#109: How to Recognize and Overcome Perfectionism, with Suzy Bills

Today’s guest is Suzy Bills from Utah. Suzy is an editor and author and a faculty member in the editing and publishing program at Brigham Young University (BYU). She was previously a lead editor for the Joseph Smith Papers, and she’s owned a writing and editing business for more than a decade.

Suzy’s book, “The Freelance Editor’s Handbook” is being published this fall by the University of California Press. She is also starting to offer business consulting and coaching for freelancers.

Suzy began freelancing on the side in 2006 while working as an editor full-time. She became a full-time freelancer in 2011.

She started at BYU as an adjunct professor and was offered a full-time position in 2017. She continues to maintain her writing and editing business.

Perfectionism is a personality characteristic that causes people to strive to be flawless. That causes them to set really high standards and be quite critical in how they evaluate their performance. It often leads people to think they shouldn’t make any mistakes.

Perfectionism can be destructive, but it can also have positive qualities. Suzy saw perfectionism in herself and worked to turn it into a positive attribute.

Perfectionism can lead to obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, eating disorders and more.

There are two types of perfectionism: adaptive/constructive and maladaptive/destructive.

With adaptive perfectionism, people set high standards and are motivated to reach them in encouraging and exciting ways. This can lead to happiness, a sense of meaning and satisfaction with life.

With maladaptive perfectionism, people set high standards but aren’t optimistic they can achieve them. It leads to self-criticism, stress and low self-esteem, which often leads to burnout. And too much stress on yourself can actually lead to lower performance on a project or task.

Overcoming perfectionism is mostly about changing our thinking. We can be working on the exact same project but look at our goals and success in different ways.

Perfectionism causes some people to not even start their freelance business. It causes freelance business owners to not reach out to new clients, to not start new services, to discount projects and give refunds over small mistakes.

Humans, including copy editors, aren’t perfect. Industry standards say 90% accuracy in editing is achievable and acceptable. Copy editors are not always going to be 100% accurate. (This is also a good reason to hire a proofreader later on.)

How can we recognize and manage perfectionism? Practice being self-aware and catching yourself when you’re in a perfectionism spiral. Are you using your perfectionism in a healthy way?

Perfectionism might manifest as being cruel to yourself. At that point, put your thoughts on trial. Stop being the prosecutor and be the objective judge or jury. Find and evaluate the evidence that shows what you are thinking is not accurate (for example, success on a last project, this client rehired you).

You may also identify an area of weakness. That’s OK. If that happens, create a plan about improving that weakness. Ask yourself: Where was the breakdown that led to that mistake? It is a process issue, overwork, lack of sleep or lack of skills?

To encourage a positive mindset, create a mantra that works for you and repeat it multiple times every day. It might feel silly at first, but you will start to internalize it and believe it.

Accountability partners can also help reassure you when you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s also important and helpful for people to talk about their mistakes and weaknesses to normalize that we are not perfect.

Write down your thoughts, especially because people tend to ruminate on the bad thoughts and situation. Writing can help get it out of your mind and allow you to move past it.

Keep a record of positive feedback, whether in an email folder, a smartphone “boost bank” folder or in a praise jar.

If you do discover you made a mistake, you are likely to react physically. So, change that physical reaction. Take deep breaths, move your body to relax it. Walk around. Go for a longer walk.

Next, take responsibility for a mistake with a client. That actually increases respect for you. Then, create an action plan to prevent that type of mistake in the future.

Biz Bite: Set Aside Professional Development Time Every Week


Suzy’s book, “The Freelance Editor’s Handbook


Suzy Bills on LinkedIn

ACES–the Society for Editing

Episode #70 of Deliberate Freelancer: Techniques to Deal with Anxiety from My New Therapist

Episode #71 of Deliberate Freelancer: 3 Failures and the Lessons They Taught Me

Episode #62 of Deliberate Freelancer: How to Prevent and Deal with Burnout, with Alan Heymann

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