Why you shouldn’t allow perfectionism stop you from the joy and healing benefits of making art.
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”– Friedrich Nietzsche
Aaaah! The creative journey. What a joy and what a right old pain!
Somewhere around 2000, 2006, 2018 and 2021, I took up and dropped art making. I’ve made numerous attempts at following that unrelenting creative call but with little success, until now.
When I’d see a beautiful piece of art, whether it was printed fabric, street art or a glazed pot, I’d feel immediate joy. Visual art lit up my inner globe and I really wanted to be part of this creative world. But time and again, I’d start with enthusiasm and a basket full of tools and materials, only to see me, and my art supplies, languish on the shelf of promises unkept, gathering dust and being forgotten. There was an inner love/hate conflict that I struggled to resolve.
Despite my strong desire, what was it that continually stopped me?
It was Perfectionism with a capital P. Pure and simple. Sadly perfectionism is anything but pure or simple and at its zenith can be highly destructive. Yes, it’s good to strive for the best possible outcome, especially if you’re a brain surgeon, and even when making art. You want your painting to include the right mix of colours, values, shapes etc. but, chronic perfectionists who are creative, may stop making art altogether because they continually find fault in everything they create. This is especially crippling for beginners like me. The toxicity of perfectionism can affect any field of endeavour, but it’s particularly nasty in the creative world.
Chronic perfectionism and creativity are like water and oil. They don’t mix. Artists who are free of perfectionism will for starters have a go, they’ll try different materials, new techniques and push the boundaries of their craft. Artists with a message will push themselves out of their comfort zone and society’s restrictive boundaries, using their art to draw our attention to important issues.
Whether you’re an artist or not, perfectionism can make you sick, mentally and physically. I speak from experience here. It was perfectionism that landed me with a chronic illness that’s had a lasting effect on my health.
So where does perfectionism start and why does it help to know its origins? According to goodtherapy.org, there are a number of factors that can lead to perfectionism . They can include, “Frequent fear of disapproval from others or feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Mental health issues like anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).” I would suggest that anxiety and OCD can result from striving for perfectionism and it’s destructive cousin, control. We have far less control on our lives than we are led to believe. An issue for later exploration.
The reason why it helps to get to know our unconscious beliefs, is that unlike when we were children, as adults we can question the beliefs we’ve inherited and ask if they are true, if they are valid and if they are helpful and contribute to our wellbeing.
When I look back, I see that my well-meaning parents grew up in fearful environments and that mistakes were not tolerated, so they strived for perfection through control. While both my parents tried to change some of the behaviours they’d learnt, they still harboured some deeply embedded beliefs that were passed on to their offspring.
Children are learning machines and they learn through trial and error. Trying not to make mistakes is not only unnatural, it’s impossible. Avoiding mistakes can often be a catalyst for developing anxiety. Mistakes or what I like to call ‘learning opportunities’ can be good for you. As my partner says to his staff, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.” He knows that innovation, which comes from creative thinking, requires pushing boundaries and going into the unknown. This might lead to good outcomes and not so good ones, but if you don’t try something new, you’ll remain stuck in the old.
Children may also develop perfectionist tendencies if they fear care-giver disapproval which they may equate with not being loved. Disapproval triggers the need to do the ‘right thing’ again and again, and not make mistakes. This hyper-vigilance for mistakes is exhausting!
Perfectionism is why I stopped and started making art so many times. I wanted to make art and yet, I found a million excuses to stop. I never paused to look at those excuses until I was forced to do so through a health crisis. Eckhart Tolle refers to life’s hardships and suffering as opportunities for growth. So with poor health in hand, I began to explore my love-hate relationship with art.
What I found was that for years my hidden perfectionist monster was in the driver’s seat, always pushing me to strive for the impossible. I often had dreams about being the passenger in a driverless, out-of-control car which usually ended in a crash. I think my subconscious mind was trying to tell me that I was not in charge of my life, and instead old programming from childhood was in control. My parents are good people but they experienced really difficult childhoods and their desire for their children to have better (perfect) lives, embedded an unconscious message that mistakes were dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. And yet, not being real about life and knowing that you learn through mistakes, is what’s dangerous. For me it cost me my health.
When did I finally notice that ‘Mr Perfect’ was in charge? In 2006, when my physical health took a nose dive. I was extremely sick, thousands of miles from home, with two young children and I struggled. I became depressed, had panic attacks and my once simmering anxiety blew into chronic generalised anxiety. I wasn’t just afraid of art making, I became afraid of everything.
Mostly house-bound and unable to do work, I finally had an excuse to pursue my art again. Yes, I needed an excuse. Not only does perfectionism expect perfection, it also thinks that art making is frivolous and a time waster. Surely there are more important things to do than make art, right? Well, no actually, especially when it’s what you were born to do.
So, how do we move forward knowing that we are chronic perfectionists?
Well, funnily enough, the answer lies in making art. Yep, it’s a bit of a circular process, but the spiral will move up if you let it.
Firstly, let’s recap. Reaching for unrealistic perfectionism can lead to anxiety. One of the remedies for anxiety is to find pursuits that get you into the zone, e.g. exercise, mediation, making art etc. We know that art can be problematic because often the idea/image we have in our head may end up different to what we create, this is especially true for beginners. We will make great and not so great art. This happens to professional artists too! It’s all part of the process. This is what I’m learning right now. As one of my favourite artists Kim Herringe often reminds me, “By making art you learn, and you learn by making art.”
Creativity is a messy pursuit and the perfectionist needs get in the back seat and let your art flow. If you have the space, spread out all your materials and create multiple works simultaneously. Move from one to another making marks. Don’t overthink it. Embody your five-year-old and have fun. Eventually, your child-like nature will start to come out of the closet.
A reminder before you start your art
Here’s what I do. Before I start, I remind myself that I’m a beginner. If you’re an experienced artists still struggling with perfectionism, then remind yourself that each day/project you start is a beginning. Each moment is new and anything is possible. If the results please you, then thank your creative muse and treat yourself for the wonderful outcome. Chocolate always works for me. BUT, if the outcome is less pleasing, then thank yourself for showing up, for having a go and not binge-watching TV or pursuing some other distracting past time. Give thanks for the learning opportunity that comes from every attempt.
The other amazing thing I learnt from other artists is to ask the question, ‘What if…?’ Perfectionism often had me frozen in fear. Fear of making a mistake on a clean sheet of paper, of ‘wasting’’ the paints, pencils, crayons, you name it. I’ve been so paralysed with the fear of ‘messing up’ that I couldn’t even make a start.
Here’s the irony. Artists make art by making a mess and asking, ‘What if..?’
‘What if I add some red paint to this?’ Or, ‘What if I tear the edge of the paper, and rub the paper against the concrete with a crayon and see what marks it get?’ These questions release you from an anxiety provoking outcome. Creativity becomes an exploratory process which is freeing because you just don’t know what you’re going to get. You can’t get a perfect result when you don’t know what the result will be.
Remember every time you try something new, you learn. That’s the whole purpose of the exercise isn’t it? To learn something new, not perfection. Eventually all that learning becomes a skill and we get the improvements we are striving for, not perfection.
That’s the other thing I’m discovering. Perfectionism often wants a quick fix, rapid rise to glory, it hates appearing imperfect. It hates the pain of being less-than but again, art is here to tell us that we can improve our skills. It just takes hard work and the good P’s, Practice and Patience and eventually we’ll become a little bit more our perfectly authentic selves. ????
I hope that today is the day you reach deep into your heart and find your creative voice, allow it to speak and spend time in the light. I know you’ll feel better for it.
There is no ‘right’ way to make art. The only wrong is in not trying. Not doing. Don’t put barriers up that aren’t there — just get to work and make something.”