“One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…..Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist”
A couple of weeks ago my 6 year old son and I were looking at a pile of Valentine’s Day cards for his class. He was insisting on taking them all out to see each one and I immediately said “be careful when you put them back so they don’t get bent.” He smiled and reminded me: “Mom, they don’t have to be perfect!”
That single sentence helped me to pause in the midst of the busy morning. I took a deeper breath and replied, “That’s a really good reminder. You’re right. They don’t have to be perfect!” My heart suddenly felt lighter. The morning itself didn’t need to be so serious, just because we were a little pressed for time before school. There was time to pause and feel appreciation. He was delighted by the pile of slightly bent cards and completely focused on the process.
That morning was a softer example of when perfectionism shows up in daily life. When it runs amok, perfectionism may also be experienced as people pleasing, over-apologizing, emotional paralysis, and rumination. As Brené Brown writes:
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
This my friends, can become the pain of seeking perfection. I should know. I’m a recovering perfectionist, with many miles to go. Most would never guess that I struggle with perfectionism. I’ve been described as spontaneous and bubbly. And surely my creative nature and temperament would override any deep seated perfectionist streaks, right? Not quite. As with everyone, I am multifaceted with many parts. And one of those parts is quite the little perfectionist. I’ve needed to learn ways of working with my inner perfectionist over the years. And art has been a primary creative outlet for this reason.
Perfectionism & The Creative Process
This theme of perfectionism arises on an almost daily basis in my work as an art therapist. It might sound something like: I’m not really an artist. My art’s never been good enough so I just don’t bother. I couldn’t create something that looked exactly like the image in my head, so I gave up. Or: I’ve never felt good enough. Something is lacking in me that other people seem to have. If I can’t be the best at something I’d rather not attempt it.
Artwork rarely (or ever) goes exactly according to plan. The image in a client’s mind often struggles to form on the blank page staring back at them. I sometimes observe the initial struggle and frustration as group members look around the table. I can practically hear the little voice inside each person as it scrutinizes their artwork in comparison to the rest of the group’s work.
Perfectionism and shame often hang out together. When I hear perfection strewn language, it’s often tied into some heavier emotions. At times an individual’s entire sense of self-worth may be hanging in a precarious balance.
So how can you work with perfectionism as it arises in art therapy sessions?
It begins by creating the space, and inviting that perfectionist part to the table. For many group participants, that part is already here and not going away quickly. It initially seems counterintuitive to entertain that perfectionist part. However, as with most thoughts and feelings the ones we “resist, persist.”
I begin by welcoming both those who identify as artists as well as those who haven’t drawn since childhood. Usually a chorus of “I can’t draw a stick figure” or “I’m not an artist” comments circulate. This allows the nervous energy to be right out in the open. There’s often some laughter and agreement here. We begin by acknowledging the fear of failure and the feelings of “not enoughness.” Then I set the tone by describing my hopes for our time together as a space to connect while creating. A space where small and large creative risks are encouraged. An open heart and mind are valued. Reminding everyone that with art, there is always a way to rework, change course, or begin again. I stress the difference between art therapy and an art class. We will be witnessing the art process but not critiquing. These ideas are often important to verbalize as we begin group. When working with adults, the inner child is usually already on board. It’s the grown version of the self that needs some reassurance.
But how do I start?
After I describe my art invitation, this is a frequent question in art therapy. The blank piece of paper can be intimidating. Even self-described artists speak to this phenomenon. I might say something as simple as “find a color that is calling to you at the moment and just begin making marks with that material.” I often see someone’s eyes light up, just with the verbal permission to pick their favorite color. Sometimes I encourage a person to lean back and simply observe for a while as they gain inspiration from the collective group energy. In individual work, we might pause and just breathe into the moment to open up space. Physical movement can also help in this area. Ask your clients to stretch, walk around the room, or even shake out that perfectionist energy from their hands. If you feel comfortable introducing a secondary modality such as writing or music this can also help soften the perfectionistic part.
Here are some more creative ideas for engaging with and beginning to heal your perfectionist part.
Make an ‘ugly’ painting
Have you ever made an ugly painting? On purpose or by accident? I’ve got tons of them lined up in my studio and they weren’t all created on purpose. Rather, they are works in progress that have stopped in unusual and sometimes aesthetically awkward places. Ugly is of course a subjective word…so there are many ways to create an ugly painting. You might begin by picking your least favorite colors and using them liberally! Have you ever grown frustrated when your paints blend together to make that muddy color? How about deliberately creating a muddy painting, with hard to identify colors? Experiment with awkward lines, shapes, and compositions. Break all of the art “rules” and see where it takes you. It can be helpful to work on a smaller scale and/or in multiples. This frees you up, rather than investing all of your energy in a single larger piece. You may also experiment with a new art material that you haven’t mastered. Give yourself permission to fail gloriously.
Non-Dominant Hand Art
I wrote a post about this a long time ago, and you can find it here:
Non-Dominant Hand Art
Begin a drawing with your non-dominant hand. You might find that taping the paper down on the table helps in this process. Set a timer for three minutes and just let your hand move. Create doodles of any type until the timer goes off. Next try drawing a particular image. If you need a subject, draw your dominant hand. Notice the change in drawing speed, the challenges of switching modes, and how your experience the process overall. Were there any interesting and unexpected moments? Did you feel any freer, knowing in advance that this was not your stronger hand? You can leave the drawings as they are, or cut them out, rearrange them, or find a way to link them together using your dominant hand again.
Watercolor Resist Paintings
This is another idea that I wrote about a while back, and one that I often return to in my work. Use a white oil pastel or white crayon and draw an image on white watercolor paper. Don’t be afraid to apply a good amount of pressure. And yes, the drawing will be practically invisible at this stage. That’s the point! Go to town drawing all over the paper. Your inner perfectionist will be momentarily thrown off guard. After all, it’s hard to be perfectionist about a drawing you can’t yet see! Focus on the feel of the material and imagine what the image underneath may become. Find a rhythm and let that white drawing material wander all around. When you feel a natural stopping point for the drawing, take some watercolor and a good amount of water on the brush and paint over the entire page. Watch as the design underneath slowly emerges. See how it feels to view an unexpected piece of art. Would you like to leave it as is, or embellish with more mark making? Dwell with the image for a while and then create more pieces if feeling inspired.
Not every piece of art we create will feel right to us or finished. One of my favorite quotes is by Paul Gardner: “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.” I find this idea so liberating and my clients are drawn to the perspective too. If you have a pile of half-finished pieces or ones that are not meeting that perfectionist part’s standards, why not repurpose them into a new creation? Some of my favorite pieces have been resurrected from the frustrations of old work. There is a freedom in working with old art and breathing new life into it.
Since this is a topic I’m passionate about, I plan to post more on perfectionism in the future. For the time being I end with one of my favorite poems (below). See how your mind and body feel after reading this poem. If it resonates, post it somewhere to read daily. Make art about it and see where it takes you. And as always, I welcome your comments and insight! I have a feeling this topic will reemerge in future blog posts.
by: Danna Faulds
Why wait for your awakening?
Do you value your reasons for staying small
more than the light shining through the open door?
Now is the only time you have to be whole.
Now is the sole moment that exists to live in the light of your true nature.
Perfection is not a prerequisite for anything but pain.
Perfection is not a prerequisite for anything but pain.
Please, oh please, don’t continue to believe
in your stories of deficiency and failure.
This is the day of your awakening.