Perfectionism – the good, the bad and the ugly

As absolutely lovely as my time at the Makerie was, I experienced something the last day of that weekend that I find very difficult to talk about, which usually means that I should.  This has nothing to do with my spectacular product photography teacher, Alessandra, whose class I attended that day, but has everything to do with me.  I learned an amazing amount about my camera and how to set up good product shots.  This post is not about the class, however, but more about what I felt during it.  I include the product photos here to break up the text of this post a bit and to visually display my path and progress in the class.

That morning, upon arrival, I found myself in awe of the creative talent that surrounded me.  My thoughts spiraled downward:  how beautiful . . . wow! what an amazing aesthetic . . . she will be so successful . . . I’ll never match up to that . . . I’m not that talented . . . I am just not good enough at what I do. I plunged into a frustrating morning of self-criticism and doubt which, don’t tell anyone, even led to a little bit of crying in the bathroom.

Before starting this blog, creating always fell to the bottom of my list (or off of it).  I used that as an excuse for not achieving everything I wanted to — I just don’t spend enough time on it, I thought.  Now that I’ve fully acknowledged my desire for a career in the handmade industry, I assess my work more critically.  I’ve taken huge leap and thrust myself fully into the handmade/design blog sphere.  I now risk failure at the thing that matters the most to me.  I feel powerfully precarious and exposed.

So what spawns these short but dreadful bouts of the “not good enoughs?”   Does it lie solely in the hands of habitual comparison?  What initiates the questions “Do I measure up?,” “Am I good enough?”   Two days later, I received an unexpected answer.  

I attended a lecture on perfectionism (originally scheduled with my daughter in mind.) A perfectionist – I have not labeled myself this for many years, but I used to.  My perfectionism disintegrated with the advent of children, or so I thought.  I settle for less than my best in many aspects of my life.  No one could call me a perfectionist now.  But, Dr. Linda Silverman‘s discussion of the pathologized form of perfectionism smacked me over the head with its aptness:
:: a constant need for approval
:: fear of what others think
:: constant anxiety that one will make a mistake
:: fear of failure
:: overwhelming fear that one will never be good enough
:: measurement of one’s worth in terms of productivity and accomplishment 
Oh yeah, I remember.  I haven’t seen this list so explicitly laid out in a long time.  Perfectionism no longer paralyzes me the way it used to, but these traits surface often and bog me down.  Seeing the “not-good-enoughs” nestled right in the middle of these qualities feels oddly reassuring.  Somehow perfectionism as a recognized series of traits, feels manageable, surmountable even.
Something entirely new about perfectionism surfaced at this talk– something that nearly bowled me over.
Dr. Silverman said that:

:: BEAUTY is a perfectionistic desire ( I had never heard this before)
:: perfectionists have a powerful drive and motivation to achieve pleasing aesthetics in everything they do.

It is?? We do?? This explains a lot.
Dr. Silverman calls perfectionism an energy (energy, I like calling it that) that can be used either positively (whew- good!)  or negatively.  This energy can “cause paralysis and underachievement if the person feels incapable of meeting standards set by the self or others.”  On the flip side, used positively, perfectionism can “propel an individual toward unparalleled greatness.” ( I feel like a super hero!)  Perfectionism “fuels passion that can lead to extraordinary creative achievement!” (What?? Yes!!) 
So maybe perfectionism is not so bad if it fuels our passion, our drive.   If we can put aside the “not-good-enoughs,” if we can use our perfectionistic energy positively, focusing on process not product, it seems as though the achievement part will come naturally.  This means leaving comparison behind to pursue and embrace our perfectionistic drive to be our best selves and do our best work.  Maybe thinking of it this way, and then recognizing negative perfectionistic energy when it does surface, will make for fewer mornings like I had in the photography class and make for more moments of joy found in each and every step along the way.

Here are Dr. Silverman’s suggestions for how to tame the perfectionist beast:
:: set priorities – where can we settle for less than our best?
:: appreciate what we have accomplished
:: reframe mistakes as learning experiences
:: focus on process not product (good for tutorials :))
:: don’t punish oneself for failing
:: go ahead and tackle the project, don’t procrastinate
:: its okay to erase, start over or revise

Okay, well, long post – thanks for hanging in there with me to the end.  I am thinking that the love of beauty runs prevalent among you. Lurking perfectionists and others, please comment.  Perfectionist that I am, I’m sure to be looking for external approval from you all and am certain to feel extreme anxiety that this post was a huge flop!

  1. Monica

    Beautifully written Anne! I especially liked the part where you said, “I now risk failure at the thing that matters the most to me” I definitely relate to that fear! But it would be worse to have regrets for never even trying to do what we love! And, amazing photos by the way…you’re very talented I hope you know!!

  2. jen

    Thank you for sharing! I too am “plagued” by this perfectionist beast. It can be difficult to accept such personality traits like “a constant need for approval” but self-awareness can be the key to a more harmonious existence (when coupled with compassion for yourself!). Funny, I have been thinking a lot about this issue lately. Anyway, I’m going to copy down Dr. Silverman’s suggestions and start applying them. :)

  3. Laurie

    Thanks for such an open and honest post. Somehow, knowing that others experience the same feelings, fears, and frustrations helps to take their “charge” away for me. I aspire to be more gentle with myself. And let’s remind each other when we forget…

  4. Just hopped over from Jen at The Fabled Needle – wow, this post really speaks to me. At the beginning of your post I thought “I used to be a perfectionist but im not anymore.” Then I read the attributes of a perfectionist, and… that is me. *Sigh* I find that this is really inhibiting my progress with my own handmade crafts, and it probably hindering my success too. Thank you so much for posting on this, I sincerely do appreciate it!


  5. I just really wanted to say how much I love that top wall hanging. What a fun idea of putting fabric behind some cut wood to create a picture with texture. That and the Easter egg bunting remind me of a fashion doll toy I had as a child where you put the fabric underneath a plastic sheet with a woman’s figure cut into it. I don’t know if that makes sense but maybe you’ve seen them around. Clever–very clever.

  6. Beautiful post Anne, you speak so openly and honestly. I would like to be as brave as you! Eek I think I may be a perfectionist!!! I hadn’t realized, but this post has really got me thinking..It can be really difficult but as you say it doesn’t have to be a negative thing.. Thanks & night night! X

  7. Your photographs ARE lovely! Truly!

    I have the perfectionist beast extraordinaire living in me — for me his strongest mantra is “measurement of one’s worth in terms of productivity and accomplishment.” This leaves very little space for exploration or play, which is frustrating in the search for authentic voice… I also have a good case of the not good enoughs. Sometimes in blogging I feel like it’s junior high all over again and I’m wishing I could sit with the popular kids but I’m wearing the wrong shoes!

    This post is a wonderful reminder to turn some of that around. To use it as a tool rather than a handicap. Thank you for sharing so beautifully.

  8. anne

    Thanks all for your responses. I so appreciate your feedback, your positive comments, and your willingness to see these traits in yourselves.

  9. stacie

    Wonderful post Anne. First off, amazing photos! You’ll have to do a post about what you learned in that photography class.

    I really admire you for being able to recognize your emotions so clearly and expressing them so openly. Neither is easy to do. I too have that measure up negativity lurking with me and my work. I think finding the balance of striving for the best while not measuring up to that next artist is very difficult.

    Thank you for writing this, I think I may be going back to visit your post for a reminder that I’m not alone.

    P.S. love Denice’s comment comparing the blog world to junior high!

    xo Stacie

  10. Such a good post, Anne! It’s funny – this topic came up in my coaching session today! I have a case of the “not-good-enoughs” and I am working to release some of the stories I’ve been hanging onto around that. They are old stories, and I don’t need them anymore!!
    Thanks for the great post!

  11. Mindfulknitter

    Lovely post. I love your photos and especially appreciate your honesty. It is so wonderful for me to realize I am not alone. Well written and well received!

  12. Thanks for sharing and for your honesty. Know the P word all too well. It is more difficult to glimpse reality with the internet/blogging because mostly what we put out there is the good stuff. I think we need to include more of those “not-good-enoughs”. Maybe what we thought did not measure up is still well-received and dare I say, even admired…Here’s to the slightly irregular.

  13. Monica

    wow, what an important lesson to learn! I have never seen perfectionism defined like that, and boy do I see myself in that list! Thank you for sharing these wonderful lessons you have learned, for being honest about all the emotions that accompany a creative process. There are just as many lessons to be learned from failed or not-so-perfect projects.
    I really hope you’ll also share some of the photography secrets you have learned.

  14. I am so glad I came over from Whip-up and browsed your site. I am definitely a perfectionist but had never seen the character traits laid out before…it is nice to know that I am not alone in my crazy need to always do everything right and have someone acknowledge that it was well done. I will be passing this post on to my sister as perfectionism is a family curse.

  15. First of all, I always relate to your posts so much! People have always called me a perfectionist, but I never really believed them due to my nature to get discouraged extremely fast. To be honest, I’ve never even looked up the definition of the word, but instead just assumed its meaning. Seeing that list of traits just now, I realized how every single thing on that list relates to me, and it really helps to fix/change something when it is pointed out. So thank you for pointing them out! I honestly believe I will be more productive thanks to this post. Thank you!

    And by the way, your work is absolutely beautiful!

  16. Ou, can you ever WRITE. What an exceptional post. This hits home for me in a big way. I started to cry when I read you beautiful confession of tears in the bathroom. And I laughed so much reading your closing comments about being extrinsically motivated. That feeling is the same one I have with each post. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  17. This is just what I needed to read today; I am in a spiral of self-doubt and perfectionist paralysis over my creative/work/parenting life, and this was very interesting to read. Thanks for sharing!
    I found your blog through Tierney’s blog, whom I met at Squam 2 years ago! Yay SAW!

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