Yes, I think too much

Archive for the ‘perfectionism’ Category

Short-circuiting Perfectionism

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When I was in college, I felt that perfectionism was a way of motivating myself to do the best I possibly could. If I set the bar incredibly high, I would try my best to leap up and grab it. If I set the bar lower, I wouldn’t try so hard. I thought that those who settled for less than “perfect” were just letting themselves off too easily and finding excuses to get by with substandard work.

With age comes wisdom, and that includes self-knowledge. If I truly believed that I required an impossibly high standard to keep myself motivated, then I both trusted myself too little and had far less insight into my character than I do now. I have always worked very hard at every task I have been give or set for myself. If I make mistakes, or do an incomplete job, it is because it is impossible to be “perfect” and that I am human. It has never been because I have slacked off or intentionally done less than the best job that I can do. And what I “can do” is dictated to by a variety of factors including my aptitude, environment, time, energy, and psychological issues.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it is my feeling that a lot of people, and women in particular, embrace perfectionism as a way of ensuring that they will fail. It isn’t that they desire failure, but rather than they have an unconscious need to find themselves inadequate. After you’ve established a constant inner dialog of self-denigration, you will find a way to keep it up because it becomes a part of your identity. I should note that my perfectionist tendencies were at their most profound when I was in college at the point at which I lost a serious amount of weight. They were always there, of course, but the bar was never higher for me than when I was at my “thinnest”. It is my feeling in retrospect that when I couldn’t practice the same self-hating inner mantra due to my body’s changes so I found other means by which I could carry on and find myself lacking. It’s also almost certain that I was recasting the denigrating chorus I had grown up with both from family and school in my own voice to fill the void. It may sound absurd that anyone would like to hate themselves or find reasons to dislike themselves, but humans act based on what they are used to far more than they realize, even when what they are “used to” is a bad thing.

I only started to diminish my expectations of myself and deal with my perfectionist tendencies after I married and found that my husband did not reinforce the idea that I “should” be perfect. In fact, he was constantly, in my opinion, “letting me off the hook”. The truth was that he was only offering me the acceptance and compassion that I was denying myself and had been denied to me from others for so very long. My perfectionism wasn’t driving me to do better. It was driving me to feel like I failed no matter how well I did.

I found myself in a loop of expecting too much from myself consistently, but hitting the mark often enough to feel that it wasn’t an “unrealistic” expectation. The smallest mistake or lack of utter and complete success was deflating though as I had so little experience with actual “failure” (i.e., not being “perfect”). It was an exhausting and unsustainable way to live because I was always going full tilt and working harder than anyone else in order to simply avoid the sting of falling short of the mark. In my junior year of college, this was so overwhelming that I would come home every day and just sleep for hours after classes and library study.

After years of expecting too much and beating myself up, I finally figured out that few people aside from the most irrational and unrealistic bosses (one of which I had) were going to care if I never made a mistake of any kind. I always operated from a sense that people would focus as intently on my flaws as I did. Most of them didn’t even notice. People are far more interested in the dialog in their own heads than they are in anything other people do.

To short-circuit my perfectionist tendencies, I started intentionally setting myself up to do things differently. When I started my first private blog, I planned from the start not to post everyday even if I had things to say. I figured that given my desire to be “perfect”, it was very likely that once I got a pattern of daily posting in place, I’d feel pressure to keep it up. I posted three days and then intentionally skipped one at the very start to make sure my “track record” was already “blemished”. By doing this intentionally, I felt in control in addition to putting any idea of “perfection” out of the picture from the start.

I also started to go out of my way to overtly and clearly forgive others for their mistakes when they apologized for them. I did this whether or not it really mattered. I’d always say, “don’t worry about it, we all make mistakes.” Forgiving them was practice for forgiving myself and the act of making this statement created a new mantra which reinforced the idea that being perfect isn’t important. Unless I was being completely insincere, I couldn’t deeply internalize the idea that mistakes should never be made if I said it was understandable if others made mistakes.

The trap for perfectionists is that they so quickly tell themselves that not striving for perfection dooms them to sloth, mediocrity, or sloppy efforts. They think that there is a slippery slope of where they can only stay perched on top of that hill if they remain rooted to one spot. As soon as they move from “trying to be perfect”, they’ll slip down to the bottom and “not try at all.” In my opinion, this is merely a justification to remain a perfectionist because it serves one psychologically on a certain level. Those reasons, of course, are highly personalized, but one of the biggest ones is almost certainly a lack of understanding and trust in oneself.


Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 16, 2010 at 6:40 am

Perfection and Creativity

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One of the last tracings I did, though this one was for practice in order to increase my technical prowess acquisition in Adobe's Illustrator program

When I was younger, I was very artistic in the more conventional manner in which people conceptualize art. That’s a very roundabout way of saying that I liked to draw and paint. I’m not sure when I started to draw, but I do recall around the age of 10 that people started to notice that I was pretty good at it for my age. My sister was a reader, and I was a drawer. This was one of the many ways in which our personalities were separated.

I pursued art in myriad ways as I got older including leathercraft, building montages, and doing calligraphy in addition to daily doodles and sketches. I would produce dozens of quick ball-point pen sketches per day in addition to doing more focused work with pencil on occasion. In retrospect, I’m slightly amazed at the quantity of my work in the years up to my graduation from high school.

Around the age of 12, I started painting on my bedroom walls. The first thing I painted was a huge (bigger than my height and covering an entire section of wall) stylized horse on a cliff in black and white. If one walked up or down the stairs, it was the first thing one would see as it was on the wall facing the steps. As I got older and my skills improved, I started to feel uncomfortable about this piece of work. Instead of it being a source of pride, it became a source of embarrassment for the imperfections in the technique that seemed to glare at me.

Eventually, and much to my mother’s disappointment, I decided to paint over the horse and promised that I’d recreate it in a more skilled fashion. The truth was that I couldn’t bear looking at my work anymore and I didn’t have a strong inclination to do it again as horses had lost my interest by the time I painted over that one. At that point in time, I was more interested in painting the rock stars I was infatuated with on my walls, and had done several paintings of them or their album covers on other walls in my bedroom.

In my college years, I became increasingly frustrated with my incomplete artistic skill. I practiced and I tried to get things right in terms of perspective, balance and proportion, but I always found that my own particular style limited me. No matter what I drew, it held a certain element of softness and a signature look that I couldn’t shake. I came to hate this so much that I “gave up” on actually drawing and focused instead on becoming a hand-drawing photocopier. I would compensate for my lack of ability to exactly reproduce something by tracing the skeletal outlines and then using my skill with shading to make it come alive. While I was still employing some of my talent and style in filling in the blanks, I was no longer allowing my limits to show by tracing the basic structure.

I hid the fact that I was tracing the outlines from people who looked at my work. It was both embarrassing to me that I couldn’t do it perfectly by hand and that I was presenting my work as “mine” when it wasn’t really the product of my skill alone. It was a guilty secret that I kept for a long time. After awhile, I began to lose all confidence that I could draw freehand at all, and my skills deteriorated as a result of a lack of practice. Eventually, I stopped working on drawing altogether except for the odd bit of sketching here and there every 5 or so years to see if that part of me was still alive somewhere.

Only last night, when I was pondering creativity and perfection did I realize that my perfectionism strangled this part of me. Perfectionism has been with me all of my life in a multitude of ways and has been sabotaging many parts of it and undermining my ability to be happy with myself. By holding my artwork up to an impossibly high standard, I took all of the joy and sense of accomplishment out of it. When I was a child, people complimented me on my imperfect ability. As an adult, I could see no value in anything but “perfection”.

Beyond my artistic ability lapsing as a result of my desire to always be perfect, it also has sabotaged my attempts to lose weight, and made me ridiculously hard on myself in regards to work. Every time I made the smallest mistake on the job, I’d be incredibly angry at myself and embarrassed to have slipped up. In regards to losing weight, it brought on an all or nothing attitude which made it impossible to carry on for very long. One bite of the “wrong” food or one meal in which I over-ate, and the day was “ruined” and I felt I might as well just eat as much as possible and start anew tomorrow.

Perfectionism has also caused me to give up on various projects, or trash the results of them. It frequently places me in a mood of defeat and makes me decide not to keep trying. I still have this sense with me, but I’m fighting it and trying to take a more balanced approach to life. It doesn’t help that the world is full of people who anonymously criticize and attempt to tell you how everything you’re doing is wrong and you will ultimately fail. They do this because they have to feel they are right and you are wrong, and someone who has a better ego structure than me would simply brush off their criticisms. For a perfectionist though, there is little worse than people finding potential cracks and pointing them out to you.

One of the things I have to work on now is not allowing perceived or real notions of imperfection to hold me back. I also have to keep in mind that very few  people judge the quality of my life experiences or work by an objective standard. They judge me by subjective, highly personalized notions and often by the need to find fault in me in order to elevate themselves. Ultimately, my judgement has to be the one of the most importance, but it also has to be based on an attitude of what is realistic and worthwhile, not on a basis of “perfection”.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 15, 2010 at 12:49 am