A Need for Perfectionism Sparks the Internal Editor that Destroys Both the Writer’s and the Artist’s Work

Yesterday, a Twitter discussion focused on the Internal Editor or the Self Editor which is crippling for writers and for visual artists, too. The quintessential writer Anne Lamott had something to say about 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

Perfectionism Is Rooted in Fear

“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 many things that we do, and it encourages us to toss things and people away who do not measure up to some ethereal ideal.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown offers us some golden nougats about perfectionism. The title of the book echoes the Asian philosophy that brokenness and that its scars do not have to be ugly.

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

Perfectionists Are Control Freaks

The first challenge in monitoring perfectionism is letting go of the need to control. Things crack or they get scratched or the dog gets old and wets on them. It is absolutely impossible to control everything all the time. Accept that things will break. Flies will fall into the ointment. Things will go wrong. We cannot prevent that from happening. We are merely left with the challenge of how we will perceive the cracked or flawed thing and what we will do with it afterward.

Perfectionism Is Rooted in Shame

Perfectionism is driven by fear and it is rooted in shame. For years, I was plagued with both shame and fear. Tomorrow, I’ll write about fear. I know both shame and fear very well. I am painfully aware that the fearfully shamed person doesn’t want anyone to detect that he is maimed, and he over-works everything to try to camouflage the fact that he has any weaknesses at all.

“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

Perfectionists have a fear of allowing the thoughts and their ideals to play freely upon the page, but that is a mistake. I work intuitively, and my work happens as a result of my allowing my thoughts and my ideas and my marks to take form and to skitter about and to test the air. If I self-edit too soon, this intuitive process cannot happen.

Try the stream of consciousness approach to both writing and painting. Try allowing yourself to run free. Try to allow yourself to play upon your paper. You can always change things later, but don’t allow your need for control or your fear or your tendency toward perfectionism to cut your creative process short.