Creative Blocks from A to Z: Perfectionism

Rear view of person in red dress dancing in carefree way on the beach

Editor’s note: This article is the 16th in an A-Z series on issues related to creative blocks. This month we explore how perfectionism gets in the way.

I once worked with a Broadway triple threat (dancer, actress, and singer) who suddenly found herself having great difficulty showing up to auditions. She had been involved in a successful theatrical performance in the past, but once the show ended she did what all her peers seemed to do and scheduled many auditions—often two or three a week. A strange thing tended to happen, though: she would wake up the day of the audition and somehow decide not to go. She recognized the self-sabotaging nature of her behavior but could not understand why it kept happening or how to change this pattern.

After going through her audition preparation routines together, we quickly recognized an order of events that kept coming up. She would read through the material, try to anticipate what the casting agents were looking for, and go over her parts again and again until they were “perfect.” Initially she hesitated to use the p-word, but after describing her intolerance for mistakes; her need to adhere to what she presumed others were looking for; and her aversion to the idea of disappointing, she admitted she was going for perfection. Feeling even slightly unprepared was enough of a reason for her to avoid auditioning altogether.

Perfectionism can hinder creativity. Imagine trying to express yourself through any art medium (painting, film, writing, etc.) and meeting every creative idea with a thought about what is missing from it. If the focus is on what technique is lacking, what word is used improperly, and who it might disappoint, a person may not be able to fully immerse themselves in the adventurous process of creative exploration. The generation of ideas is almost certain to suffer—both in terms of quality and quantity.

Of course, these mental and psychological responses are often not conscious, let alone intentional. This is why the first step in the process of accepting imperfection is to actually use the p-word. Acknowledge the perfectionism holding you back. Perfectionistic traits can be inherited as much as acquired. They can be a result of high social standards or the result of biologically predisposed obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Regardless of the cause, being able to spot perfectionism and confront it in a nonjudgmental manner is the beginning of the end of perfectionism’s hold.

Regardless of the cause, being able to spot perfectionism and confront it in a nonjudgmental manner is the beginning of the end of perfectionism’s hold.

The next idea has to do with messiness and how it is an integral part of the creative process. The idea of having an extra canvas on hand when painting, in case the first one ends up in the discard pile, is an old one. The expectation is mistakes will happen, messes will be made, and new versions or drafts will be developed. Starting off with the mind-set that creative work not only survives but requires some degree of messiness (both literally in the physical sense and metaphorically in the sense one is bound to start over many times during the creative process) may help protect you from the discouragement that typically accompanies imperfection.

Finally, managing perfectionism would be incomplete without managing the anxiety that comes up in the absence of perfection. For many people, flaws, mistakes, and failures feel almost inexcusable. One of the first things the Broadway performer and I worked on was tolerating the distress that came from not getting called back, from forgetting lines, and from otherwise being human. By working on allowing herself to “stay” in the anxious state—by teaching her body how to remain relaxed and by challenging automatic negative thoughts—she eventually felt more free to take her creative interpretations of her roles to unfamiliar but exciting territories.

References:

  1. Gallucci, N., Middleton, G., & Kline, A. (2000). Perfectionism and creative strivings. Journal of Creative Behavior, 34, 135-141.
  2. Joy, S., & Hicks, S. (2004). The need to be different: Primary trait structure and impact on projective drawings. Creativity Research Journal, 16, 331-339.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Olga Gonithellis, MA, MEd, LMHC, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 6 comments
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  • cecily

    cecily

    October 14th, 2016 at 6:01 AM

    You sort of forget about all of the great things that make you so special when you are focused on that one singular thing, being perfect.

  • Riley

    Riley

    October 14th, 2016 at 11:21 AM

    So I know that none of us can be perfect and that there is no such thing . But it can still be very motivational to have goals and to try to succeed by working through those goals. I don’t think that this is something that has to be bad, it can be good helping you move forward and accomplish something that is in the end very important to you.

  • Zac

    Zac

    October 15th, 2016 at 6:16 AM

    My dad always stressed to us that if you are not giving 100% then whatever it is that you are doing must not be worth doing. To him that not only mean getting the job done but with no mistakes, ever. And if you did make a mistake then you better well go fix it. To him it was never enough just to attempt it- he expected that perfection and I have to admit that all of these expectations weighed pretty heavily on all of us growing up. I try to not place all of this on my own children because I know how it hurt me, but I still find myself having to hold back at times because that is what he taught me and some things are hard to unteach I suppose.

  • suzanne

    suzanne

    October 17th, 2016 at 7:37 AM

    This need for perfection led to an eating disorder for me that I have struggled with off and on for 20 years. You can tell yourself all you want that being perfect is not the end game but for some of us that is the only end that we have ever known to strive for.

  • Terrell

    Terrell

    October 17th, 2016 at 10:06 AM

    If I become focused only on the getting everything right part then I actually perform worse than the times when I am just like let’s get something done for the sake of getting done. For me I get way too bogged down in the tiny little details that in the end really don’t matter, and usually that is what makes me crash and burn. When I just put my mind on the finish line and look toward project completion versus the minutia, then I am typically much better off.

  • Neil

    Neil

    October 18th, 2016 at 2:07 PM

    Isn’t it strange that this desire to be perfect is probably one of the few things that will actually keep you from achieving that? I mean, I think that it is far more likely that you will do a job well doe when you let things happen naturally. When it is all forced, there is something that is never quite right. it seems to get torqued a little much but always in the wrong direction. Life can’t be over designed and manipulated, all for the sake of appearances.

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