In Japan, They Fill the Cracks of Broken Pottery with Gold and Marvel at Its Scars: Why Are We Perfectionists?

Something interesting happened this past week. I allowed myself to put a painting in an art show that I didn’t believe that anyone would like, and I was stunned when it was one of the first paintings to sell. After the sale, I remarked to someone that I had thrown the paintng into the trash three times before I ultimately decided to simply battle my own insecurty and risk showing it publicly. That someone said: “Why did you throw it away? Why didn’t you like it?”

My weak, but honest response was: “I do like it. I simply didn’t think that anyone else would like it.”

Boy with Curls – Jacki Kellum Watercolor

And because of my fear that others wouldn’t like my little boy with a red shirt and curly hair, I nearly threw him away.

Perfectionism Is Rooted in Fear

I have written several posts about the fear that prevents artists and writers from moving forward and getting their work done–from just doing it. That fear is the ugly stepchild of Perfectionism, which I believe is the scourge of life.

“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” ― Michael Law

I believe that perfectionism raises its ugly head in everything that most of us do, and it encourages us to toss things and people away who do not measure up to some ethereal ideal.  The greatest tragedy is that we often allow what we “think” that other people want or expect from us to drive our perfectionism.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” 
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

This past week, I went to see the movie The Shape of Water, and initially, I was struck by how much the monster in the Water reminded me of the blue Avatar, and that reminded me of a Shel Silverstein poem:

The Mask

“She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew.” – Shel Silverstein

Perfectionism and fear are behind the force that causes us to dismiss things and people and opportunities that we really want to snatch. We reason: Perhaps the something has a tiny flaw and perhaps if we engage with something that is flawed, everyone will believe that we are flawed, too. We seem to wonder: “What if flaws are contagious?”

My painting Boy with Curls got a bad start. The day that I painted him, I intended to paint a large portrait of a boy with curly hair, but I had not painted a watercolor portrait in years. I felt that I needed a practice shot, and I grabbed a piece of paper that was ruined on the back and began swirling paint loosely. My efforts were never serious. They were merely a test run. I allowed blue to pool under the boy’s eye, and I simply put the piece away to prepare to paint the real portrait. The only problem is that I never painted another Boy with Curls that I liked as much as I liked the practice, and now, my painting had a blue shadow beneath his eyes. I believed that other people might see the painting as flawed.

“In Japan, they fill the cracks of broken pottery with gold and marvel at the beauty of its scars.” – Anonymous

As with most things that I create, Boy with Curls has a back story. It is about more than a little boy with a red shirt and who has curly hair. The painting is about scars–my own scars–and perhaps that is why I felt the need to hide it. Perhaps I rejected the piece because it tells its story too well. Perhaps the blue that is pooling beneath the eye IS the painting.

“Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” 
― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Because he or she works so darned hard to fool everyone around himself or herself, the perfectionist often seems to be perfect. He or she will look good. He or she will often be successful in his or her work. He or she will seem to have it all. But the race to be perfect is run on a slippery slope. For starters, no one knows exactly what perfection is. Ellen Hopkins shines a beacon on that problem below:

by Ellen Hopkins


push to attain an ideal state of being that no two random people will agree is


you want to be? Faultless. Finished. Incomparable. People can never be these, and anyway,


did creating a flawless facade become a more vital goal than learning to love the person


lives inside your skin? The outside belongs to others. Only you should decide for you –


is perfect.”


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