Creative perfectionism – The villain in every artist’s story
The life of a creator is mysterious. As an audience, we rarely ever know what goes on behind the scenes of creating art whether it is writing a script, designing a website, or sketching buildings. Our vision is pigeonholed by the glory of the art itself that we barely ever appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears that got the artist to that point.
Creative perfectionism is exactly the kind of off-screen nuisance that not only isn’t acknowledged enough by people, but also by creators themselves. Creatives tend to hold themselves and their art to extremely high standards that are seen to be unrealistic by most people. It’s a common phenomenon seen within the creative community because of the risky and autonomous nature of their work.
To most, perfectionism isn’t a problem because pop culture glamorizes it. The perfectionist trait neatly fits into the ‘workaholic’ idea of being good at your job. It’s seen as something that should be attained rather than fixed.
Stepping away from these distorted narratives, it is important to understand what battling with perfectionism is really like, especially for those who live to create art for themselves and others.
As a student journalist and aspiring writer myself, I’ve been forced to deal with this unexpected avalanche of negative emotions that comes with being a perfectionist such as fear, doubt and self-deprecation. The proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” is a myth for people like me when we are in a constant frenzy thinking about our work.
Am I good enough? Am I better than everyone else? Is this the best I could have done? No.No. And no. The thoughts that leech onto the mind of a perfectionist.
Overthinking about your work becomes addictive. Perfectionism is a textbook example of what obsessive thinking looks like. Our dissatisfaction is rooted so deeply within us that it grows and grows until it plagues every inch of our brain. We become paralyzed and it stops us from doing the things we love most.
A psychological study conducted by the University of Nebraska found that creative people that were overly self-critical (perfectionists) were less likely to indulge in creative tasks than those who weren’t. They discovered that these people had a fear of failure, were unable to be satisfied with a job well done, and tended to procrastinate a lot.
Margaret Atwood, a famous writer, called herself a “self-proclaimed procrastinator” in a TED podcast, said she couldn’t write The Handmaid’s Tale for three years because she was fearful of the result. Atwood’s fear is a testament to how creative perfectionists are barred from excelling in their field when they focus on avoiding mistakes rather than striving for achievement.
It’s hard to get things done. For someone who’s just starting, I cant seem to finish writing a sentence without re-reading it a couple of thousand times before moving onto the next one. ‘It can be better’ is the only thing that runs across my mind as I put a few words down on a page. It’s the reason my work is never finished, there’s always a paragraph that can be shortened or a comma missing, or a better adjective I can use.
Whether you’re an expert or a beginner, the consequences of perfectionism catch up with everyone.
In an article by GoodTherapy, Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, explains that “Perfectionism is used as a shield against the pain of blame, judgment, and shame”. Our mind is wired to coddle our fragile ego, so we do everything in our power to protect it. We indulge in unhealthy thoughts that stall us from being productive.
While this is a reality for most creators, the good news is that we can consciously try to fix it. The most effective way to get over perfectionism is by creating things that are bad on purpose.
Make ugly portraits, write embarrassing love songs, whatever it is you enjoy creating — do it, but do it without expecting it to be the best. This may seem counterproductive but it breaks your inhibitions. It allows you to be free. Once you stop being scared of the result, it’s so much easier to enjoy the process and thrive. No one starts out a pro, not even Margaret Atwood.
Imagine a world where feminist icons like Virginia Woolf and Frida Kahlo neglected their work because they lived in the fear of being judged. Or a world where Damien Chazelle couldn’t direct La La Land because he was doubtful of his abilities. What would it be like if Monet and Picasso died while trying to fix all the nitty-gritty details of their first painting instead of creating more?
Art creates stories. It creates culture and histories and we are on a path that has been undeniably paved by artists before us. Your work has meaning, don’t let perfectionism stop you from creating.