Many creative people struggle with perfectionism, the need to “get it right” on the first draft, the first attempt, or before ever taking another step to put your work out there, with painful self-recrimination for perceived failures. While perfectionism has its roots in a variety of places, from childhood trauma to critical attention, it’s is often a mask for common creative fears that can be ameliorated. Psychologists have found that while a small dose of perfectionism—known as “situational”—can contribute to high achievement of goals—when it becomes pathological, perfectionism can become crippling and play a role in mental disorders like anxiety and depression if not treated. Here are some of the common fears at the root of perfectionism, with strategies for pushing through them:
Fear of failure:
It’s common for creative perfectionists to finesse a project to the death, noodling over every last sentence a dozen times; stitching and unstitching a design until it’s beyond recognition, or fine-tuning and tooling over an image until your eyes are burning and your fingers bleeding. This tendency often stems from a fear of failure to deliver the vision in your head, or the vision requested by another person. It’s important to remember that visions are just that—rough ideas, sculpted by the imagination. It’s so rare for a vision to manifest in exactly the way it was conceived. What comes out may not seem to fit your mold, but it may actually be something better, fresher, more innovative than you anticipated. You are not always the best arbiter of your own “success.”
Fear of being rejected:
One of the most common fears of creatives is rejection—that your writing won’t be appreciated by others or accepted for publication, your art won’t be understood, you won’t make sales, etc. Whatever form of rejection burns at the root of your creative self, there’s one very important thing to remember: the only way to avoid rejection is to never put your work out for public consumption. And while there is nothing wrong with making art for your own sake, most of the creatives I know seek an audience. Rejection means you’ve taken your work seriously enough to put it out there. And, research even shows that rejection can fuel future creativity by pushing you to reconsider your vision altogether.
Fear of being a fraud:
Often referred to as “Imposter Syndrome”—a condition that affects more women than it does men—many creatives rub up against the fear that despite success or a dedicated artistic process, we are simply “faking it.” Amy Hale Auker, a writer, tries to remember when she hits this place to “leave my small and my safe. I want to read books by writers who are living life loud and proud, having adventures, making memories. So, I try to be that kind of writer.”
Fear of having nothing new to say or make:
It happens to writers, it happens to graphic designers, it happens to many different creatives: the day you think you have nothing new to say or make. And it’s often the most frightening day of all. In my experience, it’s also usually a result of burnout, overwork, or pressure. Author Chelsea Biondolillo has learned to “wait it out” and began practicing meditation to bring some calm to her anxiety. “This summer, I took my mother’s suggestion to take a vacation from the book, and since I’ve done that I’ve written three new, unrelated pieces.”
Regardless of what fear holds you back, it’s important to remember that being a creative is a brave and vulnerable process. Better yet, there may be someone who needs to hear or see exactly what you’re creating. Don’t squander your gifts. The best thing you can do for your creative life is to learn how to let go of the need to be perfect in favor of being yourself.