Why Perfectionism Kills Creativity and How to Overcome it



Being “The Best” Doesn’t Actually Make People Happy

In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she describes perfectionism as “the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” And while that may seen like a dramatic description, it’s undeniable that perfectionism cramps creativity and, as Lamott writes, “…will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force.”

Of course, perfectionism doesn’t always seem so terrible, as it can also be what drives us to create in the first place. But when drive is accompanied by a fear that whatever we’ve written, painted, cooked, or crafted isn’t good enough, then it’s time to recognize that in an effort to ensure everything is done flawlessly, we may actually be holding ourselves back.

Even worse, perfectionism can keep us from taking risks, prevent us from challenging the norm, make it impossible to adapt to new situations and ideas, encourage us to procrastinate, and inhibit our ability to reach our goals. After all, it’s hard to finish something of which you’re proud when there’s a nagging voice telling you it’s not good enough every step of the way.

In an interview with “The Atlantic Monthly” about his book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? Raj Raghunathan talks about how the need for mastery and being the best at something is holding us back. First, he says, being the best is a difficult thing to assess. “What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension?” In addition, he points out that even if you think you know those yardsticks (and regardless of if they’re relevant), they’re “ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you’re going to get used to it and you’re going to want another big bump.” Sounds exhausting, right?

So instead of measuring ourselves against others and arbitrary “yardsticks” or ideas of what’s perfect, Raghunathan suggests we don’t compare ourselves to other people, and just “become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing.” This is sound advice, but for some of us, even if we know we’re good at something, we can still feel stifled by the idea that it needs to be perfect.

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How’s That Whole Perfectionism Thing Working for You Anyway?

So how do we overcome that feeling that everything needs to be flawless? Bonnie Bruderer, Executive Producer & Host of theASKBONBONShow.com and life coach, says that first, we have to change how we think about the word perfect. “Perfectionism has a connotation that it’s a good thing, but if it’s something that’s keep you from your goals, then it’s a problem,” she says.

The first thing Bruderer does with clients who are being held back by the perfectionism is ask them, “How’s that working for you?”

Most of the times it turns out that people are just using the excuse of perfectionism to stall.

For some people, there may be a reason to hold off, but for most people, she says, there’s no reason not to move forward with something that may not have a “perfect” outcome. Instead of thinking about your goals as “all or nothing,” allow yourself to create imperfectly because at least then you’re creating.

Everything Boils Down to Fear

Fear of failure is real and it’s not to be taken lightly. However, Bruderer says, that while people are afraid they’ll be embarrassed or that they’ll fair or that someone won’t like what they create, most of the time that’s not a plausible result. “It’s important to determine when the fear is an excuse,” she says. “People are missing out on a lot of things in life because they want to be perfect or because they’re scared of losing something or even scared of what will happen if they gain something.”

Take Action and Set Goals

In order to set perfectionism aside and accomplish the goals that matter to you, Bruderer suggests you set a clear target and outline what you want to achieve, set a date you want to accomplish it by, and then clearly outline the steps you’re going to take to get there. Lastly, it’s important to make sure those steps are actually going to help you achieve your goal. If not, revise them. It’s okay not to get it right the first time.

Exorcise Perfectionism with a Simple Exercise

Oftentimes our desire to be perfect while attaining our bigger life goals can muffle our creativity with smaller projects. Here’s a simple exercise Bruderer suggests for the next time you’re stuck with any creative endeavor no matter how big or small.

1. Grab a piece of binder paper, your fancy journal, anything you can write on.
2. Write the question: What would happen if I did this?
3. Answer that question. Write and write and write everything that might happen.
4. Write the question: What would happen if I didn’t?
5. Think about what might happen if you let perfectionism hold you back and don’t take that step forward and write everything that might occur.

Whether it’s submitting an article to a magazine you admire, finding a space to hold your first art exhibit, or signing up for pottery classes, there’s a chance that by answering those two questions on paper, you’ll discover what steps you need to take next.

What Are You Doing Right?

Here other a couple of exercises that may help you when perfectionism rears its ugly head.

1. Write down a list things (at least three) that you’re doing right.

Instead of focusing on what (you think) you’re not doing well, take a few minutes to make a list of things you’re are doing well or that you know how to do well in relation to your goal or project. This is a great way to remind yourself of your strengths and why this is something you set out to achieve in the first place.

2. Learn to Enjoy the Ride

Whether it’s an assignment for work or a personal project, make yourself work on it for 30 minutes or an hour without stopping to be critical. Just write/draw/paint/sing/play… Whatever it is, just do it. If you catch yourself stopping to reflect or criticize your progress, make yourself go forward and tell yourself you can fix it later.

3. Do Your Best and Forget the Rest

Doing your best and being perfect are two very different things, especially since most of the time, only the former is realistic. When it comes to creativity, all you can do is your best. And that has to be enough. Allow yourself to recognize when you’ve done your best and to be not just okay, but happy with that.