Perfectionism. We artists know it well. When is a work finished? When is it ready? When is it perfect? This is unsurprisingly also a common issue brought to the therapy chair. The pressure to be perfect seems to be omnipresent in our modern lives. Artists feel this especially strongly when it comes to their work. Caution, creatives: perfection is dangerous, and nonexistent.
The reason perfectionism is nonexistent is because it is also relative. As applied to an art form, even more so. Ask yourself, who declares if something is perfect or not? If it is you, where did you get your standard of perfect? What is your reference as to what that means? There is no one perfect painting, dance, writing, or piece of music. The beauty of the creative arts is the variety, not the homogeneity that would be necessary to create a standard of perfection. By trying to achieve something as “perfect” you are limiting yourself and blocking your creative flow.
Accepting your art for what it wants to be is a powerful part of expressing it. Some creative therapists will talk about the “imaginal” quality of artwork. This refers to the work existing intrinsically, separately from our own standards, requirements or other cognitive interference. This approach suggests that imaginal work is some of the highest levels of creativity one can achieve. When you are making work, ask yourself what does the work want to become? How is it guiding its own expression in its creation? Does the work want to be more realistic, or more expressive? Does it want to be bold or subdued? Let your choices in creating the work be organically guided by your feelings and instincts as you create. This is the antithesis of the control and obsession of perfectionism. Focus instead on allowing the process to make the work its own. This is ultimate catharsis and expression.
I said that perfectionism can be dangerous. Maybe you are a perfectionist in your artwork, but not in other areas of your life (you don’t mind being five minutes late but the horrors if you hit an A if it should have been an A#). I contend that if you adopt a method of perfectionism in your artwork, it will impact other areas of your life, starting with your self esteem. Create art work and fail to meet an impossible standard (we already agree that perfectionism is impossible) and you tell your psyche that you have failed. That you are not good enough. This will also discourage you from being creative- and creating is your life force! Let go of the idea that your work has to be a certain way, and accept it for the way that it is. Then watch as you gradually start to treat and accept yourself in this same way. We are not homogenous, our work is always different, and all that uniqueness in its IMPERFECTION is what makes you (dare I say it) perfect.
Here is something to try. Of course, try it as part of your work in your therapy session (don’t exacerbate yourself without this extra layer of support!):
I challenge you to do something imperfectly. Not organically, but intentionally “wrong.” In art school I was working on an assignment and drew a life-sized, anatomically perfect, human skeleton. Imagine my shock when my professor told me to take a piece of charcoal and blacken the whole piece out. I want you to do something like this. Make something and then make a big SNAFU. Now breathe. How do you feel? How does your body feel? What are you experiencing? Discomfort? Anger? Anxiety? Breathe through and experience the moment. You did it! You made something “imperfect” and you are ok! After I blackened out my drawing, my professor told me to “push and pull” lightening and darkening the smudges over the drawing, to create a brand new piece. Take your “messed up” work and create something new and different. What does the new piece want to be? Pay attention to your reaction to this new process. Do you feel freedom? Satisfaction? Possibility? This is how creating should feel!
Come schedule a session and let’s talk about how you are impacted by perfectionism. Let’s get unstuck. Let’s get creatively free. Let’s create your best life.
© 2017 Creatively, LLC
The information provided in this blog is from my own clinical experiences and training. It is intended to supplement your clinical care. Never make major life changes before consulting with your treatment team. If you are unsure of your safety or wellbeing, do not hesitate to get help immediately.