As an artist the desire to be perfect has destroyed my creativity many times. Before I have even put brush to canvas I am often frozen in my tracks by a feeling of inadequacy. In my studio sketchbooks lay abandoned – one “bad” mark ruining the whole book beyond use. Paintings hang unfinished because I have never committed to making that ever-important last mark. Frequently I start personal projects only to abandon them when I drop a day or mess up.
This need for perfection doesn’t only appear in my artistic practice. It shows up in all aspects of my life. I spend hours writing posts for my blog, re-writing them over and over, obsessively proof reading in case I have misspelled a word or that once sentence doesn’t read right. I stop myself advancing my photography skills by refusing to take photos for people because my images will not be as good as a professional with several years experience. I cry about my ability as a mother because I lost my patience and yelled or because I looked at my phone a bit too frequently on Tuesday. I didn’t realise until recently just how much my low sense of self-worth suffocates me. Perfectionism is an unrealistic goal yet, nothing can ever be perfect yet I insist on setting the bar so high for myself that I always come up short and feel miserable as a result.
The uncomfortable truth is that I allow my insecurities to hold me back. My fears that my work is not good enough - that I am not good enough underpins not only my practice but my every day. I keep myself here in fear of embarrassment – in fear of experiencing shame. In needing to be perfect to feel that I am worth anything I allow myself to live in the fear of the judgement of others, always in need of external validation. Imperfection makes you vulnerable and it is only natural to want to avoid being vulnerable but being vulnerable is often necessary for growth.
Recently a personal goal of mine has been to try and shift my focus from needing my work to be perfect every time to simply getting the work done. Myself the artist is in a turbulent but rewarding relationship with myself the mother. It is a fine balance and my time is precious. I create in the margins of my day yet I insist on wasting this time spending hours and hours on something that perhaps really only needed a fully focused half an hour. For what? Not only does this process not benefit me, it is actively destructive to my practice.
When you get things done opposed to making things perfect you allow yourself to move forward. When you get things done opposed to making things perfect you make room for new projects and new work, you give yourself space to develop and to grow. By getting things done you build focused momentum in your projects. Done is so much better than perfect. Artistically choosing done over perfect allows you to keep your style loose. It allows you the opportunity to experiment without the fear of failure and it allows you to get your work out of your studio into the world to be seen.
But if your creative perfectionism is as ingrained in you as it is in me how do you start letting that go? For me I have been working on this in several ways:
1. Setting time limits By setting time limits for tasks I stop myself from over working a painting or proof reading my writing too many times. If I know something should really only take me 10 minutes I allow myself 20 and then move on. This doesn’t mean that I settle for bad work. If that 20 minute is up and I still really feel that the work is not good enough I leave it for a few days and come back to it. Often I find a fresh pair of eyes will tell me either what I need to do to a piece or that the piece was finished after all, I just wasn’t seeing it.
2. Warming Up It perhaps sounds silly but I used to walk into my studio each day, pick up my brush and expect myself to just pick up a painting where I left off. Inevitably I would make errors that would make me anxious and before I know it I had been reworking the same section for hours not really feeling happy with anything and my anxiety has snowballed quickly into an overwhelming feeling of failure. By starting each creative session with 5 or 10 minutes of loose experimenting I warm myself up making me more confident when I begin to make marks on my in-progress paintings.
3. Working On Several Paintings at Once. Since finally having the option of turning our 3rd bedroom into a creative space I have been able to leave several works out in different stages of completion. This wasn’t possible for me before, my easel being the top of the toy cabinet. Doing this has been a game changer for me in terms of my productivity and keeping myself in the process. If I am working on a painting and I start to feel stuck, if I feel I am becoming frustrated and that little voice is creeping in, scolding me for my inevitable failure, I put my brush down. I step away from my computer. I breathe. I then move on to a different painting, or start work on a different task.
4. Embracing the Process I look at my children while they make art. Gloopy glue over here, tissue paper stuck here, paint spread in big arm motions over here. They are free of self-doubt and artistic anxiety. They worry not about the final image but instead they are completely immersed in the process of creating. This is what making art is about. Can you think back to making art as a small child? You spread glue around. You mixed too much water into the paint. You happily stuck pieces of spaghetti to toilet roll tubes. Wouldn’t you like that freedom back? I now dedicate time to allowing myself to create freely. This work never has to be shown to the outside world it is just for me. I immerse myself in this process, I do not think of that final image. If it’s too bad I bin it. No big deal.
5. Practicing self-compassion I don’t know about you but I am my own biggest critic and it is rarely constructive. Put simply, I bully myself. At the first display of weakness I come swooping in with a full-frontal attack designed to stop me dead in my tracks. “You are a failure,” “you are not good enough,” “you do not deserve this,” “everybody is laughing at you.” Where did I learn to treat myself in such a way? I would never talk to another like I talk to myself. Making mistakes is not failure, making mistakes is an essential part of learning. Not being a master on your first attempt ls is not a reflection of my worth as a person, it takes time to build skill. Loosing my temper with my children does not define me as a bad mother. Practicing self-compassion is so important in all aspects of our lives. Recently I have been trying to focus on the following affirmation.
6. Reassessing My Goals I feel overwhelm very easily especially in regards to my creative goals. Often when I am feeling anxious about my work or I am scolding myself for not being perfect it is because I am thinking about my desired end goal and feeling frustration that I am not there yet. I am forgetting to embrace the process. Being honest with myself about my expectations is important here. Are my goals achievable? Am I jumping to the end without putting in the leg work? I love making lists (any excuse to use some pretty stationary, right?) - If after reassessing my goals I conclude that they are achievable I find braking down everything I need to do into many miniature tasks very helpful in combating overwhelming and silencing that inner need for perfectionism.
7. Commit to finishing So I started a 30 day drawing challenge but I was too tired on day 5 and I didn’t pick up my pencil. I started the year with the intention of taking a photo of each day but I forgot to bring my camera along on a couple of outings. It doesn’t matter. Instead of quitting I can adapt. I can skip those days and pick it back up when I get home. I could take a photo with my phone. Whole projects do not need to be completely written off because I made an error. Just commit to finish the project. Keep going.
I have a lot of work to do on challenging my inner perfectionist. This is not easy work. There is a life time of learnt behavior to undo here. My goal however is to use these tools to allow myself to show up each day, put my all into my work and succeed by trying to leave my perfectionism at the door.
How does the desire to be perfect manifest in your life? How do you try and combat this with in your practice?