Perfectionism in the Creative Process: Tips for Quieting It

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a stable personality trait where individuals persistently engage in the same patterns of behavior and thinking or how individuals think about those behaviors.

Perfectionist personality traits are not considered a disorder, but a vulnerability factor that predisposes an individual to depression as well as other psychological problems.

Perfectionism is  multidimensional and composed of self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism: this is an intrapersonal dimension that requires a person to be perfect themselves; individuals strive to meet unrealistically high standards and are prone to critical self-evaluation
  2. Other-oriented perfectionism: this is an interpersonal dimension that causes individuals to hold others to unrealistically high expectations and is associated with a harsh evaluation of their performance.
  3. Socially prescribed perfectionism: this is an interpersonal dimension that involves perfectionist standards held by influential people in an individual’s life, and these influential others demand perfection of the individual, evaluating their performance critically.

Perfectionist personality styles demand perfection in themselves, in others, or hold the belief that others will only accept perfection from them.

Perfectionism and vulnerability to depression

Maladaptive perfectionist personality traits demonstrate concern over mistakes and consistent doubts about their behaviors or performance. In these cases, they can be identified as ‘clinically significant perfectionists’.

Clinically significant perfectionism results in individuals with an increased vulnerability to depression, with an inflexible attitude towards changing patterns of thought, despite the consequences that the pursuit of perfectionism has on their quality of life.

The most salient concern associated with clinically significant perfectionists is an increased risk of suicide.

Socially prescribed perfectionism correlates positively with perfectionist thinking; those with eating disorders, depression during pregnancy, postpartum depression, or a combination of both are all particularly significant vulnerability factors for depression when it becomes clinically significant.

Interestingly, when perfectionist tendencies increase, the strength of the association between perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive symptoms greatens, while the association with depression lessens.

One reason that perfectionism is linked to depression is the conflation of self-worth and success, as well as the active working towards goals. Therefore, self-worth is contingent on fully achieving high goals; depressive symptom etiology is therefore highly likely to occur when some goals are not met.

An inability to meet all set goals can exacerbate lowered self-esteem. Moreover, perfectionism is correlated with internalized shame.

Some clinically significant perfectionists experience sustained feelings of decreased self-worth, lowered self-esteem, feelings of shame, an increased tendency to ruminate about mistakes, and a tendency to expect adverse outcomes.

These unrelenting negative self-reflections subsequently become habitual and contribute to the development of depressive symptoms.

Can Perfectionism and Creativity Coexist?

Honestly, getting caught up in the headache of perfectionism is the last thing I want to interrupt my creative flow. Creativity is messy, abstract, novel, daring, raw. Yet, as creatives, we battle perfectionism anytime we create.

The irony of letting perfectionism sneak into our creative processes is that it’s not a true reflection of who we are – it’s an imaginary expectation of what other people want.

How sad to think that the activities that can bring us the most joy are bridled by inauthentic notions that have nothing to do with us?

Luckily, for those of us who suffer from the need to please through perfectionism, it’s a habit we can break.

1. Originality Shines Brightest

When we create, we’re building something from the ground up. Something that’s never been done before in the same way we’re doing it. So how can we expect perfectionism if we don’t even have an ideal image to compare it to?

The beauty of creation and art in any medium is its originality! Perfectionism is the pursuit of something that doesn’t even exist, and it totally dampens our creative process. Let go and let it flow. 

2. Create With An Open Mind

Cast aside your desired result – or at the very least, make room for alternative possibilities. Starting a project with the expectation that everything will go to plan is a surefire way to end up discouraged.

If we learn to navigate the ups and downs of our artistic journeys, we’ll be more inclined to meet obstacles with more creativity!

Save space in your vision for an outcome that isn’t entirely what you had in mind… Chances are you’ll surprise yourself!

3. Make Your Work Sacred

Create a safe, criticism-free environment around projects that are important to you.

Keep in mind that others, even loved ones, aren’t entitled to peek at our work anytime they’d like. Too often, perfectionism and our need to please others completely reroute our creative process.

We end up with work or art that caters to external feedback instead of honoring the creative call from within. 

4. Stay In Your Own Lane

How often do we spend hours online looking for inspiration, new ideas, or a general creative boost? Too often!

When we over-consume the content of other creatives it can cause us to measure our successes against theirs. While having high standards and big dreams for our work is important, we want to be mindful of viewing other work as ‘the ideal’ that we’re simply striving for.

A great mantra is “create before you consume”. Extracting the creative energy within ourselves first will allow us to appreciate other creatives later without falling into the comparison trap. 

5. ‘Done’ Is Better Than Perfect

Perfectionism in creativity can have us obsessing over a minor detail for hours without making any real progress.

How frustrating is that?

If we feel like we’re veering into unproductive territory, it’s always better to walk away and come back with fresh eyes. If we’re working on a deadline, remember that “done” certainly speaks volumes louder than “perfect”.

Chances are, no one else critiques our work as we do. And as perfectionists, we tend to be high performers already. We must trust that our best creative effort produces good work – regardless of a snag or two in the little details. 

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