After the exhilaration of starting out, there often comes a lull. The voice of the critic starts to creep back in once your initial voice of inspiration has quieted down a little: “You might be doing creative things,” it whispers, “But so what! It isn’t like you’re actually any good, is it? Look at those colors, the way you painted that. Anyone could do better!”
Does this sound familiar? Does something have to be perfect, otherwise you won’t even try? Do you need to be in control at all stages (have you ever wondered what would really happen if you weren’t?) How good is perfect? What are you basing your standards on? Take Leigh for example:
“I don’t feel pressure at all to be creative, however, I do feel pressure to be really good and produce masterpieces.”
Welcome to perfectionism. She is a close companion of most creatives. Women in particular really struggle with perfectionism.
We are urged as little girls to do our best, and so we interpret that as meaning — the best, in the whole world…ever! We seek to please, and so we push ourselves harder and harder in search of perfection, first in our actions, and then how we dress, and then we learn that our bodies must be perfect too, and our mothering and other relationships. We get wound tighter and tighter in the need for perfection, and long to scream, but we can’t because it’s wound so tightly round our throats that it is strangling the life out of us. Sally Reis has found in her research on creative women that:
One of the most common traits is perfectionism, which causes some girls and women to expend maximum energy at all times, attempting to do everything and do it well. […] Creative women often wear themselves out trying to do everything well, often with minimal help from their spouses. Despite these accomplishments, they still feel plagued by guilt that they may not have given enough to their husbands, children, home, and career.
Where does this obsessive need for perfection come from? From everywhere in our culture. I wrote a post on Tiny Buddha about this:
We are expected, according to conventional wisdom, to “give 110%” all the time. “Failure is not an option,” we are chided. “You can always do better, be happier or richer…” Everywhere the message is the same, and it all boils down to one thing: you are not good enough the way you are. As women we are particularly susceptible to this message. And particularly targeted by those who spread it. And so we find ourselves trapped in the perfection spiral: creatively blocked, self-loathing, controlling, and alone. And it is not until we are chronically infected that we see that perfection is not an absolute, but always shifting, unreachable and undefinable – outside our grasp.
When we absorb the law of perfection, we are infected with the virus of self-doubt which eats away at every area of our lives. The more perfect we are, we are led to believe, the more valid we are as people. But with every advance in one area, we find ourselves wanting in another. We worry that we are not good enough, therefore on some level we do not deserve love, happiness, or even life itself.
Creativity, however, works in a different field to perfection. In the wise words of celebrated cartoonist Scott Adams:
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes, art is knowing which ones to keep.
Our creations in fact have a sort of life all of their own. Often they surprise us, their “creators”, by morphing in front of our very eyes, taking radical departures from what we had planned. We adapt them as we go along because of error or inspiration – both are powerful guides of the process! If we are working to a pattern the desire for perfection is necessarily much stronger, as we have a finished product, a Platonic ideal form, to compare our own attempt to. I have just realized as I write this that this is why I never follow instructions to the letter but adapt as I go. It is my way of dealing with my perfectionist streak. If I do not follow the instructions precisely, then I don’t need to face the part where I compare my creation to theirs and find it lacking. Instead it is always mine and unique!
Creativity is a potential way out of the strait-jacket of perfectionism, but only if we learn to allow perfection out by the back door. If we are ruled by perfection, our creativity too will simply cause us misery. Amy found that motherhood gave her the permission she needed to try things and not need to be perfect:
Before babies I had never had the confidence to explore my creative potential, perhaps borne out of some ingrained self-critical belief that everything had to be perfect or why bother. Now, our house is now adorned with my creative pieces, from art on the walls and patchwork quilts, to DIY decorations and pieces of pottery.
Often our children force us to let go of our perfectionist natures just a little, by adding their own creative touches to our work, or by demanding that we speed up our process, spending less time on the polishing and editing of our work than we once would have. Becky says of crafting with her children:
I’ve had to let go of the idea of “perfect” art, and embrace the beauty in our collaborations.
The more we learn to dance to the tune of our own innate creativity, rather than following the missives of others. The more we can release our attachments to our creative products as reflections of our own egos, the more fun we will have and the easier our creating will become.
This is an extract from The Rainbow Way: Cultivating Creativity in the Midst of Motherhood by Lucy H Pearce. Published late November 2013, by SoulRocks. For more information about Lucy and her book, please read her interview in the Holiday 2013 edition of Rhythm of the Home.