Why aim for perfection when excellence will do? This was very wise advice from my high school English teacher, Mrs Brown. I was about 15 and my perfectionist self was devastated by a 94% on my Hamlet essay. Or was it 97%? I can’t actually remember, because only one thing mattered in that moment. It wasn’t 100%.
It seems ridiculous, but that’s the cruelty of perfectionism, it’s unattainable. Good enough is never good enough, and anything short of perfection is unacceptable. I spent much of my life in that vicious cycle of striving, never measuring up, and the shame of never feeling good enough. That’s my definition of perfectionism: shame, wrapped in striving.
Where does perfectionism come from?
As a child, our parents and teaches and coaches are hugely important. In our desire to please them, and to avoid the shame or judgement of their disapproval, we work hard at doing well, or being good. This can impact all areas of life – school, sports, even following rules or people pleasing. For some of us, it becomes a toxic need to please, and the measure of our self worth.
Writer and researcher, Brene Brown, has written much on this subject. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she says, “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance… Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – how can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – What will they think?”
A fascinating thing I’ve learned on my healing journey is how many assumptions and (mis)interpretations from my childhood continued unchecked and unquestioned into my behaviour as an adult. The ‘big people’ changed – parents, coaches and teachers were replaced by employers and pastors, peers, God. But the need to please and perform remained a powerful force.
Fear of failure
Feeling that I constantly fell short bred in me a new and crippling fear – the fear of failure. If I couldn’t be sure to succeed, it was best not to start something new. I might drum up lots of courage and get all ready to step out, but then talk myself out of it. What if it’s the wrong move? What if it’s the right move, but I screw it up? Am I being presumptuous? It would be wiser (safer) to just wait. For those with a faith, the fear is spiritualised – what if it’s not God’s will?
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be wise, humble, and patient. Absolutely we should. But I was kidding myself, crediting wisdom and humility for my reservations when it was actually perfectionism (i.e shame), fear of failure and fear of humiliation. Being ‘perfect’ and avoiding failure doesn’t keep us safe or ensure our worthiness in other’s eyes. It keeps us small, and scared, and stuck.
How to overcome perfectionism: Creativity
Very early in my healing journey, just after I started seeing a counsellor, I had a strange compulsion. To paint. I’d not done anything like that since school, I had no art supplies, I was certain I had no skills. But it was as if my frozen imagination was thawing. I was beginning to see the new concepts I was learning as pictures, song lyrics were coming to life in my head, and I had an irresistible urge to render them with paint.
I was not instantly awesome at it but, for the first time in my life, I felt ok with that. Some years into my journey, I’ve realised how painting and creativity has released me from the grip of perfectionism.
1 Creativity downgraded my fear of failure
Fear is such a liar. It had built up in me a belief that ‘failure’ (undefined and vague) was unbearable and must be avoided at all costs. But as I started out painting, I realised failure isn’t fatal. A ruined picture isn’t the end of the world. In fact, my whole idea of failure has been reframed because every brush stroke, beautiful or unfortunate, is an opportunity to learn and improve and experiment. If it looks like a dogs breakfast at the end, the recycling bin gets another contribution, and exciting possibilities lie in a new, fresh sheet of paper. It’s fine. I can simply start again.
2 Creativity gave me an appreciation of imperfection
I started out painting with watercolours. The very first piece of art I bought was a watercolour, with money from my grandmother on my 18th birthday. I love the soft, gentle way the colours combine in watercolour. When you’re starting out, however, the fluid medium is completely unpredictable! In my early trial and error there was plenty of recycling, but there were also happy accidents. I may have intended to paint a tree but, if it was turning into a scarecrow, I could make that work too! Or a sheep, that morphed into a cow… and perhaps ended up a tree stump. Unexpected and imperfect outcomes can still be beautiful.
3 Creativity opened my mind to possibilities
Perfection is rigid. It’s 100%, or first prize… or it’s nothing. Embracing creativity opened up a whole spectrum of other possibilities because it wasn’t about skill or ability or comparison. The motivation wasn’t to win a competition or impress a gallery owner. It was simply about expression, and it was giving language to parts of me that had long been voiceless. Most of my work will never be seen, because its value to me lies in places far deeper than other’s opinions. It’s often a representation of hurt or pain or joy or insight that’s found expression and healing through my hands.
4 Creativity offered me perspective
I have a gorgeous picture on my wall by a dear friend, it was something she was ’doodling’ on her journal cover. She thinks it’s nothing special. I think it’s extraordinary. Perfectionism is a faulty scale, because everything deemed imperfect, we render as worthless. But through other’s eyes we discover there is value and wonder in our blind spots. Like with my friend’s picture, and many of my own pieces. We fixate on the faults and flaws, and can’t always see what others can see. We can believe our gifts are nothing special, yet to others they yield precious and priceless treasure.
So, here you find a reformed perfectionist, an imperfectionist if you will. And creativity has been the key. Painting has been a gift to my healing – a safe place to learn the art(!) of trying and failing and rising and carrying on. Painting and creativity has built in me a deep bravery that’s now spilling into other areas of my life – like writing blog posts, developing a course, and creating a website!
In counselling I adopted this ‘truth coach’ (courtesy of Dave Riddell):
“If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly while I get better at it.”
There is limitless courage and freedom in that realisation. If you don’t believe me, pick up a paintbrush and have a go…