Experiencing perfectionism as a creative
Content Warning: This article briefly discusses mental health issues, self harm and suicide.
In theory, I thoroughly enjoy Scrabble. The intense concentration. The piercing silence between turns. The mounting frustrations of my opponents as I systematically calculate the perfect scoring word with my assigned letters.
And whilst I like to consider myself to be some sort of Scrabble pundit, sometimes, just sometimes, I fall short of the mark. And one fateful day, when introducing my partner to the game, I found myself losing. Mid game. Losing. This was my idea, yet I no longer wanted to participate, and alas, I slunk off to the bathroom to have a shameful cry.
Competitiveness or perfectionism?
Before being consoled by my partner, I felt an immediate sense of embarrassment. Shame. Guilt.
After all, it was only a game. A game that I wanted to play, at that. But as soon as it became clear I was losing, that was it for me. And sure, it was only a game. But the thought of falling short of the mark, the expectation I had drilled into my brain, the standard I had held myself to, and then the negative impact of being unable to reach what I had set out to achieve ran much deeper than this game of Scrabble.
This was more than mere competitiveness. I was upset because I had failed myself. I hadn't met the mark. My mark. Although at least in this instance, I knew that the standard I had held to myself - to win - was attainable.
The wolf in sheep's clothing
At its core, perfectionism isn't the shiny boast-worthy CV skill you may think it is. I consider myself to be driven and hardworking, but I see these qualities as very much distinct from my perfectionism.
Perfectionism isn't characterised by drive or conscientiousness. It is characterised by the inner voice prying and telling you you're not good enough. Telling you to give up when you're not achieving that often unrealistic high standard you've set for yourself. And whilst we can laugh to ourselves when it means being a tad touchy over a Scrabble game, being a perfectionist in its darkest moments can be detrimental to a person’s health.
'Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world' - Amanda Ruggeri (BBC Future)
Perfectionism has been linked to an alarming list of mental health conditions, including: depression, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), eating disorders, body dysmorphia, insomnia, self harm and tragically, even suicide.
This list doesn't even include the increased emotional turmoil that the perfectionist can face. Increased stress, anger, anger rumination, guilt, procrastination (which is ironic really), self deprecation, obsessive comparison and the 'all-or-nothing' mindset are all associated with the perfectionist.
There is no in-between
If you're not the smartest in the room, you're the stupidest in the room. If you can't do that now, you'll never be able to, so why bother?
These extreme thinking patterns can permeate everything in life for the perfectionist. I have often found myself remaining driven and dedicated, only to have it all come crashing down when comparing the success of others to my own, or when I have been unable to immediately reach my anticipated outcome. I become paralysed under the thumb of the internal voice criticising my actions and purpose. If you can't be the best, why on earth are you doing it at all?
The thoughts can appear impossible to overcome, which can be a hindrance. This is especially true when learning a new skill, when practise is the very thing that allows you to improve.
The artist's curse?
I often find myself desperate for a distinct definition of success. A definition of perfect. A win-lose line. Like in Scrabble, funnily enough.
I liked school. The exam side. I did well in my exams. Did I get the highest grade possible for every single subject? No. But I knew what I was aiming for, (although that being said, even if I had obtained full marks, I likely would've still found a way to criticise myself).
Now, as an artist, my perfectionist-self often finds it even more difficult to grasp exactly what constitutes success or perfection. What is it that I'm actually looking to achieve, when the lines of high achievement in the creative world are constantly blurred? You cannot compare chalk and cheese, in the same way that you cannot compare an array of artistic practices. Put plainly, what is 'good' or 'bad' art is largely subjective, which for my perfectionist self, is a huge panic moment.
Creative and artistic development itself relies on learning from failure. It relies on challenging norms and taking risks. Failure is terrifying to any perfectionist. Being paralysed by a lingering fear of failure hinders creativity in the long run, as you become resistant to trying new things. There's a constant need for external reassurance to know if the things you're doing are ‘working’ or not. It can be exhausting to feel as though your own intuition cannot be trusted, because the self-critical voice prevails.
Resistant to support
Rather unsurprisingly, perfectionism is stressful, and it can dramatically reduce quality of life. Depending on how intense the symptoms are, seeking professional help may be beneficial, especially if the perfectionism has developed into other mental health problems.
'Individuals with high levels of perfectionism are more reluctant to seek treatment for psychological issues and they are often treatment resistant when in treatment.'
This can be difficult to accept for the perfectionist, particularly with existing mental illness stigma, because the stigma perpetuated can make reaching out seem like a failure in itself. But this is untrue, and something I am continually learning to accept.
So, whilst I persist in learning that my inner critical voice, failure and losing at Scrabble is, in fact, not the end of the world or my worth, I wish my fellow creative perfectionists well.
I hope that one day, you will be content with the thought of imperfection, and are able to grow inside the inner critic prison, until the bars and Scrabble score can no longer hold you captive.