How to Overcome Creative Paralysis

A grad school PTSD story

The Tragedy of the Common Perfectionist

Four years ago, I dropped out of my Ph.D. program with a heavy heart and and self-esteem in tatters. Before my flight home, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. Today, that synchronicity makes me smile. I say to my fellow San Franciscans, “See? Further proof of my direct heart line to NY.”

Don’t worry, it was 100% the right choice to leave. The main reason: I literally could not bring myself to write, a.k.a do my job.

I share this grad school PTSD story because what I experienced is an extreme version of what countless creative people subject themselves to: I call it the Tragedy of the Common Perfectionist.

Manhattan Upper East Side, 2009–2012

I went to probably one of the most elite institutions at which you can study art history and archaeology. Many of my colleagues will go on to run the art world, and I’m extremely proud to have studied beside them and know them.

Almost everything about the place itself is intimidating: the Neo-Classical, Gilded Age mansion on the Upper East Side that is The Institute; the professors are some of the brightest minds in The Discipline; they’ve written things that are squarely positioned in The Canon; the fact that people regularly refer to The Discipline and The Canon.

I went to class. I read a lot of academic writing that was rambling, pretentious, and verbose. There were lots of vague, made-up noun-concepts (“methodological tautology”) and references to The Great Dead White Dudes and Their Impenetrable Theories.

I had to re-read some parts of these theories like, seven times. The jargon and lazy sentence structuring made me feel like I was standing in a hall of smoke and mirrors, blood sugar tanking and not a snack in sight. Felt dumb, a lot. That’s not even the worst part.

Approaching The Worst Part

I began to think, “I guess this is what good writing is.”

Sometimes bad academic writing happens because tenured professors enjoy unheard-of job security in exchange for publishing a lot of words about stuff and things.

I mimicked them by eking out my own overwrought, Ivory-Tower-Championships-level garbage. I had loved to write, and soon the act filled me with dread, all because I compared myself to and turned toward others’ work and away from my own.

The Nearly Worst Part

I started to believe I was a bad writer.

When I sat down to start writing, that snow white, empty Word doc would glower at me, waiting. In really low moments, I’d imagine Clippit the Office Assistant boinging onto my screen and mocking me (we all used Office 2008 then, OK?):

“You can’t do it, can you? It’s been hours. You’re such are a shitty writer. Absolutely pathetic, and you can trust me on that — I watch a lot of people scrunch up their oily-nosed mugs trying to fill this page up.”

Creative paralysis, all because…

The Worst Part

I wanted my work to be “brilliant”.

Ugh, that word. It’s a close cousin to “perfect”, but contains an element of Striving for Being a Genius. It’d ring loudly in my head, and I couldn’t write. My spirit dimmed further and further, which others could identify as an admixture of severe anxiety and depression.

“That was so brilliant.”
“S/he’s so brilliant.”

If my writing wasn’t “brilliant”, nearing a work of genius (both of which I wrongly associated with “publishable”), what was the point?

Dark times, but what I learned is priceless. I can’t say it enough:

Perfect is the enemy of good work.

In the nuclear winter that is perfectionism, ideas and projects hunker down, waiting for more reasonable climate (spoiler: self-compassion). Your gleaming, nascent creation looks out the window, sees the storm of your ego, and bolts the door shut another day.

Herein lies the tragedy: You are depriving us of the specific brand of insight only you can deliver.

How to Recover from Perfectionism

Great news: the well of your creativity will fill back up. It simply takes some TLC and practice.

  1. Soothe your nervous system; chronic anxiety makes your mind-body think a bear is always after you. Ideas: Reconnect with nature, meditate, take a vacation (not a trip, a vacation). If you can, take a sabbatical.
  2. Smile. It’s reassuring for your brain.
  3. Hang out with people who love you.
  4. Move your body.
  5. Remember you’re human, and part of humanity. I’ve been saying this to myself, first thing in the morning, every morning for the past year and it helps:
“I am a ghost, driving a meat-covered skeleton made of stardust, riding a rock, hurtling through space.”

Give it a try—it’s humbling and comforting all at once. Here it is if you only speak Emoji: 👻🍖✨🌍☄

You’re made of stardust, a beautiful thing, so of course you can create beautiful things.✨