Why Perfectionism is Holding You Back (And What To Do About It)
Is too much perfectionism stopping you from making progress?
And if it were, how would you know?
Perfectionism is one of the most pervasive problems that budding artists suffer from. I know because I get a lot of emails from people who single it out as an issue for them. If you think you might be affected by too much perfectionism, rest assured: You're not alone.
Over time, I think I've found some constructive ways to deal with perfectionism. In this post, I want to share some of that with you.
I have two goals for this post:
To help you decide if perfectionism is holding you back.
To help you overcome it if it is.
Firstly, how do we know if we're suffering from too much perfectionism?
Have a look at the following scenario. It's one I'm all too familiar with. Perhaps you know it too. It's that horrible moment of final disappointment when you realise the painting you're working on has fallen so far short of your hopes for it that you throw in the towel.
What's wrong with this picture?
Here I am sitting glumly in front of the easel, wondering what went wrong.
I was so sure this one was going be different.
After all, I did my composition sketches. I did lots of preparatory drawings, so I know the drawing is accurate. I know the colours are accurate, it looks like what it's supposed to be. It seemed like such a good idea for a painting when I started it.
But it just isn't hanging together.
Maybe if I rework some of it I can save it. Perhaps that bit over there that I've already painted over several times and still isn't quite right.
But isn't that the problem? The whole thing has already been worked over so many times now, the paint is building up like crud on the canvas and freshness of the original idea has disappeared from the canvas long ago.
Nope, there's nothing for it: Yet another piece ends up stacked in the corner with all the others, facing the wall. Or worse: scraped off.
Does this happen to you?
I don't mind telling you I've spent many unproductive hours staring at paintings I thought had failed and wondering what I could do to put them right.
Not every painting will fulfil the promise of its original idea. And there is much value in making mistakes and learning from them.
I'm talking about something else here. I'm talking about what happens when you get locked into a negative spiral of self-doubt and self-criticism and nothing seems to come off as you'd hoped.
I think the most common cause of this sad state of affairs is perfectionism.
But perfectionism is a good thing, right?
You'd think so, wouldn't you?
I'm all for trying to do the best job I can of whatever I'm working on at the time. But perfectionism is not just trying to make something the best it can be. It's trying to make it perfect.
The perfect panting has never been painted. The perfect drawing has never been drawn. How could they be? There are so many possible points of view to look at art from. There's certainly no generally agreed objective scoring system for paintings.
So if it's not possible to paint the perfect picture, doesn't that mean that striving for perfection in art is always doomed to failure?
Perhaps. But more importantly than that, too much perfectionism can have some very negative effects on our working processes, our progress, our levels of motivation and on the way we approach our work - even on how we view ourselves.
And that's not good.
Negative Effects of Perfectionism
Negative self judgement, when it's out of proportion, can be crippling. It can destroy not just our enjoyment of what we're doing, but also our will to continue.
I'm sure that you can come up with your own list of the negative effects of too much perfectionism. I'd be really interested to hear what they are. From my experience with destructive perfectionism, I think these are the most telling points:
We lose motivation. We work less so we progress more slowly.
Painting and drawing becomes a grind: Lack of enjoyment means slower learning. When we're happy and enjoying what we're doing, we learn faster and make more progress.
We get tunnel vision. Missing the big picture, we become hung up on small, inessential details. We fuss around and tweak instead of making bold, confident statements.
We fall prey to insularity. Too much perfectionism can stop us putting our work out there and exposing ourselves to criticism. But we can't create in a vacuum. If we keep our work to ourselves, never showing it to peers we miss out on constructive feedback that can help us improve.
We become less creative. Perfectionism is tied up the idea of judgement, in this case self-judgement. When we feel that the outcome of our actions is going to be judged, our tolerance for risk is reduced. We err on the side of caution, we look for safety. But that can make for dull pictures.
We give up trying. If it gets really serious it can stop us trying at all. Lost in anxiety and procrastination, we don't even begin.
So how can you tell when perfectionism has passed the tipping point, become a negative influence, and started to slow down your progress?
Four Warning Signs That Perfectionism Is Holding You Back
Here's a few tell-tale signs that I've noticed in my own work that I think are signals that perfectionism has gone too far:
A general feeling of frustration and lack of progress. This can come from other causes of course, but perfectionism is the most common cause I think.
Working on a piece for a long period of time and then junking it without getting it finished. If this happens repeatedly it's a pretty good sign that there's something wrong with our approach. If it happens every time we try to make a picture, there's definitely something up.
Overworked drawings and paintings. But let's be clear here: Working on something for a long time isn't the same thing as overworking. Overworking happens when we're repeatedly going over the same areas without making the piece any better - in fact we make it worse.
Never showing our work to anyone because we think it isn't quite good enough... yet. I think this is a sign that we have in mind some fictitious goal for our work that will never be achieved. It will never be perfect. We'll always see things we can improve. But if we can't show it to anyone, in all it's glorious imperfection, we miss out on the constructive criticism of our peers.
If any of these things sound familiar to you, you might have a problem with too much perfectionism. You might be a destructive perfectionist, and it might be holding you back.
So what can we do about it?
From my own experience, I've tried to come up with constructive ways to minimise it's effects.
Trying any or all of the following may help you break the stranglehold of perfectionism and move on:
Five Practical Ways to deal with destructive perfectionism
Find some breathing space: Firstly, try allowing yourself some breathing space from your goals. Overemphasis on goals is part of the negative feedback loop of perfectionism. Taking a break from focusing on the goal can break the loop temporarily, lessening the tendency to self-judge too harshly.
How can you do this? I'll give you an example:
Some time ago I was caught in the negative feedback loop of perfectionism. To break it's hold on me, I changed my practices. I started going regularly to my local cafe to draw. The value of this was that it was impossible to produce perfect drawings when I only had five or ten minutes to get them down. It was hard at first. It was frustrating. But I came to enjoy it after a while, and it broke the loop.
Work on your core skills, not just finished pieces. Engage your brain with something more open ended and less finite than a particular painting brought to a finish. Set yourself a basic exercise and do it every day, something specific and within reach.
You could work on matching the local colours of objects, or on value scales. Drawing accuracy perhaps.
After working for perhaps a couple of weeks like this, take time to look at all your recent practice pieces together and notice the progression. Seeing your progress will give you something positive to offset the negative feelings of imperfection.
Enjoy practice for it's own sake. Try my breathing line warm up exercise, or something similarly relaxing, before starting work or a practice session. Increased peace of mind, clarity of thought and a more relaxed approach will help to stop you slipping down the spiral to negative feedback.
Invite constructive criticism. Put your experiments out there, making it clear that's what they are, and get some constructive feedback. Join a forum and post some work.
You can always email your experiments to me if you don't want to do it publicly. I don't judge harshly and I want to see you progress.
However you approach it, don't wait till something is perfect to do that because take it from me, that time will never come.
Take a break. Seriously, if you really can't get out of the lock, it might be best just to step back for a bit and take some time off. Do something unrelated for a while. Spend time with people you love. Get some physical exercise. Come back more relaxed and with a more realistic perspective.
Progress not perfection
Letting go of perfectionism doesn't mean losing the drive to improve and make progress. In fact it means choosing a more effective approach that's rooted in the now and results in more progress.
If we see each piece for what it is, a step along the way on a longer journey and not an end itself, we can break the negative feedback loop of perfectionism and begin to move on.
Does perfectionism affect you? Has it affected you in the past and have you found a way to overcome it?
Please share your thoughts in the comments - and don't wait until your comment is perfect to post it! More than ever on this post, half finished thoughts are more than welcome.
Posted: April 25th 2012