Between what I want to make creatively, and what I’m able to make, there’s a gap. It hurts. I don’t want to see it, and I really truly don’t want other people to.
Do you experience this? If so, is the gap something you can accept, ignore, and maybe even enjoy? Or is it painful in a dangerous way that feels like it might destroy you? If you identify with the second option, you may be struggling with perfectionist thought habits.
It’s vital to set high standards for your work, when you choose to. But some of us trap ourselves in these beliefs:
Perfection is possible
Our work needs to be perfect
It’s only okay to share our work with others once it’s perfect.
The hilarious thing is that often our creative work is specifically about our own or humanity’s imperfections.
Caring too much
The hem of my skirt is unravelling as I type, and I don’t care. On the other hand, I’ll spend days finding a word that has an exact combination of sound, meaning and evocation. The more you care about something, the more likely perfectionist thought patterns are to appear.
I say perfectionist thought patterns instead of perfectionism because it helps me to remember what I’m dealing with. ‘Ism’ sounds like an ideology or a moral choice. But what we’re talking about here are mental loops of words, feelings and images. They are habits we’ve learnt to feel safe, and are triggered in specific situations.
These thought chains prevent us from choosing what standard of quality we want to complete something to. The pattern includes anxiety about what will happen if we don’t obey the commands of our loops.
It’s like the urge for control has gotten out of control.
Check your dial
The ideal is really to be able to choose where to set your quality dial for any particular project. Does it need to be as good as you can get it, does it need to just be finished, or where in between?
Perfectionist thought patterns are like a dial stuck on one setting: super high quality all the time (or else). It’s stuck because of a hidden belief – the idea that your safety somehow depends on the quality of your work.
Perhaps all you’re avoiding is the discomfort of disappointment. There may be something scarier underneath, like a fear of abandonment that you connect with every potential rejection. Or you may still carry an explicit instruction from a long time ago, saying that you’re responsible for making everything perfect so that everyone you love is okay and everything is fine.
In some ways it doesn’t matter where it comes from. What matters is learning to work with these old patterns in the present, so that you can make and share work without extra suffering.
Mind the gap
My friend was struggling to paint. He hadn’t painted for a long time; he’d been successfully making other creative things. He felt called to paint again, but the style he was imagining was totally new to him. He also comes from a family where productivity is a core value.
Now he’d finally started painting, but the gap between what he wanted and what he could do was huge. Fixating on the gap was causing him a lot of pain.
I told my friend that he might be suffering from perfectionist thought patterns. He said, “What are you talking about? There are so many ways I could be more perfect.”
Problems with perfection
It took me a long time to see the connection between my extreme self-expectations, my anxiety and my strategy of leaving important things till the last possible minute. It took so much effort to get to where I wanted to be that a lot of the time I’d give up before I even started.
Perfectionist thought patterns can decimate your creative output. Managing the loops to avoid the discomfort is exhausting, even before you put in the hours needed to balance the hoosey-whatsit with the thingamajig (insert medium-appropriate terminology here). Most of the time nobody even notices the difference the extra work made.
Just think: what else would you be making if you were able to put less effort into half of your works?
Perfectionist thought patterns have some weird effects. In a classic example, I used to take my own self-criticism and project it onto others and then get defensive about it. (This is one of the ways people put themselves off sharing their work.)
But when I got a real-life scathing review of a poetry book I published, I was shocked. The reviewer didn’t notice what I could see was obviously truly wrong with my work!
Compared to a lot of other endeavours, creativity is an area where it’s a bad idea to rely on external reassurance that you and what you’re doing are okay. This makes your mental frameworks vitally important.
You may be freaking out about sharing your work because you’re accidentally telling yourself that the reception matters so much that it’s a matter of life or death. You may secretly fear that if people see you for who you really are, they’ll abandon you. It seems extreme, but all sorts of crazy stuff’s going on out of sight of our conscious minds.
If the fear is extreme, so is the resulting self-protection.
When my painter friend was struggling to paint, I got to see the loops up close. He announced that he hated painting. I asked him why he wanted to paint if he hates it and he said he doesn’t want to paint. I suggested he stop. (This was disingenuous of me, because my sense was that he loves to paint and was struggling between his creative drive to get painting and his ego drive to get it all nailed down first.)
He told me that he had to do these paintings right now because people had asked him to put paintings in their shows and so he had to make something great immediately. He also told me that it was clear that he was no good at painting and that nobody liked his work. When I pointed out that these things didn’t add up, it made no difference at all. Our inner saboteur isn’t rational.
Fear in furs
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert gives us a haunting image: “I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath the shiny veneer is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
So yeah, all you have to do is find a way to deal with that!
And you can. But you can expect it to be an ongoing project that may take some effort to get in the swing of, and even then will probably be shaky for ages. Like, years. So best get started straight away.
It will save you a lot of time lying on the couch, staring at the wall, sulking and drinking beer.
If this applies to you, finding ways to help yourself to become more secure and less fragile may be the most useful thing you ever do for yourself. There are three steps. 1. Hold on to hope. 2. Get started. 3. Keep going.
Self-acceptance isn’t a state you fall into. It’s the result of a whole toolbox of skills. They include techniques for reassuring yourself, ways to build and maintain a support network, how to recognise and work with emotions, trusting your coping abilities, and so on.
Every skill that you learn will be a step forward, and there are so many ways to learn them (and no clear single best way that I can see). Go gently. Pick something to try. If it works, keep it, and pick something else to try. Repeat (forever).
Tolerate your imperfection
One of the simplest ways to begin to address perfectionism is to practice being imperfect on purpose.
This might mean making yourself stop writing when the work is only done to good enough. It could involve making a whole lot of awkward learning sketches and posting one a day on Instagram. You will probably feel uncomfortable, and notice a lot of clashing beliefs and statements and funny feelings in your mind and body. Great!
This is your chance to find a way to self-soothe, to tell yourself that it’s okay. It really is okay. The discomfort of allowing things to be imperfect is just a feeling, one that you’re now choosing.
If you want, you can say to yourself, “Thank you, protective part of me, for the message. I have checked and I can reassure you that everything is okay.” If you want, you can ask a friend over and eat chocolate mousse together. Whatever you do, eventually the feeling will go away.
And return next time, of course. But it will get easier.
You don’t need to bully yourself into doing the perfect version of this (that would be too ironic). Just have a go. Take short cuts. Find ways to make it less intense. Asking a safe person for help is a good start. At the very least, they’ll distract you from the loops of terror that you might otherwise spin into.
The miracle of engagement
Weirdly, one of the best protections against perfectionist thought patterns is knowing what you want, and wanting it as hard as you can. If you want to make the work more than you fear the discomfort of the gap, you’re ahead.
I insist to myself that I keep returning to write this post. I know from experience that if I stop connecting with it at least daily, the shadow of the work, that idealised angel or demon, will flap in and settle on my shoulders.
Engagement is the simplest and best trick I know to keep perfectionist romanticisation and avoidance at bay.
Use love to motivate you
One morning, after a couple of weeks of doing a shit job of acting satisfied with his new non-painting life, my painter friend woke up with the urge to make canvases. No painting. No expectations. But he remembered that making canvases was something he really enjoyed, even if he never intended to paint on them. He made ten canvases that day.
The next day, he took a canvas and spray-painted random colours on it, just to see what would happen.
Then, all of a sudden, he was gone. His studio swallowed him up. He was painting again, trying things, playing around, learning what interested him, what worked and what didn’t, and finding out what questions had come to visit him this time.
What motivated this change for him? It was love.
He felt miserable but also kind of comfortable when he was stressing himself out, driven to ace all that he believed was required of him. But he couldn’t be like that and also be present with his painting. He had to choose.
One option we always have is: ‘I’ll get it as good as I can make it in the time I’ve got, and then I’ll let it go.’ This makes room for all the moments that actually matter. It makes room for love.
Let’s talk about sharing work
Now it’s time for me to do this myself. I’ve decided to share this blog post when it’s ‘good enough’ – that’s what I’ve decided is suitable for this genre and my aims. But because perfectionist thought patterns remain an option forever, I have to actively choose to fend them off, and control my anxiety around all the evident imperfections of the piece. That’s life.
Sharing work is similar in some ways to sharing parts of ourselves with others.
Perfectionist thought patterns are a way to control situations, in order to reduce the level of potential vulnerability we feel. They work against the responsiveness that intimacy requires, and disconnect us from ourselves and other people.
Obviously, there are a lot of situations where vulnerability can destroy us. But choosing to let people see who you are isn’t usually actually that dangerous; in fact, connection is the best way to be safer. (TBH, a lot of people can already see a lot of the stuff you try to hide, and they can see things about you that you don’t even know about yourself.)
Turn your work real
In experiments invented by behavioural psychologists, people who hid their emotions didn’t remember what they felt as clearly as the ones who showed their feelings. (Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, fast and slow.)
I would like to make this wild extrapolation: If you want to truly experience your work, you need to share it (even if only with one carefully-chosen person). This gives you a chance to see it from the outside, and makes it ‘real’.
Sharing work is a risk, but you have a degree of control over how and what risks are involved. This makes sharing your work (in safe, conscious and imperfect ways) a great way to practice tolerating the discomfort we associate with vulnerability.
Imperfection and its potential discomfort are a small price to pay for seeing the work come alive in the world.
If you love it, let it go
Your love for your creative work makes you care, and caring can trigger all kinds of anxieties and strange protective behaviours. At the same time, your love for your creative work may be the most powerful force you have for resisting perfectionist thought patterns.
What I can hear in my head is so beautiful compared to what ends up on the page. It’s gutting, but it’s still way better than having no page, no writing, no process, no semblance, no warped reflection of the shape I can sense.
The work is its own thing. You can’t perfect it or control how other people experience it. Sharing work is humbling and surprising. It’s also a valuable opportunity to practice replacing perfectionist thought habits with emotional agility, connection and real-life data.
Please dream your beautiful dreams, and then learn the skills to live with the inevitable gap. Your work needs to be allowed to be itself, to breathe, to move, to grow into itself, to go out into the world. That’s what creativity is all about.