The Paralysis of Perfectionism – Skinny Artist

The Paralysis of Perfectionism

How can I be a perfectionist if nothing I do is perfect

Perils of perfect

As much as we would like to convince ourselves otherwise, perfectionism is not about having high standards or a keen eye for detail. Instead it’s like pretty much everything else we do that screws up our creative life— it’s really about dealing with our fears and trying to protect our fragile ego.

I used to think that being a perfectionist was just one of the those things you said during a job interview when they ask you to reveal something negative about your personality or something you need to work on.

In fact, perfectionism is right up there with “caring too much” and “working too hard” as one of those empty ego-stroking answers that we often say to impress others.

So what’s wrong with being perfect?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have high creative standards and strive for excellence, but that’s not really what any of this is about—perfectionism is a problem because it fools us into believing that it’s good for us.

It’s kind of like multi-tasking because we have been fooled into believing we’re doing it for the right reasons, but in reality it’s holding us back.

We think that we are perfectionists because we have extremely high standards and we refuse to do average work–but that’s the trap.  Because in order to reach that goal of perfect, we convince ourselves that there is always more work to do.  We need to do more research, buy more supplies, or learn new skills. We have to redo, revise, and re-edit our work until we get everything just right.

Perfectionism doesn’t just stall you current project, however, it can prevent you from starting any new projects as well. Being a perfectionists is a process where we are constantly second-guessing ourselves and doubting by looking for the faults in our work.

The idea behind perfectionism implies we always know what’s best for ourselves and our creative work.

In other words we fool ourselves into believing that we are the only ones who know what exactly our work needs, when in reality that is the role of getting feedback from others.

Although this type of self-evaluation may seem like a way of confirming our own high standards, it’s often just another way of stalling and keeping ourselves from moving forward. We end up in a state of creative paralysis because there is no way we can possibly live up to our own lofty expectations.

So we find ways to put things off a little longer, all in the name of being perfect.

“How bad is it, Doc?”Do you suffer from perfection-itis?

So how do we know if we are suffering from creative perfection-itis?

1.) We wait for ideal conditions or situation to get started

Perfectionists like to make sure they have all the tools and skill necessary before getting started.  It’s like when you are cooking, you want to make sure that you have all of the necessary ingredients before you get started. And while that may be true, there is a significant difference between cooking a pot of chili and writing a novel.

After all when we’re cooking a particular dish, we know exactly what the final result should be. However when we are writing a story or painting a canvas, we often won’t know where it’s going to end up until we get there—and the only way we’re ever going to do that, is by getting started.

In the end perfectionism is little more than procrastination dressed up as good intentions.  It gives us the excuse we need to put off doing the work until everything is just right.

2.) We get lost in the details

One of the tricks of perfectionism is that because we are never quite ready, there is always something else we need to do in order to “prepare” before we can get started.

It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of details in the name of research.  We need more information. More background. More knowledge. More details.  After all who is going to fault us for wanting to learn what we need to know in order to do our creative work. No one is ever going to stop us and tell us we know enough to get started.

Whether we are writing a book, painting a picture, or recording a song — there are infinite ways we can put it off until we are “ready”  so we busy ourselves with the details and learn far more than we will ever need to know to do our work.

It’s not only that taking the time to collect all of these extra details can keep us from doing our creative work, but it can also overwhelm us and make us lose our focus.

After spending all of this time learning and gathering so much information, it can be hard to know what what exactly we should leave out.  How do you narrow it down to the essential parts without becoming completely overwhelmed?  We end up with too much information and too many options.  We simply don’t know what to do with it all, so we often end up doing nothing at all.

3.) In the world of perfect there is no finish line

Perfectionism not only prevents us from starting our project, but it can also prevent us from finishing it.

How many times have you said to yourself, “Just one more edit” or “Just one more coat and then I’ll be done”  but for whatever reason we can never seem to finish. There is always one more thing to do on our way to perfect.

This ends up, of course, just one more excuse we don’t have to declare that our work is finished and has somehow failed (once again) to reach our ideal vision of perfection. So we put it off, we revise, we edit, and we stall.

We don’t want to be finished and be forced to release it into the wild and allow the critics (and anyone else who doesn’t understand our creative vision) to devour it and tear it apart.  As perfectionists we always like to say that “we are our own worst critic” and although that may be true, we are not the only one.  We know that when we finish a project and are willing to let it go into the wild we are forced to face our fear of rejection.  The same fear of rejection that our perfectionism was trying to protect us from in the first place.

It turns out that perfectionism is not a badge of honor, but only another way to avoid confronting our fears.

What do you think?

  • Do you think being a perfectionist is about having high standards or is that simply an excuse?
  • Have you ever gotten lost in the details of preparing for a project and then felt overwhelmed?
  • How do you manage to overcome the paralysis of perfectionism and finally get to work?
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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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(18) comments

Every great masterpiece must contain at least one flaw to be perfect because we are flawed. We are perfectly imperfect. Even Mozart had his horn fifths. To strive for perfection is to strive to be a machine. I was a terrible perfectionist until I studied classical composition. That was a leveler. I’m much easier on myself as a writer now.

Great post!

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    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us, and I think you’re right that sometimes we expect to much out of each individual project we do. We see it as a testament to what we are and not what we might eventually become. This is something that I know I have struggled with forever — when is enough enough? When do you just call something “done” and move on? There always seems like there is more that can be done, but again that’s the trap.

    When I was writing this post, I was reminded of a great quote by the American sculptor Robert Engman who said, “A piece of art is never a finished work. It answers a question which has been asked, and asks a new question.” So maybe the real issue is not so much when is a work finished, but when are we ready to answer the next question?

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    Truth

    My mom gave me advice and told me to pretend like it’s Project Runway…

    Pretend the canvas is the model and your the fashion designer.

    You cant let the “model” go out on the runway half naked.
    Don’t spend a month making only the top part of the dress.
    Just make the basic dress and step back and add the details and accessories.
    People would rather have the “model” clothed rather than half naked.

    This actually helped me allot

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I’m so guilty of waiting for the perfect moment – that ideal day when I have the perfect idea, the perfect size canvas waiting in my closet, the preliminary sketches and reasearch completed, and the whole day stretched out in front of me. Unfortunately that rarely happens, and when I find myself with only an hour or so when the kids go to bed early I feel frustrated and feed myself excuses as to why it’s not a good time. I’m tired . I have to do the dishes. It’s late and the light is terrible. If it can’t be great, I feel discouraged from doing it at all.

No one wants to create something that, in their mind, is total crap. I try to remind myself though, that the more half baked, ugly, or uninspired ideas I slog through, the better chance of stumbling on something really, really great. So just suck it up and put it out there.

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    I think most of us are guilty of waiting for that perfect situation or moment to do our best creative work and it becomes a comfortable excuse to keep from moving forward toward “done”. You’re also right about the “more half baked, ugly, or uninspired ideas [we] slog through, the better chance of stumbling on something really, really great.” We often hate to admit it, but greatness is often more of a numbers game than it is about having that one brilliant idea carried out to perfection. So instead as you say, we just have to “suck it up and put it out there” move on to the next thing and hope for the best :)

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‘have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it’ Salvador Dali
that coming from a man whose technical ability was as near as damn it to perfect
best ashar

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    You’re right Ashar, if we could only take Dali’s words to heart, perfectionism probably wouldn’t be a problem, but then again how often do we actually follow good advice ;)

    Reply

Thanks for a good posting about a problem that afflicts many. I try to make a mistake early on in the painting, and once I feel that it’s “ruined” I’m able to paint freely, without worrying about the outcome. Then I can concentrate on the process (which is what I enjoy the most anyhow.)

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    I think that’s a great attitude to have Maggie. After all, why not get the “messing up” part out to the way so you can take the pressure off and just enjoy creating. Then again if you are actually able to turn off your nagging critical brain after the first screw-up, you are a far better person than me. If nothing else, the critical voice inside my head is persistent and doesn’t give up easily. The best I can hope for sometimes is to develop an uneasy truce where we simply ignore one another….

    Reply

You may never reach the stars, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stretch your arms towards the sky.

Of course, the hardest step is the first one.

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[…] The Paralysis of Perfectionism […]

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[…] deeper understanding of how perfectionism can influence your creativity here is a good article from Skinny Artist to get you […]

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“In the world of perfect there is no finish line”

I need that written on my forehead – the story of my life. :D

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    You and I both Laura, maybe we can get a 2 for 1 offer at the tattoo parlor ;)

    Reply

[…] this after reading the line in a post on Skinny Artist,  about the perils of trying to be […]

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I struggle with this hugely and have recently decided that I need to change my attitude to kerb my perfectionism! It’s really hard to do, especially when you are still learning but ultimately if you want to become a better artist you need to be able to accept your mistakes and not let them hold you back.

A bit on my struggle with being a perfectionist..
http://eleanorhubert.com/getting-past-being-a-perfectionist-when-making-art/

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Graham

Great post and thanks for describing my life ! I am a musician and I can relate strongly to your points here. I can record a song 100 times and still find the flaw (to me at least) that sends it straight to the rubbish bin. A lot of those for me has to do with comparing my results to other artists I admire, which I know intellectually is probably unhelpful but, even so, that little serpent whispers in my ear every time: “it’s not as good as so-and-so”. Strangely those doesn’t happen in live performance, it’s only when I sit and listen to my efforts. I’ve consigned I don’t know how many (expensive) recording sessions to the shredder because they didn’t meet my ideals.

Thanks for the wise and sane words in this post. Great stuff!

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    Thanks Graham for your kind words and also for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I think most of us creative types seem to be harsh self-critics, and now with the online world, it is harder than over not to compare your work with others. Unfortunately, it’s something that never really seems to go away. I think with enough time and experience, you eventually learn to ignore that little naggy voice inside your head that tells you that you’re completely wasting your life, but it’s still there waiting for you to pay attention to it. Hang in there and I wish you all the best!

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