9 Ways to Kick Perfectionism to the Curb So You Can Create

Are You a Perfectionist? What Kind?

If you are a self-oriented perfectionist, don’t beat yourself up. You are fine. You love a good challenge. You don’t fall apart when you fail to meet your own high standards. You simply look for ways you can improve next time. Your kind of perfectionism is considered positive and adaptive.

However, there are two other forms of perfectionism that are more problematic. If you are an other-oriented perfectionist, you want to ‘help’ the significant people in your life be perfect. And they love you for pointing out their shortcomings. Really they do.

If you are a socially-prescribed perfectionist, you believe that other people expect perfection from you. When you can’t deliver, you criticize yourself harshly.

Both of these forms of perfectionism are considered negative and maladaptive because they make you feel anxious, guilty, ashamed, or depressed.

To find out where you fall on the scale from unhealthy perfectionism to healthy perfectionism, take this quiz. You will be asked 17 questions. At the end of the quiz, you will get a total score (mine is 93) and an interpretation of whether your response is healthy or unhealthy for each question.

When is Even Healthy Perfectionism a Problem?

I have been an unrepentant perfectionist for many years. In areas where I feel capable, I love that I strive for perfection. Playing with sentences until they sound just right is, for example, one of my favourite things to do.

But even as I write these words, I want to withdraw them. So many of my sentences fall short of sounding ‘just right’. Oh, no! Maybe that’s what you were thinking too, and now you’re scoffing at me as you read. I swear I could do better if I just had more time! (I clearly have a tinge of socially-prescribed perfectionism mixed in with my healthy self-oriented perfectionism.)

If this is what I am worrying about when I have published not one, but six, books with a major mainstream publisher, what does perfectionism do in areas where I’m not as confident?

Let me turn that question to you. I’m trying to make collages. Perhaps you would like to paint, draw, achieve a complicated recipe, learn a musical instrument, or redecorate a room. When you want to create and perfectionism bares its’ fangs, what happens?

Perfectionism Kills Creativity

Do you:

  • Contemplate enrolling a demanding graduate school program because you can’t start working until you have mastered techniques and maybe acquired a Masters’ degree in art history?
  • Clear the decks so that once you do start, there will be nothing stopping you? Your junk drawers are immaculate. All your receipts are in order for tax season. Now you are going to catalogue your library with that great new app you found.  

    Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity.

    Bangambiki Habyarimana
  • Set up routines that are guaranteed to fail? For example, you want to write a book so you vow to write ten pages every day. No problem except that your earlier vow to write one page a day fell apart after the first day.
  • Imagine the product at the end of all of your striving, and think about how devastated you are going to feel when your work is criticized for not being good enough?
  • Actually start, but then compare your work to others and give up?

My particular brand of kryptonite is “clear the decks.” I especially love productivity apps. I download them and then I put all my lists in them, and then I set up some of those routines that are guaranteed to fail. It’s so much fun. What’s your poison?

Steve Jobs famously said, “Real artists ship.” He meant that we have to be willing to produce imperfect work. (For some great quotes about perfectionism, see my Pinterest board.)

If perfectionism is stopping you from creating, here’s what to do.

9 Ways to Defang Perfectionism So You Can Create

1. Give yourself a structure. Make it reasonable.

If you are convinced you can devote 30 minutes a day to your creative work, 7 days a week, commit to 10 minutes a day, 3 days a week. Commit to something so doable that it’s impossible to fail. Then honour the structure you’ve created, even if you just sit there. Gradually increase your time as you are ready.

2. Take small steps now.

If you really feel you have to learn, start with a book, a class, a video, or an online course. Make sure you take some small action after each chapter or class.toddler boy on all fours trying to take first steps

3. Keep your eyes on your own work.

Jon Acuff said it best– “Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” In the early stages of your work, avoid comparing yourself to someone who has been at it a lot longer than you.

4. Compromise.

Lower your standards way, way down in the early stages. See what you can do when you tell yourself that you don’t really care. Once you are rolling and have something to work with, you can return to worrying over every tiny detail.

5. Look at the big picture.

When you get lost in the details, or you are imagining a negative response to your efforts, ask yourself–What is the worst that could happen? If the worst happened, could I survive it? Is this worry still going to be important to me next year? Next week?

6. Set priorities.

This is another example of taking small steps. For instance, my first priority with collage is to learn to cut out images and arrange them pleasingly on a background. Fancy layering will come later.

7. Pay attention to your all-or-nothing thinking.

When you hear negative self-talk like, “I’ll never be any good at this. Why do I even bother?” say to yourself, “There you go again. Borrring. Knock it off.”

8. Connect with other creative people.

Seek out others who also want to live a creative life. They know what you are experiencing and they want to support and encourage you. Members of the Profound Journey tribe are here and ready to take that role!

9. Produce.

Focus on quantity for a while and forget  about quality. Recognize that the more you create, the better you become. I liken it to working an old-fashioned well pump. You have to work that thing for quite some time until all the sludge is expelled but once it is, the water runs clear and fresh.

Update on My Collage Challenge

I said that I wanted to make either a handmade or digital collage for each self-care post. I’ve done that for each of the first three weeks of this site. I should be happy and I am, sort of. I’m happy that I am producing. That’s happening because I gave myself a structure –one collage per week–and I set priorities.

I’m not happy that I make mistakes. Did you notice that the spray glue I used on the jigsaw puzzle collage left little dots of moisture? No? Well it bothers me.

And I’m not happy that my collages are not turning out as I’d imagined they would. I still compare my efforts to the collages I’ve collected on my Pinterest board, and I come up so short. But I’m learning to say to myself, “There you go again. Borrring! Enough already.” It works.

Have you challenged yourself to forget about perfection in an area of your life? How’s it going? Which of the 9 ways to defeat perfectionism will you try? Please share in the comments below. 

5 comments

  1. I find that to be true, even in knitting. How many times I have pulled out stitches because they don’t look right or I have ended up with too many stitches.

    1. Your actions in knitting seem to me to be a healthy form of perfectionism, Gerri. After all, unless you want to practice the art of Wabi-Sabi (making something deliberately imperfect), it is ideal when your knitting works out just as you’d intended!

  2. My perfectionism score is 45 =( I am going to need a lot of help from the tribe and this website to get things into a healthier balance I think. I am currently learning the mandolin but am learning to forgive my mistakes when I hit the wrong chord the odd time. I am actually, finally, getting the hang of the beginnings of a song I have been practicing. I think this is due to the whole quantity over quality you were talking about! Right now I am producing mostly sludge but one day I wish it to run clear. =)

    1. Oh it will run clear. It will. (I feel like Dorothy clicking her heels and willing herself to be back in Kansas.) Practice makes such a difference. Keep going, Susan. You will get where you want to be.

      1. “Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore!” LOL Those were some beautiful shoes Dorothy had and they worked for her so I am all over trying clicking heels together. 😉

        Thanks for the vote of confidence, Karen. =)

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