Wednesday, September 03, 2014

the problem with perfection

When people tell me they are a perfectionist, I take note. I am a recovering perfectionist and I’m interested in what being a perfectionist means to other people.  I generally regard perfectionism as a neurotic condition and I want to offer support, if possible, and learn more about letting go of perfectionism within myself.

Often people will say they are perfectionists with a little bit of pride. Proclaiming yourself a perfectionist is a sort of humble brag, because you are subtly sending the message that your standards are high, higher than most. And if your standards are higher than most then your work is probably better than most… right?

I’ve struggled with my own perfectionism because I believe my desire to be perfect and make perfect things has held me back from being a fully realized artist more than any other one of my tendencies. For me, being a perfectionist means rarely deriving satisfaction from the work I make because it’s not as good as I want it to be. That striving to be better is a trait of many artists, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with seeing how the work you just made would be even better if you did “x” differently. It’s called innovation and it’s how you get from A to Z and make amazing work. Amazing work doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Amazing work comes from lots of small failures and having the tenacity and drive to overcome each small failure. The problem with perfectionism is failure is often regarded not as a step forward, but as a sinkhole.

My studio is filled with half-realized ideas that did not come out as planned, so I drop it. My head is filled with ideas I’ve never tried because my perfectionistic fear-monger picks it apart before I give myself a chance to experiment. I started recognizing this tendency a while ago, and I’ve taken steps to recognize the voice of perfection, and dismiss it.  That voice disguises itself as a helpful friend who just wants you to make good work, and it's easy to confuse it with your intuition.

Given all the time I’ve spent thinking about perfectionism and trying to track it within myself and other people, I have some more ideas about the drawbacks of being a perfectionist:
  1. Being a perfectionist is just not fun, because you are more focused on controlling the outcome rather than focusing on the process. As an artist or creator of any kind, you gotta love process, because to make anything takes time and attention to take each step toward completion. If you lose your way with that and focus too much on how it's not perfect before you are even done, you've crushed your own creative joy. Keep doing that, and the Muse gets reluctant to come around.
  2. Unrecovered perfectionists will often try to use their perfectionism as a way to justify not sharing or completing their work because "it's not good enough yet." Perfectionism and procrastination hang out at the same club. They don't like to acknowledge each other because perfectionism thinks it's too good for procrastination, and procrastination doesn't like to acknowledge anything, but if you look closely they are swaying their hips to the same beat.
  3. All of us have holes in our hearts that we are trying to fill, and perfectionists have a hole in their heart that they are trying to fill with an impossible ideal. Clinging to an impossible ideal doesn't fill your heart, it seals it off and makes you defensive and careful. As artists and creators, we must unseal our hearts wherever we have resistance so we can communicate the truth and beauty of what we are hiding in there.
  4. Most perfectionists I know are workaholics. Again, these traits go to the same club, but they are besties, taking pride in one another. Like many "isms," perfectionism and workaholism function more as crutches rather than genuine support, and disguise our inner feelings of unworthiness and judgement.
  5. Being a perfectionist means living with the constant fear that you are never going to be good enough, and people are going to find out. While striving to be a perfectionist may temporarily soothe our troubled souls, in the end there is only you, imperfection, and the choice of whether or not to accept it.

I love that people like Brene Brown are spreading the concept of the gift of imperfection so widely. I hope that on some level it's changing the way we all think about ourselves and the world.  As I was thinking about how to finish up this post this morning I was asking myself what I think the greatest gift of imperfection is. My answer (to myself) was that being imperfect gives us the opportunity to keep trying, keep going, and keep the fires burning. There's no where to go from perfection because... it's perfect! You can't grow and learn from there, it's done. What do you think about the gift of imperfection? Put your perfectly imperfect answers in the comment box.

16 comments:

  1. When I was a teen and struggling through a variety of issues, I wrote myself the question, "Isn't it better to be imperfectly happy than perfectly miserable?" It still resonates, and is still a struggle. Perfection is a trait I never deemed ideal. Great post, Whitney. Hits home as I sometimes (often?) feel I've cornered myself with perfection in the studio.

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    1. I know what you mean Kristen! There is a pleasure in perfecting our techniques through our pieces, but there is something a bit icy and off-putting about polishing and polishing and polishing our techniques to the point where there is no more growth. Hard to know when to stop!

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  2. The aphorism I heard through childhood was "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well". I can't say I'm a perfectionist who never gets satisfaction with my work, garden, cooking or any other endeavors, but I do try to approach anything I spend my time on a certain level of care; but don't angst over unmet expectations. I can't imagine how life would be if one could never find some satisfaction with any of their pursuits. Better to love yourself unconditionally and enjoy the journey no matter where it takes you.

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    1. Unconditional self-love is something I'm always working on. Regarding the "doing well" aphorism, I've been using this expression lately-- "half ass is better than no ass". To me this means that any good effort is worthwhile, don't wait until all conditions are ripe for "perfection", because that just leads right into procrastination.

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  3. I had an assigment in art school where we had to make something "ugly" it kind of stuck with me and years later I did a tile floor in my bathroom using salvaged tile. I put colors next to eachother that i felt clashed, that bothered me...and it turned out awesome! I loved it! its still a great exersize because what is lovely is subject to change, or fashion, or personal opinion. What is perfect or ugly.....or perfectly ugly?

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    1. That would be an incredibly challenging assignment for me. Defining ugliness and trying to follow that through an art assignment would be fascinating-- mostly to see what other people made.

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  4. Thanks for your thoughts and writings. I am working at letting multi tasking go, in my need to be more productive.

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    1. You have plenty of scientific research backing you up that says multi-tasking just means you are doing several things at once... poorly. But the drive to be more productive can be a monster, it's a constant fight with time and yourself, trying to be good enough.

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  5. Oh boy do I hear you! I suspect I'm a perfectionist in denial. I don't think of myself as a perfectionist, but when I criticise my own work people say "Ah yes, but that's because you are a perfectionist." And I think "No, no, I just want to do it right".

    The trick I've learned is to have the discipline to finish the work, then let it sit for a while. After a bit the imperfections seem less important, or even give character.

    Does that make any sense?

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    1. Totally. I think when we jump right into judgement of our own work, we can't see it for what it is. Which is sad. I will have to add that to my arsenal of anti-perfectionist behaviors.

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  6. I loved this article!! It reminds me again to enjoy and have fun with the process whether it is with my pottery, piano, knitting, sewing or golfing. I have read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown and I think she is awesome!!!

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    1. Thanks Diane, I'm glad you enjoyed.

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  7. All of this!! I have piles of abandoned work, my blog and website haven't been updated in who knows how long, and I look at everything I create with a judgmental eye that things aren't "perfect" enough. I think that book needs to go on my reading list! Thank you for this post :)

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    1. If you want another book for your list you may also want to read, "Start Where You Are" by Pema Chodrin. It helps me start with things when I am feeling overwhelmed with all I haven't done. I've finally learned that just because I didn't do it yesterday and I may not do it tomorrow doesn't mean I can't do it right now.

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    2. Another great book is "Wherever You Go There You Are" by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfullness Mediation in Everyday Life.

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  8. I'm so busted...An hour ago, I tried to write the perfect comment and quit.

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