How Perfectionism Is Killing Your Creativity

Overcoming Perfectionism in Art

Perfectionism and Procrastination

As I was researching this post, I came across an article by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings about writer Anne Lamott and how she feels perfectionism stunts creativity.

Popova summarizes Lamott this way: “At the heart of writing … lies a capacity for quiet grit and a willingness to decondition the all too human tendency to get so overwhelmed by the enormity of the journey that we’re too paralyzed to take the first step.” Doesn’t THAT sound familiar? I feel paralyzed by fear in my art making all the time. Do you?

We are paralyzed by:

  • the blank page
  • a good beginning
  • fear of failure
  • fear of success
  • our last “failed” art piece
  • our last “successful” art piece
  • someone else’s talent
  • someone else’s critiques

All this stopping makes it hard to start.

To overcome the paralysis that accompanies the fear of not being “perfect” or “good enough,” I take direction from another amazing artist and author, SARK. She talks about making the “micro movements” that lead to creative action – on the first day you take out the scissors, on the next you clear your table, on the third you buy some markers, and perhaps on the fourth, you make a dot somewhere on the page.

Somehow breaking things into little steps makes them feel less intimidating. This is the metaphor at the heart of Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. She asks us to just show up, begin, and take things one at a time. I value having permission to show up and create something, regardless of the outcome. That’s when I create freely and can often get into that state of “flow,” where I lose track of time, and the art doesn’t need to be “perfect.”

Beating perfectionism

Perfectionism Takes a Toll on Your Self-Esteem

Perfectionism can lead to some really negative thinking: “You aren’t good enough,” “You don’t deserve this,” or “This isn’t ‘art.'” This kind of harsh self-talk is meant to keep you from taking chances, exploring, growing, and getting started on your next creative endeavor.

Artist or not, I see so many people in my office who are dominated by their perfectionism in many areas of their lives. They feel inadequate at school, in their jobs, and with their friends. As a result they feel anxious and lonely. I’m inviting you to talk back to perfectionism, what many artists like to call “the inner critic.”

How One Art Therapist Uses Art to Combat Perfectionism and Fear

how perfectionism is killing your creativityOne of the first exercises in many of my courses is confronting the inner critic. Art therapist Sarah Kulig, of South Burlington Vermont, took my Art Journaling 101 Online class this winter. When she sent me some photos of her journal pages recently, it was like a lightening bolt hit me in the forehead. Her response to her inner critic is witty, chiding, and completely freeing. I wish I had thought of it.

What would happen if you told off your inner critic? Or told perfectionism to take a hike? Here’s what happened for Sarah:

Art and perfectionism

Artist: Sara Kulig

Isn’t this amazing? I love how she even gives herself permission to be scared – A LOT, and the reassurance of self-love and self-acceptance is beautiful. Sarah, I’m hoping that you will inspire others as much as you’ve inspired me with your courage and wit.

Artists and Perfectionism

Artist: Sarah Kulig

Her art is real. Moving. Emotional. Spiritual. Perfectionism has no place here.

Overcoming Perfectionism

Artist: Sarah Kulig

If you are interested in doing some of this work too! Click here to learn more.

Imperfect Art is Moving

Some of my most “imperfect,” inexact, and inaccurate pieces have been the most meaningful. My job is to show up on the page, the canvas, the sewing machine, or to my guitar. My job is to be a vessel, and to allow creation to flow through me. It’s almost like a scrubbing for the soul.

If I’m just a conduit, for the art, I’m not responsible for the art product, whether it’s “good” or “bad.” When I achieve “flow” in art making, it’s a magical adventure. I marvel at what appears, like any other onlooker, because what is emerging is as much a surprise to me as it is to the person looking over my shoulder.

Overcoming perfectionism

Tell Perfectionism to Get Lost!

My challenge to you is to tell perfectionism to take step aside. It doesn’t matter what form your creativity takes – whether you are an artist, writer, dancer, marketing expert, or cook – you need creativity. Let’s not let perfectionism continue its evil dictatorship. Share in the comments section. Make a poem, a rant, a manifesto, but share it with us.

Click here to learn more about Art Journaling 101, and tell your perfectionism to take a hike like Sarah did.

16 Comments

  1. Jayashree

    Hi Amy,

    Thanks so much for your blog. I suffer from the P word so much. And, I have been working to decenter it for so long. But it is a sticky monster and it is ever present when I feel vulnerable. I have managed to tell it to take a seat when I do art or when I teach. But it shows up when I am learning a new therapy skill.

    I found that Michele Cassou’s naming of the dragons of control(Your technique better be good), meaning (Your art should mean something) and product (It’s got to look good, edgy, etc) to be helpful in telling perfectionism to step aside. I call it defanging the inner critic, much like Sarah did. Way to go Sarah–I want you on my side thwarting the inner critical voice.

    Thanks, Amy, for this inspiring and uplifting piece.

    Jayashree

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      HI Jayashree!

      Welcome to Mindful Art Therapy Studio! (formerly foxboroarttherapy.com) Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment here. It looks like you are doing some wonderful work with children and families using the arts. I love how you refer to the P monster – I think we all need a de-fanging process for our critics, don’t we? Naming particular “games” that our critic plays with us is such a great way to disarm it. Thanks so much for the Michele Cassou information.

      Thank YOU so much for adding to this community, and I welcome you again and again.

      Cheers,
      Amy

      Reply
  2. Sarah

    What wonderful and encouraging words!

    It was such a pleasure to share art with this community. I think perfectionism is much more meltable when confronted with connection and community, which is why it’s so key to speak aloud about our relationship with our inner critics.

    I look forward to continuing to give this conversation breath.

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      Sarah!!!

      I’m so glad that you dropped in to comment. I’m intrigued by all of these comments – “wabi sabi,” “defanging the critic,” “melting perfectionism” these are all such interesting metaphors. It seems to me that we all have much more to say on this topic, and we will! Thank you, dear Sarah, for being the inspiration for a post that has clearly reached so many of us!

      Creatively Yours,

      Amy

      Reply
  3. Barbara Shelton

    Wow. I so needed to hear this. I can relate to this blog like a hog wallowing in the mud! So, I think I’ll just jump in and enjoy the experience of getting dirty. 😉

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      HI Barbara:

      HA! I don’t even know how to follow up on that. What an image! I’m so glad that it speaks to you. Be immersed then.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.

      Cheers,

      Amy

      Reply
  4. Max

    What a fantastic and creative idea to get rid of the perfectionism. I’ve got inspiration to write a song about it now!

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      HI Max:

      Wow, that’s so cool that you are going to write a song based on inspiration from a post. Thanks for popping in and commenting. Happy Creating!
      Amy

      Reply
  5. Nikki Weber

    I LOVE THIS! I was thinking the same thing! I’m always so critical of myself and I’m so worried also of what others will think as well. I found this page in my quest to learn about art journaling. I want to start an art journal. I was thinking that some good prompts for myself would be somewhat along these same lines as well as telling myself that it’s ok to be myself, to not worry about others, that this is for me, and to treat myself as I would treat someone else! Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  6. Heidi

    Dear Amy, you once said “There is beauty in imperfection”. And now I enjoy my arts & crafts again. Like Franklin D Roosevelt said: “Above all TRY something”. That is all any of us can do, while we kill all the joy-stealers one project at a time. 😉

    Reply
    • Amy Maricle

      Hi Heidi! I’m so happy you are here! I’m also thrilled to know that my words have struck a chord within YOU – where they resonate with your truth. It’s exciting to be a part of your creative journey.

      xo

      Reply
  7. Elaine Bishop

    I always used to paint very very large canvases and even painted murals around Cleveland for three years back in the late 70s and into the late 90s. Now I am trying to get back what once gave me such a LOUD voice and feeling of content with my art. I look at my smaller drawing books and journal size ones and somewhat fear that page. After such a long hiatus of not making art due to depression and a stroke I still “freeze” on the page. Doing your small wonky drawings (contour hands) were fun and I really felt better. But then I get back to freezing again , I’m not sure how to break this cycle. I put a small journal by my chair in the living room to try to just not think and doodle at night this helps A LOT. I also did your clouds dots with Lifebook 2020, great time. just meditative. I just want to thank you for helping me get some small steps in now, so later I can leap and dance again.

    Reply
    • Amy Maricle

      Aw, Elaine. This is so beautiful. And I want to pick up your question – what would support you in doing those wonky drawings again? What would you need? xo

      Reply
  8. Susanne van Helden

    Isn‘t it marvelous how creativity connects us during these challenging times?!

    When confronted with adversity, criticism, hopelessness, despair, or when the meaninglessness of life seems all too apparent, it’s best to pour it out on that page or paper with verve, raw grit and emotion – one time while writing with an ink pen, tears dropped and transformed the writing into a watercolor creation which became a favorite subject to experiment with. Sometimes I purposefully make “ugly art” to see what transpires – nothing and nobody is perfect.

    Reply
    • Amy Maricle

      YES! This is so well put. I so appreciate your thoughtful addition to this post, Susanne! Happy art making. I too at times aim for ugly. it helps.
      xo

      Reply

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