The Perils of Perfectionism

 

On the blank canvas I saw a majestic, proud Eagle, wings outspread in magnificence glory. Perched on his chosen spot, his view spanned the countryside, searching high and low, king of the skies. In my mind he was perfect. He inspired awe to look at, and made me feel excited as I gathered my brushes and paint. I could see the colors that I would choose. Just the right blues, the cool toned and the warm toned browns, the Payne’s Gray for blending. I mixed and I worked, the large sweeping strokes, the tiny painstaking touches.

I worked for hours. I came back day after day. I put him aside. I worked on trouble spots that didn’t match the image in my mind.

I brought him to California on vacation hoping the ocean air would inspire the majesty I needed to flow through my fingers and out of the brush. I finished it sitting in the warm California sun.

I brought him home and sat him on my art desk. And left him there. I haven’t picked up a paintbrush since.

He isn’t the Eagle of my mind. When I look at him, I see the flaws, the imperfections. The way the blues and the browns don’t flow together properly. The way the wings on one side are much sharper than the other. The list of flaws is long. You don’t need to hear them all. I abandoned him. Worse then that, I abandoned myself. The disappointment ran deep and I just lost the momentum to paint. I wasn’t in the mood. I ran out of time. Something else- writing- was giving me more positive feedback so I drifted over there. It was nicer there.

I hadn’t realized I had done it. Sometimes we do these things to ourselves and it isn’t a conscious gesture. We don’t have an outward temper tantrum and throw the painting down and say, “That’s it, I hate my Eagle, and I’m never painting again!”  We just drift. Just suffer a little disappointment in something and drift slowly, like a gentle current in the opposite direction. Then one day we look around and notice we are far away. Sometimes it’s a hobby. One day we are a painter or dancer or runner, and then it has been months or years since we picked up a brush, or danced or ran. Sometimes it’s a relationship or job. We just begin to move away. We don’t even remember why.

The other day a friend e-mailed me a picture of a cat. I needed it for a story line I was writing on Escaping Reality. The expression on the cat’s face caught my interest and I started drawing his face. Then a pen and Ink. Then the idea of doing a pen and ink watercolor popped into my mind and I suddenly realized I hadn’t picked up a paint brush in over a month. I couldn’t think of a single reason why not. I love to paint! I have plenty of time to paint. It’s summer! The perfect time to relax with brush in hand!  Only then did I think of the Eagle. Only then did I realize I had been a victim of the perfectionism drift.

I had high expectations of that Eagle. I had a perfect vision of how he was going to look in my mind. When my ability didn’t match up to that vision, I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or just didn’t at that time, cut myself any slack. I decided on some level that I’m just not a very good painter anyway so what’s the point. I’m obviously not very good at painting Eagles.

All because my Eagle wasn’t perfect.

Well…you all can tell it’s an eagle right? It’s not like I’m expecting someone to buy it. I just paint for the fun of it, for relaxation, for a hobby, so why was I acting like I suddenly was UNWORTHY of a hobby if I couldn’t do it PERFECTLY???

Hello, my name is Wendi and I am a recovering perfectionist.

This is an issue I have battled with over the years my entire life. Getting perfect grades in school, being the *perfect* friend, the *perfect* daughter, the *perfect* wife, then the pendulum would swing to the other side of “forget it; If I can’t do it perfectly, I’m not doing it AT ALL. I QUIT.” You would know that if you looked at my desk. It is either perfectly spotless or it is a mess. When it is spotless, I won’t let someone move even a PAPERCLIP on it. Because once it’s messy again, I just give up, until the next time I clean it. Then it starts all over again.

It doesn’t make me proud to tell you that. In my defense, I will share that I have come a long way up this hill. The journey has been paved with many scars and battle wounds. Many of you have heard me say that I am a two time high school drop out. What I might not have mentioned is that I was on the Honor Roll. Both times. YEP…I’ve had a long hard climb learning how NOT to quit, how not to have to live the perfect life. How there is no such thing. I’ll say this, making a million mistakes and failing a lot does help you to get over yourself. It’s one cure for being a perfectionist. Not the easiest way. But it is a cure!

Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly
~Robert Kennedy

So when I catch myself still doing things like quitting on my painting for not having a perfect Eagle, or quit running because I’m getting discouraged for being so slow, or get frustrated because it’s summer and I can’t seem to keep the house as clean with all these kids around and my schedule isn’t working out quite the way I thought it would or the vision I had of how this summer was going to be the very best one ever or that there wasn’t going to be A SINGLE WEED IN THE GARDEN OVER MY DEAD BODY OR ELSE…

I just have to sit back and take a deep breath.

I’m not perfect and I can’t quit. I can’t let the pendulum swing to either side. I have to take each day as it comes and know that it’s good enough. The house isn’t perfect. The kids aren’t perfect. My art isn’t perfect and my life isn’t perfect. But it’s good enough. As long as I keep on going, one step at a time, being realistic and doing my best and never give up, I have a perfectly good chance of being very successful at whatever I do. Here is the secret it has taken me most of my life to learn. I am more than happy to share it with you here.

Persistence is better then Perfection.

It’s that simple…and that hard.

 

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This entry was published on July 1, 2008 at 1:32 am. It’s filed under self improvement and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

18 thoughts on “The Perils of Perfectionism

  1. msayers on said:

    Wonderful! I know EXACTLY what you mean. I’m the same way with my art, and it’s crippling sometimes. Ugh!!! Great blog!

  2. I can totally relate to this! I haven’t touched any of my stories for a couple of months now. I had someone say one thing that wasn’t completely positive and I just sort of drifted…

    It’s hard to realize your life isn’t perfect and probably won’t ever be, but it is nice to see what happens when persistence pays off! I’m slowly getting there!

  3. I have a serious case of the Perfectionist Drift. I get so very down on myself. Nothing is good enough. Uh.

    Agree, PERSISTENCE is the key to success and recovering from perfectionist pitfalls.

    This is a nice piece. Thanks for sharing your lively eagle with us.

    Going out in nature and watching large birds, listening to the wind, watching shadows move, it is good for the Perfectionist Drifting soul.

    On a children’s cartoon yesterday, one of the characters became depressed because she was not good at what she was doing. The friend advised her to practice until she could do it well. Then of course, she was all happy. This was great advice.

    Practice and taking classes is a good way to make serious improvements and feel better about skill level. Maybe you are ready to move up to the next level.

  4. neyellen on said:

    It’s a good eagle. I like it. I don’t know how life like you want to make it, but it’s nice the way it is.

    Perfectionism sucks. I think we are to hard on ourselves.

    Quite frankly I think we have too much to deal with being women. The house. Forget about it! I tell you what, it is hard and you never will get as much done as you want. So what. I have around 3 loads of laundry in the basement right now. I don’t think the laundry police will get me.

    What I’m trying to say, and probably not very eloquently, is you’ll get there. In fact, you are already here! Your paintings are good. You have a nice blog we can come too. We can all share this with eachother.

    Sometimes you just have to cut stuff out and focus on what matters. Focus on Wendi. That’s all that matters. You can’t be all things to all people. I have to say I fade in and out with that one being a mom and having a marriage. It never is a 50/50 balance.

    I agree. Persistence is better than perfection.

  5. Ellen hit it right on the head, in a very simple way, something I’ve said over and over again at the end of a weekend. The laundry’s not done, the dishes are dirty, etc.

    So what. As long as the kids are happy, and we are happy. Laundry and dishes have a way of getting dirty. We’ll clean them up, and they’ll get dirty again.

    Your eagle is perfect. And if you change him, he’ll be perfect again. Because *you* did it, and put your heart into it.

    If I drew an eagle, he’d be a stick-figure eagle drawn with a purple crayon. And he’d be perfect too. Just different :)

    -Brett

  6. Ms. O on said:

    I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.
    Michael J Fox

    So true. Used to be caught in this trap and it became an excuse for procrastination, fear based “non-doing” and trying to be someone else that who I was created to be.
    Ms. O

  7. Friar on said:

    @Wendi

    As an artist, I find we tend to be our own worse critics.

    If I do 2-3 bad paintings in a row, it’s like I’m almost afraid to paint again….But as always..the feeling passes and I eventually do another good one again.

    I have paintings I’m embarassed to show anyone, but when I do, people tell me they’re good.

    I can never figure out why we’re so hard on ourselves, though. (??)

    @Jaden
    Heh heh heh….Sorry, I can’t help but laugh. That cartoon you watched, where they gave advice on practicing till you get it right.

    That sounds surprisingly like the Berenstain Bears (or some equivalent).

    I like my cartoons to have anvils, dynamite and coyotes falling off cliffs (but that’s just me) :-)

  8. Hi Wendi,

    You’re being WAY too hard on yourself. The eagle is beautiful and your blog is a wonderful work of art. With both you show who you are, at the time you created “it”, whether it’s a painting or a blog post.

    If we were perfect, what would be left to strive for? Having a “imperfect whatever” does not make us a lesser person. We all have something of value to offer others and attempting to be all to everyone will only drive us crazy.

  9. I know that feeling oh so well and can relate. I’ve found that if you use oil glazes to add layers of translucent colors on top of a painting you aren’t happy with helps or just spray painting over it with gold spray paint then working backwards with thinner hehe, never stop experimenting is what i say!!!

    Your art is ‘perfect’ though, it’s just not like other peoples work, and why would you want that anyway?

  10. Steph on said:

    Oh, boy, can I relate. I’ve been learning to let go around the house, but with writing or other things that are fraught with so much expectation and fear of failure, I’m still struggling. I’ve read a lot of good advice about writing, to let go, edit after, just write. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, or even the fourth time. That’s what drafts are for. I’ve made changes a gazillion times to my stories, and I could probably make them till I die because I change. There will forever be a better word, a better colour, a better brush stroke. Somewhere along the line I have to decide to let go and say it works as is (which your painting does. You must also think so, even a little bit, since you posted it!) Otherwise it becomes a chore, overworked and increasingly unsatisfactory. If I continue to only edit my ancient stories rather than write new ones, how can I ever make progress, reach new heights of accomplishment, reflect how much I’ve truly grown? And how am I being true to my passion?

  11. Steph on said:

    In the end, perfectionism isn’t even what I’m striving for, I realize. I’m not actually looking to say, that’s a perfect collection of stories! What I want is to simply HAVE a collection of stories that reflect good writing and are publishable. Practice, or persistence, will get me there. Perfection, ironically, actually stunts my growth and production.

  12. I have been saying for years that someone should make a Perfectionist Anonymous. And a Procrastinator Anonymous. I have a feeling it would be the same crowd, so they could probably just call it PPA?

    I like your eagle.

  13. wendikelly on said:

    @Amy
    PPA it is. Where do I sign up? I would be a card carrying member for sure! Oh and I love your ostrach too. I might want to paint that next. Thanks for liking my Eagle. :)

    @Steph,
    You are right, all perfection does is cripple us. We procrastinate, we do nothing. It is a terrible thing. That is why I fight it when I catch myself doing it. The truth is, I really don’t know anymore if the Eagle is any good or not. It doesn’t matter anymore. I slammed it up here because the point is it’s OK if it isn’t. It has to be. I can look at the things I don’t like about it and learn from it. I can do it over, do it better or move on to something else with what I have learned. But if I hide from it, quit from it or just slink away, then I lose.

    @Barbara, I am hard on myself when I catch myself retreating. slinking away. Its not so much that I need the painting to be perfect anymore, I need myself not to be hung up on it being perfect. Actually, I have reached a place where I can laugh about this trait of mine. As long as I catch it quick enough.

    @ Daz,

    I had a feeling you would be able to relate. It is hard for me to NOT compare myself to great talent such as yourself. TO remind myself that I can jsut be as good as I am and don’t have to be as good as you in art or as the Pen Men or great writers in writing. Its ok to be where I am at. I always want excellence, the Ms. O was talking about.

    @Friar,
    Why are we so hard on ourselves??LOL, I do think becasuse its hard to match the vision in our minds with the vision that comes out. At least for me. Maybe because everyone else can’t see in our heads they still think its great.

    @Ms O,

    I do always wan excellance. But I have fallen into the procrastination thing too many times. So now I will settle for working toward excellance. :)

    @Brett,

    You are right, I would love your stick figure purple Eagle very much. It would be perfect to me.

    @Ellen, there is no doubt that the mom thing is part of it. Especially when so many of the years were as a single mom. You get that have to do it all thing stuck in your head and it is hard to get it out again.

    @Jaden,
    Well, we can stick togetheer then and encourage each other. That’s what its all about here! Glad you are here!

    @Jenny,

    Get those books and stories out. Come and hang around ER ( Escape from Reality) You will get inspired again!

  14. I used to be this way about organization. I could not do anything unless a space was totally and completely organized. My books and CDs were alphabetized, the clothes in my closet were arranged by color, and if I had to spend more than two minutes in a disorganized space, I’d start planning the path to organization in my mind. Then something happened. I don’t know what, but I realized that I’d rather live life than try to organize everything in it. Now I enjoy a little clutter and I actually thinks it contributes to my creativity.

  15. I’m a perfectionist as well, and have a tendency to be actively discouraged by my lack-of-successes rather than just drifting away from my projects. Thanks for the advice; it really helps.

    And that really is a great eagle.

  16. Pingback: Your Online Foot Print | The Writers Manifesto Blog

  17. Lisa on said:

    Another proud card carrier of the PPA here… :)

    Perfectionism is so debilitating – I can relate to every word you wrote, and thank you so much for sharing.

  18. Edna on said:

    Yep, I am curently hating my latest painting. hmm, i am here reading this when actually I should be painting. How did I even find this blog?

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