The Embroidered Truth

An ongoing search for inspiration and the good life.

Perfectionism, or one reason I can’t get things done

on August 2, 2011

Microsoft Office

Hello. My name is Laurel, and I am a perfectionist.

Shocking, I know.  You had no idea, right?

I found a website that lists 10 traits of the perfectionist.  Here are the ones that apply to me: all-or-nothing thinking; having a too-critical eye; having unrealistic standards; focusing on results; being depressed by unmet goals; fear of failure; procrastination; and defensiveness.

One of the problems of being identified as a “gifted child” at an early age is the expectation it generates. You are expected to astound people with the manifestations of your gifts – straight As on your report card, ovation-worthy talent show performances, readings of long passages in books supposedly too advanced for children your age. And, seeking approval, you are all too happy to oblige, until you start thinking that everything you do has to be better than the last time, because the expectations are there now.  The horrifying idea of failure is the shadow side of achievement, and can paralyze you.

Perfectionism gets in the way of my creative efforts.  Often, I pull out all the materials I need to create something, and after five minutes I get frustrated because I have not immediately seen the perfect solution (unrealistic standards); everything goes back in the box, waiting for me to have a stroke of genius (procrastination).  If it is not going to be perfect from the start, I don’t want to play (all-or-nothing thinking, focusing on results). Then I get mad at myself for not completing anything (depressed by unmet goals).

But that is not what art and creativity are about for me.  I like to make things because I enjoy the process.  If I didn’t, I would just go and buy a premade scrapbook or piece of wall art and call it a day.  When I first started scrapbooking, I was confident enough to relax and just have fun with it, and I think the pages I made reflect that.  Sure, the pages I manage to complete now look 20 times more sophisticated, but somewhere along the line I developed standards that can drain the fun out of an activity I used to love.  Similarly, I used to write pages and pages of novels.  They were awful, but I had fun doing it; it was when I started to criticize myself and shot down ideas before they were on paper that I stopped.  If I could not immediately see the end result in my mind, was it worth pursuing?

It’s hard for a perfectionist to remember that there is such a thing as the happy accident, which is only discovered by going through the artistic process.  (Recently, someone looked at a poster I had designed and said he liked the way a gradient fell on one of the fonts.  I admitted the effect was unintentional and due to an oversight, but he was right – it did look good, and I would never have thought of it.)  I have a difficult time letting go of my expectations of myself and giving myself permission to make mistakes. Oddly enough, this only seems to happen during personal creative time; at work, I just try things until I am happy with the result.  I wonder why that is? It might be because at work, I have deadlines, and personal projects can be delayed indefinitely.  (I am sensing another post focusing on deadlines coming soon…)

There is no easy answer for this one.  Perfectionism is a deeply ingrained concept for me, and the truth is I am not sure how to get around it.  Maybe part of the solution is to make the idea just to have fun, starting out with a project that is only meant to be an exercise instead of a finished piece.  I’ll let you know how it goes!


3 responses to “Perfectionism, or one reason I can’t get things done

  1. Heather Leishman says:

    Thank you Laurel. You just articulated so many of my own struggles… It feels good to know I’m not alone. 🙂 I hope you have a wonderful day.

  2. I can be a perfectionist in certain settings (e.g., I won’t sing a karaoke song solo unless I *know* the song inside and out, to avoid being one of those people who get up to do a song but only know the chorus, so everyone in the audience thinks they suck and are too pathetic to recognize that essential truth about themselves… to take an example totally at random).

    In other arenas, such as sports/games, I am perfectly content to take part in the process. Perhaps that’s because I’ve always sucked at sports, so I never felt the pressure to win or place. In fact, I have lots of fun when I play games, because I don’t expect to win and make a side game out of celebrating other people’s success. Which doesn’t mean I don’t do my best, but I’ve a very realistic idea of what my best is there.

    Performing at the medieval fair every year, with all the improv and flat-out winging it that requires, has given me the confidence to know I can let myself go with the flow and trust my instincts. And, in fact, when it comes to performing, especially in a group, it’s the actual process of performing and rehearsing that I love the most. Applause is nice, but it’s not why I do it. It’s the interplay (emphasis on “play”) with the other performers that gets me jazzed. I love that so much!

    Probably the only trait I share from the list is procrastination, but I’ve learned to make that work for me over the years. If that makes me more perfectly me (and nothing else), I’m happy with that.

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