Tag Archives: recovering perfectionist

Recovering Perfectionist Starts Something New

Combining fabric and paper to create mixed-media postcards is my latest art project. I’m new to sewing, after one disastrous failure when I was about 10, and spectacular embarrassment in a class of 8 to 10-year-olds when I was 30. This time, I’m not sewing clothes, I’m experimenting.

Jeff Szymanski wrote The Perfectionist's Handbook.

Experimenting is hard for perfectionists. There’s a lot of risk. You could mess something up. (Serious when you are a diamond cutter, not so much when your materials are smallish pieces of paper and fabric.) There is also the possibility of looking foolish, as you feel pleased with amateur level work. Yet I know few people who went from beginner to master in a single step. That’s what makes us perfectionists such procrastinators–if we put it off long enough, we might make it perfect. So we put it off in hopes of perfection. Sadly, perfection is elusive.

I’m a recovering perfectionist, so I push myself. I post my experiments, even my mistakes, on my blog,  because it may be helpful to someone just starting out. Or ready to quit. What made me want to quit with almost anything is the enormous amount I had to learn right at the beginning. As a recovering perfectionist, I figured out that I work on the meaning

Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D. wrote Never Good Enough.

first. What makes it important to me. That’s generally content–the Why in “Why am I doing this?” Once I have that down, I work on details. The “How,” especially the “How am I going to make this work?” if I worry about details first, I’ll never capture the overall concept.

The past few days, I’ve been posting photos of postcards in progress. I’m pleased that I’ve figured out how to thread a machine and wind a bobbin and make the machine run forward and back. I’m not worried that the pieces aren’t perfect, or that the mistakes show. I was surprised when I began to get emails telling me I wasn’t a quilter (you’ll get no argument from me), or that I should take a sewing class (hmm, wonder why?) or that putting up my mistakes shows that I’m an amateur. (Yes, I am a rank amateur on the sewing machine.) What is it about starting a new project that brings out the outer critics to chorus up with the inner critic? I don’t answer the critics, no more than I get into an argument with my inner critic.

The crucial stage is starting. If I bog myself down in details early on, I’ll never see anything beyond the details. If I try out the big picture–does this concept work? I’ll make progress. I’ll learn techniques and problem-solving. I’ll figure out work-arounds and work throughs. But mostly I’ll keep working. If I let the critic slow me down fixing details, I’ll quit. I won’t learn.

So to all the people who are letting me know I’m making mistakes, don’t expect to hear back from me. I’m busy. But if you hang around here, you will see a postcard with a zipper, or lined in copper tape, and they’ll all have mistakes, too.

Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist and creativity coach. She writes about her experiences as a beginner. Because she begins every day with an eye to making meaning.

Guestpost: Exploring Creality

TJ Goerlitz as an avatar, so youll recognize her on the internet.

Note from QuinnCreative:  TJ Goerlitz is a peripatetic American artist living in Germany. I ran across her blog, Studio Mailbox, by accident. Her wonderful talent in describing the fun and frustrations of living in another country and struggling with the culture and language has made coffee come out my nose more than once. Her experience of giving birth and being an American mother in Germany has made me smile in recognition of my own childhood. TJ and I have discussed creative topics, and she first used the term “creality” to describe. . .well, here, I’ll let her tell it.

*
Before I begin, please let me say that although creality is something I “made up” I’m convinced that it’s very real.   The hardest part of inventing stuff (besides the stereotypical bad hair) is deciding how to define the invention.  Is it a concept?  An affliction?  A tangible thing?

In my initial post on creality I tried to define it although I’m the first to admit it’s a bit rough.  And it focuses only on how I experience creality which tends to be in the negative sense.

The Germans use the term zwischenraum to literally mean “between space.”   In traditional printing, the little flat spacer that was used between the words in a line of type is also called a “zwischenraum.”

Creality is much like the literal German printer’s zwischenraum except it’s invisible.  Creality is the space that’s sitting between the idea you have in your head and the outcome of whatever you just made while attempting to manifest your idea.

Creality can be experienced in a negative or positive sense.  There are times when your created result exceeds your initial expectations and you might respond to it with terms such as; happy accident, the unfolding process, or better than imagined!

TJ Goerlitz © All rights reserved.

If you’re hardwired like myself however, you might be experiencing creality in a primarily negative sense.  We’re the ones responding to our creations with terms like; dissimilarity or variance.  Which also sometimes masquerades as “I’m so disappointed with this shit.” And in the event that the creality spacer for a particular project just happens to be huge, some might call it a mutation or in other circles an “epic frigging failure.”

For years, I thought two things could be the culprit for my episodes of my negative creality:  either my ideas were too idealistic or my skills were too remedial to achieve my desired result.  Both reasons put the blame on my own shoulders.

Yet over the years I started recognizing the same problem in every creative person I met! And I’m talking about all the creative fields:  actors, writers, cooks, painters.  The only difference being that we express it differently depending on our personalities and our perceptions.

The idea that started it all. TJ Goerlitz © All rights reserved.

All this might sound super nuts-o.  But I feel it would be helpful to other creatives to simply know about this phenomenon.  I’m willing to bet that very few things have ever been brought to completion exactly as imagined or planned.  And the power of knowing this ahead of time might just really help us not be so attached to the original idea in the first place.

Imagine if from the very beginning we could say to ourselves, “hey look.  I know exactly how I want 70 percent of this to turn out.  So let’s get that right and I’ll cut you some slack on the other 30.”  Wouldn’t that be the better way to start out instead of rigidly attempting to achieve something that isn’t going to hit 100 percent anyway?

*Insert fine print.*  Obviously the dialog above is probably not the best plan if you’re an architect or a heart surgeon.  Clearly we don’t want walls falling over or blood spurting out of our stitches when we sneeze.  What I’m talking about is journaling.  Quilting.  Self portraits.  Photography.  Wedding cakes.  Writing.  The kind of stuff where the consequences of creative liberties aren’t typically death.

Being aware of creality spacers can give you a whole new perspective.  For instance, have you ever taken on commission work where the client didn’t like the outcome despite the fact that you were sure that you created something to specification?  Although it’s possible that your interpretation of their request was way off or that your work in general is total crap, there’s also the possibility that you got yourself all messed up in their creality!  The point is, knowing about creality can help you stop blaming yourself for undesired outcomes.  And c’mon; who doesn’t appreciate something besides ourselves that can take the blame?

Here’s some more thoughts for you:

  • Negative creality is directly proportional to the degree in which you are attached to your original idea.
  • Creality can be especially painful for high achievers, and those who “set the bar high.”And sadly this has nothing to do with actual creative skill.  This has to do with a mentality that if you do not reach “the goal” then you have failed.
  • Creality doesn’t have to be painful or negative.  It can be a positive experience for those who can detach from their original ideas.
  • Creality spacers shrink in size and emotional significance at the same speed as which we forget the original concepts.
  • Thinking of your original idea as a catalyst instead of a rigid plan will help turn a potential negative creality experience into a positive one.

The only way I’ve been successful in handling my negative creality is to separate myself from the work.  And I specifically mean hiding whatever I just made in a spot where I know I won’t re-discover it for a few weeks.  I have never resurrected something and still been disappointed.  In fact, I’m normally really confused why I was so pissed off at it when I made it.

Distance is creality’s enemy!!

You can follow TJ on Facebook.
You can tour TJ’s studio in her blogpost. Hey, she cleaned up just for the post.

–Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist who has suffered from Creality and been delighted by its surprises. She’s delighted to have talked TJ into doing this guestpost. © Quinn McDonald, 2011. All rights reserved.

Book Meets Perfectionist

A friend recommended a non-fiction book, a scholarly work on cultural adaptation in America. Being trained as a folklorist, the idea was appealing. The book was well-written, but it didn’t build ideas. “Too much spinning, not enough weaving,” I thought.

Last night, I noticed I’ve been reading it since early February. It’s about 300 pages, and I haven’t managed to flog myself through it. Each night, I’ll read a few pages at bedtime, then put it down. Each time I buy a book I’d rather read, It gets put at the bottom of the stack growing by the side of my bed.
stack o booksWhen the stack got precariously high, I had to admit that I wasn’t enjoying the nonfiction  book. I felt I was reading the same 50 pages over and over. Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch, I thought. But I’m a recovering perfectionist, so how could I abandon a book? No, I must finish it. I tortured myself for another week.

The habit of completing what you start is a good one. But when it comes to books, it doesn’t apply. (At least not once you aren’t in a class with a reading list.) It’s not virtuous to finish a book that you started in good faith when that book is turning you to a curmudgeon. Drop the book. Quit reading it. Abandon it. Leave it in a basket on someone’s doorstep. Just because it seemed intriguing, just because someone recommended it does not bind your honor to reading every last page.

Tonight I read the last chapter. It was much like the others I’d read. I didn’t miss the 100 pages I’d skipped. And then I cheerfully, grinningly, reached for Anne Lamott’s book, Grace (Eventually), which I hope to enjoy a great deal, for every page.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2008-9. All rights reserved. Image: school.discoveryeducation.com

The Power of Not Knowing

If you work in a corporation, you may have noticed how dangerous it is not to know something—the latest office news, your boss’s thoughts, your own job’s newest development. You may spend a lot of time gathering information so you can be in the know. Someone who admits to not knowing is branded as ‘stupid,’ ‘not ambitious,’ or, more dangerous in a corporation, ‘someone not vital to the team,” which means, roughly, “someone we can lose in the next layoff.”

Image from thresholdblogazine.com

Image from thresholdblogazine.com

How did knowing everything become so important? Particularly since not knowing is the way we get information, the way we learn how to do something new. In the business world, the importance of knowing could lie in the time- and money-cost of training. It takes longer to train someone who doesn’t know than someone who already does. And for a beleaguered supervisor, training takes time away from the job, so hiring someone who already knows the job seems the best route. A reasonable shortcut is on-the-job training. To the person looking for a job, it seems reasonable to exaggerate skills, education, and experience. That makes us know more and get hired. And then perform poorly. How much more exciting if we could admit we didn’t know, but were eager to learn.

The problems start when the job expectations are out of reach of what we know.
This is no different for an artist than a corporate employee. An artist who tells a coach, “I know how to work with galleries,” or “I know what I need to do,” may be covering over an important part of their life that needs work.

Knowing and not knowing is closely related to control. The more we try to control every minute of our lives, the more we have to know. Not knowing relinquishes control. Not being in control can be a big relief, less responsibility, less worry. But it’s scary to most people. Control can help you avoid what you don’t know.

What a relief the phrase “I don’t know” can be. It opens the door to getting more information, to new experiences, to new perspectives. There is a great release of pressure when you are not in control of every second of your life. You are not so disappointed all the time when you don’t know, when control is not the driving force in your life.

In the next few days, when you feel as if you are being pecked to death by ducks, try saying “I just don’t know” to yourself. Take off that heavy backpack of knowing and controlling and instead take three deep, slow breaths. Not knowing is freeing. It allows for knowing something new. Controlling every second slams the door on exploring. If you can’t be comfortable with not knowing, try seeing it as choosing what to know next.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and writer. She helps people explore their “not knowing” how to draw through raw-art-journals.com (c) Quinn McDonald 2007-9

Perfectionists and Procrastination, Part II

Yesterday, in Part I of Perfectionists and Procrastination, you heard about Anne, who missed opportunities because her perfectionism never let her finish a project.

The Root of Perfection.
What causes perfectionism? Research shows that around the age of four, children begin to socialize with the culture they live in. In American culture that means playing in groups, not being too different, not showing above-average intelligence, and following rules. (Later this changes to not getting caught when breaking the rules.)

Trash can trash by bedzine.com/

Trash can trash by bedzine.com/

Around age four, children start spending most of their day in a school-like group environment where behaving according to the teacher’s norms is important—it yields approval.  Children learn to color in the “right” colors, stay inside the lines, sing in groups, write the “truth,” and memorize facts that will appear on standardized text.

Critical thinking is not encouraged. Creativity isn’t either. Both take time, and most schools spend a lot of time preparing the class to get better grades on standardized tests.

Misplaced Focus Leads to Misplaced Ideals.
As children manage the hard work of socialization, they are taught to focus on certain questions and their answers.  Art, music, and other creative studies are dropped. No standardized test worries about inventiveness, creativity or multiple right answers.

A Little is Good, a Lot is Worse.
Socialization isn’t bad, it’s just overdone. Our parents and teachers tell us to compete, win, get that good job, make lots of money, be “successful.” Peers goad with fear that we are not good enough, stupid, not applying ourselves or lazy. By the time we are in college our goals are to hurry up, win, compete, and stay in the top percentile of school and achievement.

Perfectionism is not all bad. In tiny doses, self-discipline is great, and even the desire to be perfect can be useful–doing careful research, doing original work instead of plagiarizing, being diligent–all are good. When being “perfect” gets out of hand it leads to serious life problems.

The key is separating discipline from  fear of failure. We live in a world stoked by our own negative self talk. “You can’t do this, you will not make it, you are scared. . .” goes the voice.  Suddenly discipline stops us from producing anything finished.

New Idea of Discipline.
Discipline is exactly the right word for what we do need to nourish. it is not the discipline of your youth. Here is how the new discipline works.

Neatly stacked manuscripts, wirelessdigest.typepad.com

Neatly stacked manuscripts, wirelessdigest.typepad.com

The idea stage of a creative project is the fun part,  the part where anything is possible.  But when we start the process portion of the project, we call, not on discipline, but on the gremlin of negative self-talk.

What we need is discipline enough to push through to the finish and get that wonderful feeling of completion, perhaps even accomplishment.

Gremlins of Negative Self  Talk.
Everyone has gremlins of negative self talk. We criticize ourselves harshly, in the words we remember from our parents, teachers, and peer bullies. This negative self talk collides head-on with the need to compete, to win, to succeed. And perfectionism is created.

Too much pressure and stress to achieve leads to symptoms or real illness. The deadline looms, and the perfectionists collapses.

The Trap of High Standards.
Perfectionists say they have “high standards.” It serves as the excuse to miss deadlines and to berate lesser efforts than there own. Yes, the perfectionist is a bully. Of self, of others. Because that was the power example they learned early.

Blaming the deadline is a lack of discipline. The truth is more likely to be, “If I never finish it, others will never find the flaw, and I will never have to admit that my work (and I) are not perfect.”

And making it perfect sounds virtuous, even wonderful. The perfectionist excuse fosters procrastination.

It says, “Oh, this part isn’t as good as that part.” It says, “Oh, this book needs too much work to be right.” It says, “I need to edit the draft one more time.” And when the work doesn’t get out there, we have the excuse of “still working on it. . .”

The Reward of Completion.
Here is the big reward: when you get things done, even if they are not perfect,  you will first be overwhelmed with shame at how poor the work is. You will invent hundreds of excuses not to turn it in.

Do some deep breathing, put it away for an hour or so. Then, look at it right before you send it in. You will discover that it is really good, and that it is done. When you submit it, you will be boosted up on a wonderful high. You will feel relieved. You will feel proud.  You deserve that wonderful rush. It is the rush of the imperfect. It is the acceptance that you worked hard and as well as you could with the talents you have today. And it will be the first step into meeting deadlines and doing well. It will be the first step into being a recovering perfectionist.

–Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist who helps other people open the door to a new future without the burden. See her work at QuinnCreative.