My fellow artists: let's permanently break up with perfectionism. Perfection, like control, is an illusion. The word implies an objective, static state that is literally impossible, because time is constantly taking its toll on everything. What appears to be perfect today has already begun to decay, and will soon look a whole lot different (maybe as soon as tomorrow!). If we decide we're going to focus on perfection we are basically saying that we do not respect the essential nature of being alive. Perfectionism, when taken to an extreme, can divorce us from the ferocious magic of our own mortality, and the myriad ways it can shape us for the better.
Especially in our creative work, perfection is (at best) a fleeting moment of recognition that sometimes things seem to line up in a way that is harmonious, and we arrive at a place that seems exactly as it should be. But the fact remains that this moment is temporary and will eventually pass (just as we will also). There is no "perfect" creative work. It simply does not exist. There is only what you have the courage to discover, shape, express, and share. To become a creative master you must let go of your idolatry of perfectionism and embrace a completely mysterious vision of your work and yourself. Dancing with this mystery IS the work, the process by which you will do great things.
So here are some ways to destroy perfectionism and make your best art ever:
Meditate on limitlessness
- The effect of perfectionism is severely limiting. We believe that by pledging to make perfect works of art we will achieve the highest vision of what we're capable of, but like a mirage on the horizon that constantly recedes as we move forward, it is ever more elusive and distant. Driven by anxiety, consumed by the chase, we could miss valuable detours that lead to major insights and expansive growth. This is not to say that we shouldn't maintain quality standards: each of us gets to decide what level of work we refuse to fall below. But if we let perfectionism consume our creative process there is no room to breathe, let alone evolve and thrive. Resolve to give yourself a 30 day break from perfectionism. Create an image of something that symbolizes freedom and limitlessness, and hold it in your mind during meditation. Visualize it clearly and feel it helping you take back your power, as you breathe deeply and enjoy its soul-stirring effects. Understand that the intentions you have for your art have real effects on you and your audience. Trust in your creative process and know that you don't have to control how it moves through you. Allow it to work itself out and show you the way. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: I recorded a 12 minute Guided Breathing Meditation, with ambient music and narrative, that you can sign up for FREE in the box on the right of this page]
Expand your definition of beauty
- Many perfectionists consider themselves to be connoisseurs of all things beautiful: houses, clothes, cars, and people. As mentioned above, perfectionism is limiting and can put a narrow filter on everything we see. Are you dismissive of anything and anyone that doesn't meet your beauty standards? You could be missing out on extraordinary sources of inspiration that can take you far outside the boundaries of your awareness, and force you to examine, and expand, the way you make your art. Loosen your grip on your aesthetic sensibilities and allow some fresh air and light to come into your creative vision. Breaking your own chains can feel scary at first, as you veer off into unknown and/ or unexamined territory, but what you find there could change everything. For starters, have a look at this and this and this. Notice what feelings come up as you peruse the images and read about how they were made. Release all judgement and embrace a new paradigm of awareness and understanding. Set your work free!
Examine other obsessive behaviors in your life
- Obsessive perfectionism can be a sign that something is unbalanced in the mind. Human behavior is somewhat predictable in this way. If we are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety we may strive to micro-manage things around us, so that we can feel some sense of control. Are your perfectionistic work habits part of a larger pattern? Do you reject things and people that do not live up to your standards? If there is a larger problem that is not being addressed you could end up lonely, isolated, and joyless. Treat yourself with compassion! Your total health and wellness, which includes your physical AND mental health, is vital to your creative process, and to your continued ability to keep making art. There is no shame seeking help with maintaining your mental balance. In fact, we can all think of numerous examples of artists in all disciplines who struggled with mental illness. Ask friends for recommendations of good therapists and mental health workers. Call your insurance provider and find out what kind of mental health services are covered. Take full advantage of what you are allotted, and consider it a good investment in yourself and your art.
Reconnect with Beginner's Mind
- I've written about the importance of staying in touch with Beginner's Mind before. For artists who have been at it for a long time and are more advanced in their work, it can be hard to remember those feelings of limitless wonder and discovery. Being in Beginner's Mind allows us to work without self-doubt or judgement, as we pick up, discard, and invent new creative ideas, and allow ourselves to dream about all the possibilities of our artistic projects. If we can no longer access Beginner's Mind through our own artistic category, we can find it by trying out other ways of making art, for example: a painter can take dance classes, a novelist can learn to blow glass, and an actor can try origami. You can even find your way back to Beginner's Mind by cooking a complicated meal or learning to bake a pie. Free of expectations or pressures, we can enjoy putting our creative talents to work on something completely new. As you work, notice the way that you are present in the moment and cherish each step forward. Take this feeling back to your current art project and let it be your guide. You might just create your best work ever!
Respect Your Own Artistic Evolution
- Most of us can't see clearly when it comes to our personal creative process. Heads down in our work is not the ideal posture for perspective. By looking back can we can see just how far we've come, put our work in context, and better understand the kind of art we truly want to make. Write out a timeline of your artwork that shows how old you were, what tools or skills you learned, and what your major influences were for each major piece, and what (if anything) you learned from completing each one. Start with the first pieces you did in school (or wherever), the ones that sparked your passion for your art, and continue all the way up to your current piece. What do you notice about your evolution? When did you first start to feel your own artistic voice come through? If you haven't felt it yet, how can you bring it out? Are there any recurring blocks or interruptions in your journey? Is anyone interfering with your ability to do your best work, or are you holding yourself back out of fear? What is the nature of that fear and how is it tied to your perfectionism? How can you get free of it once and for all? Has anything surprised you about looking back on your work? Take some time to learn about yourself and what hinders, harms, motivates and inspires you as you work on your art. Give yourself credit for what you've accomplished! Go forward with respect and compassion for yourself, and trust that your creative process will take you exactly where you need to go.