Perfectionism vs. Creativity: The Gloves are Off!

Note: Scroll down to the bottom of the article for a free opportunity for coaching with me!

Last week, the topic of perfectionism arose in several conversations. Each time, we reached a consensus that perfectionism contributes heavily to burnout, which is a huge creativity killer.

Perfectionism tells us we need to drive ourselves. And it’s a pretty tricky little devil. It can wrap its tentacles around an innocent thought like, “I want to create more.” Sounds like a good thought, right? So let’s say your form of creating is writing your novel, and you work on your novel for thirty minutes one day. You feel good, satisfied. But a shrill little voice pipes up and says, “Only thirty minutes? Surely you can do more than that tomorrow!”

So the next day you sit down and you find it’s a little harder to write for thirty minutes than it was yesterday. And on top of it, now you feel like you have to write for more than thirty minutes, because you have to make sure you’re besting what you did yesterday. So you manage to write for sixty. It’s not much fun. You feel like you’re grinding it out, because you’re so focused on how much you do (making sure it’s “more”) that you’ve lost sight of the fact that you wanted to create in the first place because it enlivens you, because it’s a way of using your gifts, of exercising your creative muscles.

The next day, not only do you feel like you’d better write more than you wrote yesterday, but you talk to Jane and she says she writes for three hours every day, getting up at 5 a.m. to do so. The shrill little voice pipes up again and says, “Look how much Jane is doing! Surely you can do that much!”

The following day you get up at 5 a.m., determined to write as much as Jane writes so you can “be a real writer”. Then you read an interview where someone mentions that Philip Roth writes 365 days a year. So now, not only do you need to get up at 5 a.m. and write for three hours a day like Jane, but you need to write every single day of the year. Naturally, it’s already way too late for you to be Philip Roth, but maybe you can still salvage some semblance of being a “real writer” if you write every single day of the year.

You manage to keep this up for about two weeks. By the fourteenth day, you’re so frazzled from keeping up this frantic pace and sleep-deprived from getting up at 5 a.m. — and by now Jane is telling you she’s writing four hours a day, not a wimpy three! — that you never want to write another word, ever, ever again. You get irritated when you hear people talking about how great it is to “create.” Who wants to create? you think. It’s exhausting and it makes you feel bad about yourself. Screw creating!

You don’t do any writing, or any other form of creating, for months (though occasionally you catch yourself doodling in the pages of your journal, in which you scribble illegible fragments that describe how uncreative you feel … hmm). Now you are so not Jane. (Darn that Jane!) You are so far away from Philip Roth, it’s not even funny. You had such good intentions. What happened to how fun, how joyful, it felt to write, way back when? You just wanted to recapture that. What went wrong?

Perfectionism is the behavior created by black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. If you’re not writing four hours a day, 365 days a year, you might as well not write at all. If the short story you submitted to the literary journal was rejected, it’s because it was sucky and you just don’t know how to write. If the writing isn’t flowing today, you might as well quit, the well has run dry. Perfectionist behavior looks like this: Drive yourself, push yourself, force yourself. And when this doesn’t produce the results you want, quit. For months. For years. Forever.

Cynthia Curnan, in her terrific book “The Care and Feeding of Perfectionists” (which appears to be out of print, but is well worth finding if you can), writes that when we drive ourselves relentlessly with perfectionism, we create burnout, and burnout creates what she calls the “backlash.” The backlash is a long period of “underachieving” to balance out our “overachieving”.

Here’s the solution: Notice. Awareness is so, so powerful. I’ll get more into the topic of awareness and how to manage your perfectionism in my next article, where we’ll talk about the difference between pushing ourselves and stretching ourselves.

By the way, despite the title of this blog post, I encourage you not to duke it out with perfectionism. The more you fight perfectionism, the more formidable it becomes, because it engages with that defensive, fearful aspect of you that’s afraid you’ll never have enough, never be enough. It’s better to deftly swim out of perfectionism’s way, and let it go to battle with itself, like the shark in Jaws thrashing the empty underwater cage. (Sometimes I just have to get in a Jaws reference, because Jaws is awesome.)

And finally, here’s the freebie I’ve been talking about in my last couple of posts: Friday, Feb. 24, from noon to 2 p.m. CST, I’ll be hosting Muse Office Hours. This is a two-hour window in which you can call in and get up to fifteen minutes of free, focused coaching from me on any creative issue you’re having. My purpose here is to reconnect you with your muse! It’s a great opportunity to talk about why perfectionism is getting in your way, why you just can’t seem to get started, or how to continue if you’ve gotten stuck or stalled. Call (708) 689-9480 at any time during the two-hour window; if you get my voice mail, leave a message and I’ll be sure to get back to you in the order the calls were received. I’ll be posting updates about Muse Office Hours in the coming days.

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