May 7, 2015


I had a panic attack on the freeway. I had just left the computer lab, where I read my instructor’s feedback on my latest project for graduate school. This was a project I had agonized over until I submitted it with purring glee because it was so shiny and beautiful.

My teacher gave it a B-, which in graduate school is almost failing (a C is an F). I read all of my professor’s criticism of my writing and ideas and it felt like a hot knife ripping through my gut. I thought I was handling the criticism until I drove home and started hyperventilating on a busy six-lane freeway. My meltdown became the tearful, face-slapping, Annette-Bening-from-American-Beauty variety (side note: self-slapping keeps one from passing out on the freeway).

That’s when I knew I had to fix my perfectionistic approach. As a grown ass woman, I no longer have the time, nor energy, to create projects and papers that are “perfect.” And I definitely don’t have the time, nor energy, to fall apart whenever someone criticizes them.

In my search for a better way, I got these mantras off a blog post by David Cain, over at, about counteracting his perfectionism/procrastination in writing and in life:

Now is the best time.

My identity and worth are not related to outcomes.

Work means undivided attention.

Task-switching is a red-flag behavior.

Progress is the only protection.

I’m only ever afraid of a feeling, never a task.

There is no such thing as “have to.”

The mantras that spoke to me the most were: My identity and worth are not related to outcomes, and I’m only ever afraid of a feeling, never a task.

That last one really struck a chord with me. The negativity I impose on myself when I get corrective feedback is almost always more harsh and defeatist than what the giver of the feedback intended. Feedback means I have room to grow, and it shows me ways to grow that I don’t see. Feedback doesn’t mean “they” don’t like me, it means my performance has room for improvement.

So simple, but in our results-obsessed society, it’s so easy to lose sight of this. I created the following monologue to change my perspective, and it’s working:

There is no perfect project, paper, or performance. The world is dynamic and circumstances, audiences, supervisors, administrators, clients, and courses are fluid and always changing. To do something perfectly means you would have to freeze time and hold back the river of progress. To do something perfectly means that circumstances were artificial and canned. To do something perfectly means you are not human and have no more room to grow. Also, doing something perfectly does not make YOU perfect by default.

All people are flawed, to some degree. But our flaws do not keep us from doing a great job and being proud of our work. Pursuing perfection is what keeps us from being proud of our work. Maybe your best is not perfect. Is that okay? Can you live with being human and flawed? I invite you into the stream of living, pulsing reality, where all people live with imperfections and some amount of failed ideas (Thomas Edison, hello?). Most importantly, just because something was imperfectly executed doesn’t mean it wasn’t: helpful, illuminating, useful, insightful, well-thought out, inspiring, meaningful, artistic, beautiful and well-done.

And just because you did something to a very high standard doesn’t mean you are more deserving of love, that your existence is more meaningful, that you are important or special or smart. You already ARE all these things because you are here, you exist. You already are enough. You don’t have to be a prodigy who is better than everyone else in order to take up space on this planet.

You do have to work hard, keep yourself focused, give all your effort, listen to and incorporate feedback, and carefully read instructions. These are not impossible. They are totally do-able. Trust your talent. Please, trust your talent, much of which was honed under that feedback and criticism you so dread.

So here’s to leaning in to the hot knife of criticism with gratitude, because someone is kind enough to slow down and tell you their response to your work. And one day, the hot knife will feel more like a dull ache, because you are not made of plastic, you are a flexible, moving being, in a constant state of evolution.

Kaitlin Leaf

Kaitlin Leaf lives in Northern California where she divides her time between her job, TESOL grad school, and combing the Delta for the best IPAs she can imbibe.
Kaitlin Leaf

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