked the instructor if he could show us an example of approximately what he was looking for, which he kindly did provide. But it was too late. Having already decided I didn’t understand what was being asked of me, I just stared at the example, my mind a dark whirlpool of doubt. The thing might as well have been written in an alien language and then run through a shredder for all the good it was doing me in my worked up state of mind.

As time marched on, I agonized more and more over this assignment. It was a steadily growing knot in the bottom of my stomach. My focus quickly shifted from trying to figure it out, to trying to figure out how to get out of it. I tried to psychically deduce whether I could do well enough in the rest of the course to just skip it altogether and accept a zero, but with my confidence at a mega-low, that seemed unlikely.

So. I thought. I’ll just try to do the written component. Maybe if I at least do that, I can just squeak by with a passing grade at the end of the course, and only the instructor will know the secret shame of my idiocy. Hurrah!

I could just sit quietly and pretend not to hear when my name was called on presentation day. I could claim laryngitis, I could faint! Heaven knows I’ve fainted enough times by accident by now, surely I could summon my powers of squeamishness if needed!

So, with that extremely well-thought-out plan in place (look at that! I can strategize after all!), I finally got to work on the written component. When it was done, I still didn’t feel particularly confident about it, but it looked about the right size and shape, so, exhausted, I let my perfectionism go.

Then I thought, “Well, ok, you might as well at least just take what you’ve already bothered to come up with here and transfer it into a slideshow. It doesn’t have to be cool or creative and I’m still not saying you have to get up and present it, but why not just have the format handy…just in case.”

I was still telling myself this on my way to the classroom, talking to my brain like I was trying to make a toddler eat broccoli. “Just go into the room, just sit down and watch some presentations.”

And then, finally, when the instructor asked if anyone else would like to get their presentation over with on the first day “Just put your hand up. You can still lose consciousness if you need to.”

And that’s how I got through the worst bout of perfectionism paralysis I’ve had in a long time. And the payoff is, that while I might not have perfected the particular skills the assignment required, at least now I know where to start.

I had to take my own advice. I’m always telling friends who are stuck at a loss with what to do with their lives/careers etc. to just try something. Try anything. Step off in a direction and see where it takes you. Just take one step. If all you learn is that that wasn’t the direction for you, then that’s one more thing you know about where you want to go (not there).

Stop agonizing over the details and the reasons why you can’t do the thing and just bloody well start. Start the thing hideously, start it wrong, start it ugly, but start. There’s time for perfection later.

Perfection is not a starting point. –Tweet that!

Are you guys ever paralyzed by perfectionism? How do you get past that kind of mental roadblock?

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12 Responses to Perfectionism Paralysis: How to do Things You’re Bad At

  • Peggy says:

    Completely agree…This reminds me of my first presentation in my M.Ed program. I survived that.

    That guy who interrupted you should sign up for some gender studies courses. Being at the UofT for so long has almost made me think that the society is moving to a more gender-equal phase. But obviously not.

    Missed your writing. Always inspiring.


    • metamorphocity says:

      Aw, thanks Peggy. And good for you getting through your M.Ed presentation. I really might have fainted for that one! 🙂

  • Oh, man. I was nervous just reading this! And I could relate to this so much. Perfectionism often hinders me when it comes to going out of my comfort zone, but I really am trying to get better at it. The times when I have talked myself into being brave (much like you), the payoff has been worth it. It is good to do things that scare you.

    • metamorphocity says:

      I think that’s the thing to keep in mind. The payoff from the scary things is almost always worth it!

  • There’s a Mark Twain saying about eating a frog for breakfast that suggests you should get your most daunting/horrible/painful/difficult task done first–it’s so liberating when it works. My consistent “frog” is anything to do with my own career (not my job, but the thing I actually want to be doing), perhaps because it’s the thing that truly matters the most, and so I accomplish least/worst. We are funny creatures. But I’m glad I’m not alone!

    • metamorphocity says:

      My first thought was, “mmm chocolate frog.” Haha. But I love that idea. I’m an excellent procrastinator at times, but I know I always feel so much better when I get the daunting stuff out of the way first. That’s actually also how I eat dinner. I eat the thing I like least first to get it out of the way. Funny creatures indeed!

  • So good! I need to read and re-read this. The other day I had to sing in front of someone at music school and I thought I might actually have a heart attack and die. The teacher says to me. “You don’t have to be good at it, just do it to enjoy it”…huh- what an earth shattering thought that is. Great post XXX

    • metamorphocity says:

      Wise words from that teacher! Although, singing in public always holds some terror for me, so I feel you on that one.

  • seewhysiu says:

    Many sections to relate to and I’m coming from the side of non-perfectionism. I often read and also push myself to understand that it is in the most uncomfortable and unknown situations that we find ourselves a lot more. How many times have I also felt so sunken low into the chair and wished I wasn’t present since I had “0” knowledge of what people were talking about in a class. It is then that i’ve learned to embrace that silence also and keep trying to at least take one thing away. I took the class for a reason afterall and to be intimidated was not one of them. You do learn to grow from it – every part of life. =) May you just keep pushing forward as well! WOoo for “personal growth”!

  • Wow, Sarah you certainly don’t display that on the outside. I find your contributions very thoughtful and thought provoking. Please don’t stop contributing! Your presentation content and delivery was engaging and you appeared so self assured.
    See you in class.

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