Notes from a Recovering Creative Perfectionist
Perfectionism kills, and it is suffocating! How do you breathe surrounded in all that perfection? For me, I can choose to breathe or choose to be perfect. Since perfectionism will kill me with anxiety, depression, and lack of oxygen, I suppose I choose breath over perfection.
Seriously though, who does not want it all to be perfect, especially in art where we can polish, buff, manipulate, erase, ammend, retry,and start completely over? Unfortunately, humans are not perfect and as part of our humanity, we have to come to terms with our shortcomings or we would never make any art that meets our own expectations. The secret to curing perfectionsim in your creative life is to be kind to yourself. Think about it: do you demand perfection from anyone else in your life? If you do, I bet you are miserable. I bet you can never meet your own expectations nor can any other person. Please go see a therapist. Life does not need to be this way for you or for the people around you!
I digress, so what does perfectionism have to do with creativity? A lot. So many artists struggle or have struggled with unrealistic expectations for ourselves. It makes sense: as you are young and developing your interest, your voice, your dexterity, you are striving to get better and better because there is so much progress to be made initially. As you achieve a certain level of proficiency you forget the struggle of learning, or worse, you experienced more playful pleasure than struggle and are shocked that at a certain point, creativity requires work. Either way, success seemed easier last time, but was it easier?
We tend to forget the pain in the delivery room and tend to only remember the temporarily cute baby result (that’s how people have more than one child). In your second pregnancy, you think, “I forgot about this part, that is unpleasant.” The same is true with art! We forget the struggle and have the “glorious artifact” of our genius efforts (appropriate for the baby metaphor too). And just like having and raising children, art does not get easier. It continues to challenge you because art is kind of like forming yourself. Understand or too art-prof-mom-hippie-speak? Maybe.
Let’s try it this way, as we get older it is easier to have visual expectations of mastery because we live in a pseudo-perfect culture of plastic photoshop precision and mass production. Our visual sophistication is more developed than our material knowledge, problem-solving skills, critical-thinking capacity. So, of course, we make crap when we are learning. We know what the sugary visual sensors respond to -- we know what we like and have developed aesthetic preference (a.k.a. personal taste) without proper visual literacy skills of decoding and encoding! How can we make anything perfect when we are still struggling with competence? And if you are 'doing art right' you are always struggling with arriving because it is the quality of our journey, not the destination (perfection) that is the point!
Perfectionistic obsession in any creative practice is only ever a perfect invitation to anxiety, depression, and creative death.
Go easy on yourself. Tell yourself that you are still learning. Find a curious approach to “failure” (because this is where learning can happen). Be patient with yourself because anything worth it takes effort. Talk back to that ugly voice in your head that steals your joy. And for crying out loud, DO NOT COMPARE YOUR CREATIVITY TO ANYONE ELSE’S CREATIVITY! Creating a healthy head-space is an essential part of the creative process.
So just to recap:
Create room for learning
Create curiosity about failure
Create a patient response to the ugly voice
Create gratitude for YOUR progress
Now go to work
Remember, if you wouldn't say your ugly thoughts to others, don't say your ugly thoughts to your self!