I grew up in a small town and everyone knew my family and my parents' struggles. My parents' lives could be messy at times and as a child, I felt exposed when others knew of our family's problems. This experience was the root of my story of perfectionism. We use perfectionism to avoid judgment and shame. For many people that means having a perfect visual representation of their life. For example a perfectly clean house or perfectly curated clothes. My experience growing up drove me to a different kind of perfectionism. It really took me a long time to realize I was a perfectionist because it was so different than what I expected perfectionism to mean.
Rather for me, perfectionism looked like trying to present as if I had everything figured out. I had a plan, goals, good relationships, and was emotionally healthy. I didn't want those around me to see the messiness of my life as they did in my childhood. I don't even think I presented my perfectionism well, but it was scary to let it go. This really came to a head when I had my first child. I have worked with kids my whole life and I was pretty positive I would know what I was doing. I had worked with newborns all the way up to teens, so I felt like I knew what I was getting into. What I didn't expect was to have a neurodivergent child that didn't fit the mold at all. He didn't even fit the mold for what a neurodivergent child looked like, so his doctor and teachers just told me he was really smart and developing typically. But our home life looked like chaos. At three he was climbing out of the window when I told him we couldn't go play with the neighbors. I was covered in bruises and was constantly being screamed at. By five it was clear this was not a stage, but no one I talked to had any answers. This experience really made me examine my perfectionism for the first time. I had to choose him over my need to look like I had everything together. My relationship with him wasn't going to look like any other mother-child relationship around me. Learning to deal with real and perceived judgment was hard. To make sure he is stable and ok, we have to do things very differently. I can't pretend everything is ok or we will not be ok. It is a big learning curve.
How does this play out in art? For me, it looks like fear. When I was younger I did apply perfectionism to my work by trying to make it flawless work. The problem with this is making work that is flawless is it looks boring. Over the years I have learned to be brave in the studio. It's liberating to try new things and embrace my mistakes. Art-making is at its best when it feels like play. If you are focused on a perfect outcome then it is hard to cultivate play. Where I get stuck is putting my work into the world. All that fear of judgment swells up in my throat and I get paralyzed.
For me, the biggest tool in combating perfectionism is self-compassion. I really struggle at applying it to my life, but when I do it helps. Self-compassion comprises three parts. The first is self-kindness instead of self-judgment. According to Kristin Neff who studies self-compassion, "Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals." It can be hard not to judge ourselves when things are hard. As creative people putting our work into the world can feel like exposing and judging ourselves when it goes wrong can make it harder and can paralyze us to try again. The second part of self-compassion is common humanity vs. isolation. When we are struggling it can feel very lonely, but we are not the only ones going through something similar, and focusing on our common humanity can help ease the loneliness. The last element of self-compassion is mindfulness vs. over-identification. Part of self-compassion is observing our negative thoughts and feelings without judgment rather than being caught up in them and swept away.
Perfectionism is a way to guard ourselves against shame and judgment. It is a way to try and feel accepted. The problem is it doesn't really work. If we can examine the shame behind our perfectionism then we can work towards self-compassion and let go of perfectionism.
As artists and creatives, this is really important. Perfectionism limits our creativity because it encourages safety, which produces derivative work. It also paralyzes us, when we fear exposure and judgment, so we stop taking chances. If it's something you struggle with I suggest trying a self-compassion meditation. Self-compassion.org has ones for free you can try.
I also work with clients to help them figure out the shame hidden under their perfectionism so they can start to work through their perfectionism and start making the artwork they really want to make. Reach out if you would like a free consult.