Perfectionism is a like having a raucous little beast, its claws firmly embedded in your shoulder, whispering in your ear that your work is not good enough. You need to try harder. You need to do more for it to pass muster. But you’re never quite satisfied and you’re filled with lingering doubt about the value of your work, and worse, yourself. It is the enemy of creativity. When I speak of perfectionism, I am not equating it with the precision required of a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist. This kind of perfectionism does not lead to positive outcomes. It often goes hand in hand with unhappiness & anxiety.
Looking at my work now, one would never know that I am a recovering perfectionist. My artwork is often playful, spontaneous, & made of torn paper or clay forms that have intentionally been altered or misshapen in some way. I gravitate towards the asymmetrical & wonky shapes that you might find in a Dr. Suess book. It’s my private rebellion against perfection. In a roundabout way, I’m rejecting the notion that our bodies must conform to a perfect ideal as celebrated by our culture.
The seeds of my perfectionism developed during my teenage years. I suffered from some misaligned parenting that left me carrying a heavy backpack of low self-esteem into my adulthood. The message I internalized from frequent criticism was that I was not good enough. As a result, I became critical of myself & began down the path of perfectionism to compensate.
Perfectionists often set themselves up for failure- or perceived failure. It made sense that one of my first art forms was calligraphy. To make proper letterforms, one has to be quite exacting. I strove to achieve the strictest proportions with my work, often starting over & over. Eventually, my body started to give me signals that made me begin to question my perfectionism. I developed carpal tunnel syndrome, neck, and back pain. This started a period of intense self-examination since I was suffering from depression as well.
It took months of therapy and hard work on my part to begin to free myself from the grip that low self- esteem had on my psyche. I started taking medication to treat my depression. Eventually, my perfectionism began to dissipate. Now I practice “imperfectionism.” This does not mean I am into sloppy craftsmanship, poor grammar, or spelling errors, but rather that when I have expressed what I’ve needed to express I stop, walk away, and declare it done. The little flaws that remain, unnoticed to others but myself, are no longer deal breakers. They are the marks that a human hand made the piece and not a machine.
I keep an awareness about me when I am working lest my evil little beast lands on my shoulder again. If my mood shifts from a positive one to anxiety, I start to question the motives in my work and refocus. It’s a great time to get up, flick the beast off, and take a break.
The creative process should bring happiness. If your perfectionism is robbing you of that, it’s time to think about where it came from. Check out the books by Keri Smith such as Mess, The Manual of Accidents & Mistakes to loosen you up. Adopt the practice of “imperfectionism” and experience the joy you deserve.