Does this sound familiar? Reading and re-reading your work to the point of exhaustion. Pleading for an extension because it’s just not quite right yet. Even holding yourself back and giving up before you’ve begun because you know that whatever you do won’t be good enough. That last one is my worst enemy, and I’m only just now, as I enter my thirtieth year, starting to overcome it. Perfectionism can be the propelling force behind truly incredible work, but it can also hold us back and kill creativity before we even get started. This is the perfectionism I want to talk about. The kind that never really seems to go away and that keeps us from putting ourselves out there, from showing our work to the world.
Perfectionism can come from a lot of places: the expectations instilled in us by our family or by our peers, the comparisons we make to others in person and on social media, the belief that our worth is determined by our achievements—the list goes on. Regardless of the source, I think these can be boiled down to fundamental beliefs about our self-worth. We feel that we are not worthy unless we produce perfection, and we forget that 1) worth comes from the breath in our lungs, not the work of our hands, and 2) even the most skilled artists had to start somewhere—very few started off with “good” let alone “perfect.” When we hold back our creativity in the name of perfectionism, we’re doing ourselves and the world an injustice.
I’ve dealt with perfectionism for as long as I can remember. In school I was devastated if I got anything less than an A. Even an A- bummed me out. (I know, it’s sad.) This got better in college—for one thing, I got a better handle on my mental health, which improved all aspects of my life. I started letting go of expectations that I had for myself and instead embracing myself for who I am rather than what I do.
It never completely went away, which is probably why I’m now an editor; perfection is what we strive for! But there are parts of perfectionism that hold me back and kill my creativity. I have ideas for projects that I don’t have the heart to start yet because I have no clue how to make them “perfect.” Even as I wrote this blog post, I kept giving in to distraction and procrastination when starting out and then reading and re-reading it in order to make it perfect at the end—the irony is not lost on me. However, I’ve come up with tools that offset the perfectionism and help me get my work out there. I hope these can be useful for you too!
Being able to recognize when you are being a perfectionist is the first step to overcoming it. Mindfulness can help you become familiar with the sensations in your body that come up in times of stress, allowing you to then relax those areas and take stock of your state of mind in that moment. Once you’re able to catch yourself being a perfectionist, you can start challenging yourself to break out of that mindset.
Try practicing mindfulness during everyday activities to become familiar with it: While taking a walk, become aware of the feeling of the ground on each part of your foot as you step, listen to the sounds of your neighborhood from the loud blaring of a car horn to the quiet rustling of a chipmunk in a bush, adjust your walking speed and observe the differences in your body.
I’ve found that giving myself breaks from the project I’m obsessing over allows me to reset my mindset. This can be a short break where you move away from your project to stretch, drink some water, or eat a snack before coming back to it with more blood flow and a full stomach. Or it may be necessary for a longer break where you move away from the project for the night or even a few days to give your brain some time to process what you still need to do. Even when it’s not in front of you, your brain is still problem solving, and you may come up with some great ideas when you least expect.
For short breaks, try setting a Pomodoro timer to automatically remind yourself to pause work to stretch or move around every 25 to 45 minutes.
For long breaks, try working on the project you’re struggling with on a Friday afternoon and then do not look at or think about it for the entire weekend. Do things you love, get outside, catch up with friends, but do not think about that project. Come back to it the next week with a fresh perspective.
Journal about it
In those moments when you are able to catch yourself stuck in perfectionist mode, try asking yourself some questions to figure out where you are with this project, what you need to do, and who you may need to ask for help. Write out the answers in a journal or Word document so you can physically see your thoughts. This may help you decide what steps are necessary to complete your project. Here are some questions you may want to consider.
- Who am I comparing myself to?
- Who am I making these changes for? (myself, the reader, someone else)
- What evidence do I have that I need to keep fine-tuning?
- At what point will I feel like it’s done? If that point does not exist, when will I know to let go?
- Should I let someone else help me fine-tune?
Make bad art
If you’re stuck holding yourself back for fear of imperfect work, this one is for you: Make intentionally terrible art. Sometimes the belief that our work isn’t going to be perfect can hold us back from making it in the first place. I like to combat this by intentionally making terrible art. I know that once I’m done, I will have made something truly awful and that was the point! Make it as ugly or silly as you can possibly think of!
If you’re writing a short story or a poem, give it the cheesiest lines and the most ridiculous metaphors; write a story about a refrigerator that wishes it were a toaster or a day in the life of that bird outside your window. If you’re painting a picture, splash random bits of color all over with abandon; draw a heart and then squiggle a line over it and then keep squiggling. At the end, step back, tilt your head, and say, “That is a spectacularly terrible piece of art, and I love it.”
Give yourself grace
Probably the most important piece of all this is to give yourself grace. However you look at perfectionism, don’t be too hard on yourself. Guilt and shame are terrible motivators. If you’re in a moment of frustration—either feeling like your work isn’t good enough or like you’re holding yourself back—take a deep breath in and a slow breath out; remind yourself that you’re a wonderful, worthy human being; treat yourself to a nap or a snack; and get back to doing what you love.
If you have other ideas about dealing with perfectionism, post them in the comments! Sending you all love and encouragement on your current and upcoming projects. We got this!