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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.