Crushing Perfectionism Can Slay Artists or Create Them

When I was in elementary school, I was singled out by teachers as a “wonderful reader” and “imaginative writer.” I was thrilled. I was really, really good at something and my parents, my friends, and my teachers were all taking notice. As I grew, the praise continued as did my quest to read everything in sight while simultaneously writing a novel (that I would, of course, one day publish).

Enter college. Ouch. I went to a liberal arts college and quickly found out that there were dozens of students who were better readers and better writers than I was. I realized that I wasn’t an accomplished grammarian and that my written work would not automatically receive glowing reviews. I battled through, but found that despite everything I was learning…I was becoming more insecure about my ability to write and even more insecure about my ideas.

I felt handicapped and crippled. I wanted to be “the best” and to impress, but I couldn’t come up with anything to say. I would have a thought, begin to write it down and immediately dismiss it. I had always been a perfectionist at heart, but now I was a perfectionist who couldn’t perfect.

When I rediscovered my passion for acting and started on that career path, I found that my intensified need to create something worthwhile and meaningful made it almost impossible to create anything at all.

The perfectionism was crushing my ability to create and as an artist (writer/actor/filmmaker), an inability to create is lethal. So I did what any perfectionist does…I poured over books, journals and articles to find out what I could do to stop it and regain my creative freedom. Here’s what I found/learned.

Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. — Brené Brown

How to Make Sure Your Perfectionism Is Helping You

Too many people point to perfectionism as a curse. It’s not. Perfectionism can be severely detrimental to the development of an artist of any kind, but it has its benefits:

  • Perfectionism often provides an almost manic drive that helps people push through a multitude of obstacles and maintain focus
  • Perfectionism helps people project a sense of control and “togetherness,” which is great for young adults during job interviews (seriously)
  • Perfectionism generates a go get’em attitude that comes in handy when people face tough challenges (failure? not an option)
  • Perfectionism forces people to constantly strive to be the best version of themselves that they can be

The trick is to separate perfectionist thoughts. Keep perfectionist thoughts that are based around improvement (How can I make this better? What would improve this?) and banish thoughts that are based around what others think (Will they like it? What will they think?).

Implement these strategies to ensure that your perfectionism works for you, rather than against you:

  • Set a deadline for your creative project to ensure that you will finish it and share it with others; don’t allow yourself to put it off because it isn’t yet “perfect” (hint: it never will be, noting is perfect)
  • When you feel unhappy with a project, task, idea, piece, presentation, performance, etc. ASK yourself if your unhappiness is rooted in your fear of what others might be thinking instead of what you actually think
  • Think positively with daily or weekly gratitude exercises; perfectionism can easily lead to anxiety, depression, addiction and halt your creative life’s momentum
  • Center yourself by grounding yourself in nature; Head out to a hidden reservoir or a new hiking trail, take a yoga class or walk your dog
  • Find a new focus by reviving an old dream or dreaming up a new one; Sometimes focusing on alternative ideas can free you from the crushing perfectionist feelings/thoughts you have about your current project

I’m not an expert on perfectionism, psychology, or creative success so take this advice with a healthy dose of skepticism. On the other hand, if this rings true for you…let me know, down below, in the comments. Do what you do best–creatively–and remember that life moves too quickly to focus purely on perfection.