What To Do When Perfectionism Comes Knocking

Ah, perfectionism. It's the bane of creatives, right? It's something most (if not all) of us have to deal with, so how do we get past it so we can get down to the business of creating? Click through to read my thoughts (and some great insight from a reader!)

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Perfectionism. It stops creativity in its tracks and yet, it seems like it’s the bane of many a creative person.

Last weekend I was bitten by the painting bug. I had checked out a few inspirational books from the library and true to form, they were so inspirational I could hardly read them. I ended up flipping through them and all but ran to our office to try some of the techniques. And this is what happened:

When I was painting, I was in the moment, adding color, humming to myself, feeling very cheerful and light-hearted. Painting is the most childlike creative activity I do and I love it. So I made lots of marks and mixed wild, vibrant colors, and basically made a beautiful mess.

But then, something happened. Call it my logical brain kicking in, call it a dose of reality. . . but I suddenly snapped out of my reverie and looked at the paintings. Oh my. Wow. Not what I was aiming for.

I told my husband, “Who cares about the journey? I want to arrive!” in reference to all the pithy quotes out there about the journey being the destination and all that. Logically I know that the journey really does matter but in that particular moment all I could see was a lot of paint used up and an afternoon gone. Oh, and three canvases that annoy me.

Ah, perfectionism. It's the bane of creatives, right? It's something most (if not all) of us have to deal with, so how do we get past it so we can get down to the business of creating? Click through to read my thoughts (and some great insight from a reader!)

I feel like I’m in the midst of growing pains when it comes to the whole painting thing. I haven’t done it consistently so that’s partially the problem and if I’m honest with myself, I’m a beginner. Lately I’ve noticed that I’ve wanted to jump straight to Le Arteest stage where people actually want to buy my paintings. Ironically, I didn’t start painting in order to start selling them; I just wanted to make some art for our apartment. Which I’m doing.

Isn’t it interesting how a little bout with perfectionism can steer us away from our original direction?

A reader named Denise emailed me recently with the following comment:

I think one of the reasons I don’t do more projects, despite my desire to do them, is that they never turn out as nice as the one I am referencing. I get frustrated at my lack of, well, perfection.

I read her sentence over and over because I realized that yes, that was exactly my problem too. I want my projects to look a certain way, I don’t want to waste supplies or time, and I want to have fun too. Is that too much to ask? :)

Her email came at such an interesting time because as I mentioned above, I had just painted three sad (but kind of cute to their mom) paintings. Did I mention that I had accidentally spilled an entire cup of tea over one of the canvases too? Oh, I didn’t? Well, I did that too, so one of them had an “aged” look.

So I began to think about what perfectionism is not, what it does to us, and what in the world to do when it comes knocking at our doors (because it most likely will.) This is a quick rundown of what I came up with. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments if you’d like to share your experiences as well.

What perfectionism is not:

~ Working on a project to refine and to edit
~ Noticing mistakes and fixing them
~ Caring about excellence

In other words, there’s nothing wrong in erasing that line to get it just right when you’re creating a font. And most of us appreciate going to a concert where the musicians play the correct notes rather than just guesstimating a note that feels good to them.

What perfectionism does to us:

~ Perfectionism’s strongest point is deflating our desire to create. Why make anything if it looks awful? Why keep trying when it takes so long to get good at it?

~ It keeps us from growth. I wonder how many things I’ve given up because I didn’t put in the time it takes to get through the gangly period of learning.

~ It makes us think that there is some sort of “arriving” in life that doesn’t actually exist. Anyone who is at the top of their craft will tell you that they are still a beginner in many ways. Being a beginner keeps you from becoming boring. And it keeps you humble too, that’s for sure. :)

What to do when perfectionism comes knocking:

~ Acknowledge it and run the other way. For me, there’s no use in denying that urge to get it right the first time. So I’m learning to acknowledge it and then my form of running away is taking out another canvas to paint. In other words, I am not going to let that voice of perfectionism win the argument.

~ Pick a project that’s an easy-win. If I’m struggling with a project that’s going nowhere and I don’t know what to do with it, it’s a nice break to grab another project that’s simple enough for me to do blindfolded. Seriously. I’m convinced it’s good for your heart to do this. :) That’s why I have a lot of easy-win projects on my blog. I want you to be able to find things that you can whip up and give yourself a high-five for. And hopefully you’ll get inspired to imagine some just-for-you projects while you’re at it. :)

~ Sometimes I have to let projects go. There is a time and a place to move on and I think we all know when that happens. This isn’t perfectionism talking anymore. It’s knowing when to say goodbye. I love what Denise wrote back to say a few days later:

I have been utterly demoralized by my progress with (a certain project), and have consequently let my guilt about lack of progress keep me from continuing with that project or moving on to another project in the same arena.  I have finally come to terms with it, and am releasing myself from the bonds of that project.

Brilliant, right? I think as we grow in our creative lives and continue practicing, we’ll see the lines between perfectionism and growing and moving on become more clear to us. And I absolutely believe we’ll recognize this line on a project-by-project basis.

I think that’s why I love the creative process so much. I never know what to expect.

The other day, I was on the phone waiting to pay a bill so I pulled out a canvas and began to finger paint on it. I wasn’t really looking at the canvas because I was having to give the operator different invoice numbers and such but when I was finished, I had this whimsical painting that made me so happy, I immediately hung it up in my office. This, after struggling to make those other three canvases come to life and failing miserably (at least for the moment). Creativity is a strange thing.

One last thing that’s worth mentioning and that’s that we all grow so incrementally that it’s often difficult to see that we are indeed learning and growing in our skills. Someone said it takes 1,000 paintings to learn to paint and though that number is negligible, the truth behind that thought is it takes time and practice and a lot of proverbial painted-over canvases to find your voice, style, and heart.

I hope, in the midst of everything, you and I will continue to walk down our creative paths. Go and make things. Make messes. Say goodbye to some. Keep working on others.

But above all, keep making.

Have a wonderful {and creative} day, friends!

(And thank you to Denise, for letting me share your wise words!)

2 thoughts on “What To Do When Perfectionism Comes Knocking

  1. Great post and so true. I also struggle with the desire for perfection and it can be a real beast. You are right though, it is my logical side taking over and I sometimes need to silence her.

    1. I’m so glad this resonated with you, Cath. I think we all struggle with this on some level, and like you said, it’s important to know when to silence the perfectionism in order to do the work. Whatever happens, don’t stop making! :)

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