Creativity & perfectionism – part 2
Last week I talked about my experience of being a perfectionist, and how perfectionism affected my creativity.
Today I’m sharing all the steps I took to overcome perfectionism, and also a few simple exercises to help you embrace imperfection.
Understanding what’s behind perfectionism
My first step was to understand the reasons and beliefs behind my perfectionism, and I did this mostly through journalling.
I asked myself why I needed my work to be perfect, and what I was afraid of.
Fear is always trying to keep us safe, so what would happen if I allowed myself to make mistakes? How dangerous would that be?
Exploring the roots of my beliefs about perfectionism was fascinating, and led me to a deeper understanding of how the mind works, and how our thoughts affect our life for better or worse.
A belief is a thought that we repeat ourselves over and over until it becomes true – we believe in it – so it comes to reason that if you change your thoughts, your beliefs will change too.
That was my next step: changing my beliefs about perfectionism.
This kind of change takes time. It takes years to create a belief pattern, so I couldn’t expect to quickly reverse it. Some beliefs are deeply ingrained in our subconscious, and I knew that it might take me a very long time to completely overcome perfectionism.
Retraining the mind
Changing a belief requires retraining the mind, and practising new thoughts on a regular basis.
An exercise that helped me was reframing my beliefs about perfectionism in a positive way, and rewriting them into new possible beliefs – such as “my work has value even with a few faults”, or “my work can inspire others regardless of its imperfections”.
I chose the most inspiring sentences, wrote them down on library cards, and then I kept them in as many places as possible, to see them often, especially when creating, and let the message sink in.
Even now, I have an inspiration wall by my desk where I hang quotes and positive affirmations to keep me on track.
Noticing when perfectionism stops creativity
When I have too many expectations, a particular project might become The Project, and I fall back into the perfection trap.
Every time I find myself procrastinating, or wasting too much time editing my work, I pause and ask myself if perfectionism is the reason behind my behaviour – most of the times, it is.
In these cases, I recognise and accept my behaviour for what it is: a thought-induced pattern that stems from my fears.
I remind myself that perfection doesn’t exist, take a short break to relax, and try to coax myself into creating.
I talk to myself like I would to a scared child, with kindness and soothing words: “Nothing to fear here, I’m just playing for a bit. I’m going to create only a couple of images, or jot down a few words, and see where that takes me.” It might sound silly, but it usually works.
When I feel too tense, I take a break and do something mindful to calm down and get back to the present moment. I might do a bit of yoga, brew a cup of tea, focus on my breathing for a few minutes, or step into the garden for a little while until my mind is quiet again, and I feel ready to get back to work.
Creating a new pattern through action is a good way to change a belief, so I have been mindfully practising imperfection as a way to learn to be comfortable with making mistakes.
Even though at a rational level I know that mistakes are important in the learning process, deep within I still fear them and tend to overreact when I make one.
To make it easier, I started my practice with small things that didn’t relate to my creative work but still were important to me.
I like decorating the table for special occasions, or when we have friends over for a meal, so one day I decided to use nice china and cutlery, beautiful candles, flowers, and one single mismatched fork.
At first, all I could see was that fork – the mistake in an otherwise perfect table. I kept laying the table this way, though, and after a while, that same fork became familiar and was no longer a big deal.
It’s fascinating to see how, with time and practice, my perception changed. I learned to be comfortable with imperfection and to realise, at a deep level, that a tiny flaw doesn’t detract from work that’s overall good.
Besides giving myself permission to make mistakes, I also make sure to regularly spend some time creating for fun, with no expectations in mind, just for the sake of creating.
During these sessions I try different approaches, explore new techniques, and basically play around, conscious that what I do might bear no fruits at all.
I let curiosity guide me, forget about the result, and go with the flow. I emerge from these sessions relaxed, happy, and always a step closer to fully embracing imperfection.
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good” – John Steinbeck
If you are struggling with perfectionism, try these 5 simple exercises to help you embrace imperfection:
- Lay the table with all your favourite items, and leave one place intentionally “imperfect” – a fork askew, a mismatched napkin or plate.
- Fill the first page of your journal with doodles, scribbles, or a simple collage. Add some ink splatters, or a coffee stain.
- When you fold your laundry, roll one item instead of folding it.
- Make a posy of white flowers, and add one flower in a different colour.
- Choose a simple creative activity that you’re a total beginner at, and practice it just for the fun of it, allowing yourself to make mistakes.
- Remember, change takes time, so be patient and kind to yourself, and don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself slipping back into old habits – just notice them, and then start again.
We’re all a work in progress, after all :)
Parts of this text originally appeared on Breathe magazine, issue 6
If you’d like to read more about creativity and my own creative journey, subscribe to my monthly newsletter Creative Notes here.
Tags: creativity, perfectionism