Recently I got an email from a painter in Rhode Island. She wrote, “I’m a perfectionist and I want my artwork to be perfect. Sometimes this prevents me from getting started on a new project or from finishing one. I think to myself: If it’s not going to be the best, why do it? How do I move past these feelings?”
One way is to move from a purely intellectual understanding that messes are part of the creative process to a visceral understanding of that truth. As an intellectual matter, every artist knows that some percentage of her work will prove less than stellar, especially if she is taking risks with subject matter or technique. But accepting that hard truth on a feeling level eludes many of us.
Do you understand in your heart that messes and mistakes are not only okay but part-and-parcel of the creative process and even crucial to the process? Of course, they are not the goal—the goal is excellent work. But they are as integral to the process as falling down is integral to process of learning to walk. An infant would never think the thought, “I will not walk until I can walk perfectly.” Only adults think such unhappy, paralyzing thoughts!
If an infant wants to get from where she is to the toy across the room she will crawl, walk, tumble, or fly. She will do whatever it takes, because she actually wants that rattle or ball. When an artist actually wants to create, because she is excited by the prospect of turning her thoughts and feelings into tangible things, then perfection recedes as an issue. She is like the infant who wants the rattle: she is a beautiful vehicle of vitality and desire. First, gain permission in your heart-of-hearts to make mistakes and messes. Second, grow excited about possibility. Those are the twin keys to exorcising perfectionism.
When I begin a book—and I’ve written between fifty and sixty—I am excited to see what will emerge. Maybe something beautiful will appear on the first try, maybe the book will need two complete overhauls and three additional revisions, maybe it will never come to life and need to be abandoned. I am easy with all of those outcomes, including the last. If I were not, I would be asking the creative process to be something that it cannot be: a guarantee that if I show up excellent things will happen. The showing up is the main thing; the excellence, if it comes, an added blessing.
Get “perfection” out of your vocabulary. Cognitive therapists teach a useful three-step technique that will help you get rid of it. First, learn to notice if and when the word “perfection” or some word or sentiment like it pops into your mind. Second, dispute it instantly: say, “No! That’s not a word I countenance!” Third, replace it with a more appropriate suggestion: for instance, “I am a simple artist who shows up at the canvas.” If you can learn these skills you can banish “perfection” from your being.
Eric Maisel is the author of 50+ books. You can learn more about him at www.ericmaisel.com, subscribe to all of his blog posts at https://authory.com/ericmaisel, and write him at firstname.lastname@example.org