In college, my first studio art class was Foundations of Art, a very basic and very low stress learning atmosphere. To say I was excited was an understatement. Here I was in real deal art school, with my sharpened colored pencils and orderly watercolor trays and brushes. For our very first assignment, our professor asked us to fill a blank page with designs using only a black, permanent marker. Simple enough, right?
That's when it happened: pure and complete paralysis. What do I draw? How do I draw it? With a marker? A permanent marker? Unable to erased? To exist in time and space forever?
I felt like I didn't have enough time to practice. I didn't get to do a first draft. I didn't have enough direction. I didn’t know what the expectation was. I didn’t have enough parameters. I didn't know what the one, right answer would be. I was not prepared for this.
I looked around at my classmates, busily plotting out their lines and shapes. Earbud wire swinging from their ears, brushing pink and blue wisps of dyed hair from their eyes. No one else seemed to be experiencing the internal crisis I was facing.
I took a deep breath and I started my work. It was excruciating. Every line felt worse and worse. Permanent stains on my beautiful, white canvas.
I winced at the polite encouragement my professor offered each of us as he made rounds around the room. I sketched with non-commitment around the edges of the page, pretending like my delay to fill the white space was just the regular pace of my work.
But it was really the paralysis of perfectionism. Ah, yes, a familiar personality quirk that, while sometimes spurs great determination, can quickly turn detrimental when blown out of proportion.
Perfectionism is often rooted in anxiety. It is a self-consciousness of how others will judge our work. Ironically, though, others are usually very positive and supportive toward anyone who puts forth effort and energy. The real critic is in the mirror.
We are our worst critic. And even more disparagingly, the voice we speak to ourselves in often runs on automatic, all day long, quietly in the background, reinforcing all of our insecurities if we don't keep it in check.
What do we prescribe for perfectionism? How do we keep that inflatable bully in perspective?
When you feel paralyzed like I did with my art project, the best thing you can do is just do something. Move forward, make a mark, put something in motion. It may be crap (my first art project was) but you will at least avoid becoming stuck and you can build on your own momentum from there.
Close your eyes and try to locate that voice of self-criticism. Tap it on the shoulder and confront it head on. Assert to it, "Excuse me, I have a right to try new things!" Remind this voice that your effort does not have to perfect, what matters is that you are trying your best. That is all you'd ask of anyone else, and it's all anyone can ask of you.
Separate Your Work from Your Worth
For a perfectionist, this is a very important distinction to make and another lesson I learned from art school. Following the completion of a project, our art class would hold a group critique of the work. That familiar feeling of paralysis crept over me as I prepared myself to receive feedback from my peers. But our professor framed the process to the group in a beautiful way, "This group is not critiquing you, personally, we are critiquing the object, the work." Drawing this boundary helps you keep perspective and receive feedback positively, in a way that really benefits your future work.
I think you’ll find it liberating to free yourself from the paralysis of perfectionism, so you may fill your blank pages uninhibited with all the beautiful things only you can offer.