Return to : ArticlesStriving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.
An introductory notice on a website offering free Celtic clip art referring to creation of intricate Celtic knot work reads:
Under and over and under again - but look out for the occasional deliberate mistake - made because only God can be perfect!
Whether or not you believe in God or that He is perfect does not mitigate the truth behind the above statement, which brings home the reality that perfectionism is out of reach to mere mortals and would only be in the province of a divine being
The desire for everything to be perfect is a significant characteristic of the obsessive-compulsive. It is also a characteristic of anyone with anorexia nervosa. My sister most certainly displayed such perfectionism in the creation of theelephant patchwork quilting featured on this website. She had apparently make an earlier version which during her City and Guilds course was considered more than adequate for the entry piece for her examination. However Lynda persisted with perfectionist drive and completed the one you now see on this website, the intricacy and perfection unfortunately cannot be fully appreciated by the means of photography, one needs to see this exacting piece of work.
This tendency in addition to all ones obsessive-compulsive behaviours can made the persuit of any endeavour a nightmare of misery. It can lead to despondency, reduction of self esteem, procrastination - while obsessively trying to achieve the gaol of perfection and delaying until this elusive state is achieved - and in the extreme the abandoning of all ones pursuits. The drive towards perfection is a destructive road to follow. Often only depression and anxiety are the result of such unrealistic high goals of achievement. At least this is my experience and most likely it is the experience of others also, not only those of us who suffer from OCD. However sufferers of OCD and related condtions may pursue perfectionism with more determination and persistence and are perhaps more adversely effected as a result of our inevitable failures when this elevated position is not attained.
There are two lesson we need to learn and they are: perfection will never be achieved, striving for this elusive goal is a significant hindrance to any endeavour. It most certainly impedes creative flow. In fact the desire to have everything perfect is a major obstruction to the creation of my website along with all the checking and worrying about causing harm and so on, all of which I have rambled on and on and on about at some length. If I could come to terms with a few mistakes and realise that perfection is an unobtainable ideal than at least this particular hindrance to the creation and maintenance of my website would improve my ability to once again enjoy working on either this or my artwork. After all no website is perfect, today the Microsoft website had a missing graphic.
Art is a common area of concern for myself and others, although any endeavour in life even washing the dishes can be pursued with fanatical perfectionism. Many artists abhor imperfection. Degas was said to never be satisfied with his work, often clients who purchased his paintings would chain them to the walls to prevent the artist from removing them to continue working on them further. Degas was known as a perfectionist he painted multiple pictures of the same subject as he was seemingly not satisfied with them. For the perfectionist work is never completed, a painting is never finished, a book is always in progress. There is that deep underlying feeling of dissatisfaction present in any endeavour, the perfectionist is invariably disappointed, the glow of success is never his no matter the level of achievement attained or the praise or encouragement of others.
It is of note however with OCDers, at least it is with myself, that perfectionism only applies to certain areas of ones life. For me personally when it comes to for instance decorating perfectionism is thrown to the wind. I hate decorating and often quote my mother who felt similarly and would often be heard to say when really major imperfections where pointed out: “as long as its clean that is all that matters” or " a blind man on a galloping horse would be glad to see it” It did not matter that the job was often less than perfect, such as lumps in the wall paper, paint splatters and so on. Yesterday we laid vinyl tiles on the bathroom floor. Now you are supposed to lay and align them independently of the wall and when you enter the room they should appear fairly symmetrical for the most part with only the surrounding edges where the tiles meet the wall should be slanting if your walls are not at right angles - who’s are.. This is a huge performance and difficult for me to get my head round, neither I nor my husband are particularly into DIY and would rather be doing other things. I for instance would rather be working on this website or my artwork. So I get irritated and frustrated and as long as it is reasonable I will not spend my time getting it perfect, you will often here me saying that life is too short for this or that. Of course my OCD anxieties concerning contamination by germs and chemicals will make me more anxious to get the ordeal over with as there is much stress and hand washing, panicking and nagging my husband, whom it seems invariably violates some of my OCD considerations such as returning my ruler to its place on my desk without washing it first after it has been used to measure the tiles, the fear of course here is contamination by chemicals. And whilst engaged in such activities there is always a powerful compulsion to shower and this counteracts any urges to achieve perfection. So concerning my own experience, my compulsion to achieve perfection occurs only in certain areas of my life. I do not know if this is typical of all OCD sufferers or other perfectionists.
However in other areas of my life the compulsion to achieve perfection is a problem. No it is not just a minor irritation, although it is not fear as such in the same way that there is fear of contamination, fear of inadvertently causing harm and other more OCD considerations but it can haunt me nonetheless, it can become an intrusive thought which plays on my mind. Although fear is not involved as such there is nonetheless a measure of anxiety more so perhaps when it comes to my website which of course others will see. Moreover the compulsive drive towards perfection can be paralysing in a very real way. Just now I dreaded coming upstairs to our hobbies room because I know the torture I will face to sit here and write and face the torment of doubt and the anguish caused by the knowledge that my work is less than perfect, it will always be less than perfect no matter how long I work on it or how many times I go over and over what I have done. I have a lot of problems with writing and these are not going to change in any dramatic way. On some level I know this, yet still the desire to have everything perfect causes anxiety and depression, feelings of hopelessness, loss of self-esteem, lack of motivation and procrastination. Last night after dinner I had intended to work on my website but was reluctant to do so, I could not face the torment involved including this unreasonable drive towards perfection. Finally I managed to make it but spent most of my time aimlessly despondently surfing the net seeing what others had written to see if there was anyone else who made mistakes or rambled on or anything! This brings me to another point which I will elaborate upon later and that is: comparing oneself to others is a detriment borne of perfectionism and brings with it an added dimension of dissatisfaction.
Perfectionism is the enemy of creation, as extreme self-solitude is the enemy of well-being
Perfectionist tendencies in art work often have the same effect and can lead to days passing without my picking up a paintbrush because I am often anxious of making a mistake because of my compulsion to make my work perfect even though I know I do not have the talent to achieve this elusive gaol. In fact no one does; even the great masters of art or literature or any other discipline made mistakes, and in any case it is all a matter of perspective with art is it not. With art work when I paint a landscape I struggle to make it photograph perfect even though student artists are not encouraged to do this. This kind of art has no feeling, it is staid, technical, lacking imagination and it brings little satisfaction as of course such perfectionism cannot be achieved. Perfectionism therefore stunts creativity, diminishes motivation and inhibits fulfilment and satisfaction. How many of those of you who suffer with OCD really feel satisfied after completing a task, not too many I would imagine. During the summer because of the heat in our tiny room upstairs I paint in the kitchen quite forgetting that this exposes my painting to anyone who calls. Often in the harried rush of life I forget that my paintings in various stages of completion lie there for anyone to see. But I have had some encouraging comments even about half finished paintings which I have perceived as rubbish of which I am never ever satisfied. Like Degas I have the compulsion to remove a painting from my bedroom wall that I completed weeks ago because as I lie in bed the imperfection shouts for attention and I will never feel that it is well done, it screams imperfection even though I have been told otherwise.
Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly
Robert H. Schuler
Comparing oneself to others is an undesirable characteristic of those of us who have such tendencies or rather in my case compulsions to achieve perfection. If we compare ourselves to others most likely we will find someone who has achieved more, is more talented and so on. One cannot compare with genius so one has to be realistic, it is of no use to compare my artwork with one of the masters as I will not reach this level of excellence - no I am not going to say perfection, no one is perfect. Salvador Daly the famous Spanish surrealist artist said: "Have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it." If you do this all you will achieve is despondency, you will become discouraged. Unless of course you have comparable talent but even if you have and you have perfectionist tendencies notwithstanding your excellence you will still be miserable and you will not be satisfied with your level of achievement no matter how brilliant. We need to accept imperfection. I know not an easy thing is it when you have OCD. If you do compare yourself with others often you will find there are many not as talented or able yet you overlook this and concentrate upon those who appear to excel. Really it is better not to make such comparisons after all it does not really matter, the important thing is that whatever endeavour we pursue from washing the dishes to painting all that matters is that you did your best according to the level of your abilities and whatever level you attain it is far more advanced that of doing nothing at all; as the familiar saying goes: it is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. And bear in mind that failure is in any case mostly a matter of perspective. There is more imperfection in this world than perfection which in fact does not exist anywhere not even in nature. Most certainly none of mans endeavours are perfect. Consider a common example: how many of you live in a house that has every corner at a right angle, every aspect of it in perfect symmetry. I certainly do not there is not one right angel in any corner, even the door in this room sits within an imperfect frame of inaccurate dimensions which are in fact is so bad that the original door remains as without major alteration it would be difficult to replace the door so askew is the framework and consequently the door would need to be custom made. It is a good thing that I do not have an obsession with symmetry this house would be a nightmare for anyone with this type of OCD.No one is perfect... that's why pencils have erasers
It is an erroneous belief that anything less than perfect is not acceptable. I was once employed in what would now be called quality control in a factory that produced plastic components. Before packing these components where checked by me, not to weed out the all the imperfect ones because if I did so there would be none left to pack, only to dispose of the ones that where glaringly obviously blemished or dysfunctional. In fact I was called hawkeye as I noticed so many imperfections that far too many of these components where thrown away and this of course gave rise to complaints that I was too fussy. If you are a perfectionist you may notice imperfection more than others who are not this way inclined as you tend to focus in on these imperfections that others fail to notice, rather like you notice things in your life that give rise to COD fears. I would imagine that I notice more dogs in the environment than do people who are not anxious about contact with dogs. In the same way people less concerned about perfection are probably less likely to notice imperfection in the first place. People not into art or obsessed with perfection may not notice mistakes in my perspective. People seem not to notice perhaps in my website all the grammatical and other errors, at least if they have not one person has ever pointed them out. My husband is particularly oblivious to imperfections even glaringly obvious ones, particularly concerning DIY he just doesn't notice the lumps in the paper or whatever. Yes the more keen our perfectionist tendencies the more we notice these imperfections as we become increasingly more sensitised to them.
There are two types of perfectionist, normal and neurotic. A normal perfectionist might strive for perfection or excellence however if this cannot be achieved he will than abandon such an ideal, he will re-evaluate the situation and see his goal in a more realistic light and take satisfaction from his achievement. Conversely a neurotic perfectionist never feels that he has done enough, he does not consider that he has accomplished his task well enough, he is intolerant of imperfection and abhors mistakes, becoming extremely self critical he berates himself. No matter how well the task is completed he experiences no sense of satisfaction if his achievements have not met an often unrealistic goal despite the compliments of others who see his accomplishments in a more reasonable light.A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault
John Henry Newman
The compulsion towards perfectionism can result in fear of making mistakes which than goes on to result in nothing being attempted because this fear becomes so strong that the person begins to feel that it might be better not to try at all rather than fail; after all the subconscious reasoning insists that if I do nothing... well than I cannot fail, there is nothing to perfect. There are indeed many negative repercussions that result from neurotic perfectionism. Often perfectionism brings about great unhappiness when what begins as an interesting or even exciting endeavour commenced with enthusiasm deteriorates into a pursuit filled with anxiety, frustration, and depression; what we first enjoyed than becomes a source of misery, dissatisfaction and exhaustion. In fact it is only when thoroughly exhausted and weary that I finally click the publish button after hours of checking the new content for my website. The same occurs with painting, it is usually after I am so weary and bored with a particular much rendered and re-rendered painting that I will finally say that enough is enough. Although of course I can carry on rendering a painting at any time as long as it remains in my procession as indeed I can alter my website at virtually anytime or remove something at any given moment, this I have done on occasion. Often I can look back at a painting or a piece of writing and feel less satisfied with it than I did in the first instance. Recently I decided in some way that a painting was even less satisfactory than I remembered when I had completed it a few months ago. After much work on this particular painting I had put it away having decided that enough was enough, I just had to leave it as it was, it was the best I could do. But now a few months on I cannot imagine why I accepted this as okay, it is bare, lacking detail and notwithstanding my struggle against the fear of imperfection I cannot understand why I thought it was okay. The reason for this is that I probably now have become more sensitised to imperfection expecting more and more from myself and accepting less and less. Our minds are fickle, our thoughts and perspective constantly change and as our perfectionist tendencies increase we become increasing more dissatisfied until we find that nothing brings us any sense of achievement or fulfilment.
So you see that perfectionism, at least neurotic perfectionism, can be a great detriment. More rational perfectionism of course can be a boon and much of value in this world that has enhanced our lives in the field of science and the arts has been achieved because of the pursuit of perfection but rational perfection, perfection seen in a normal context, where it is accepted that in reality perfection can never be achieved and the rational person adjusts his goals accordingly. In fact is perhaps better to say that such achievements were carried out in the pursuit of excellence rather than perfection for such is impossible.
So what is the answer? What can those of us do, who seem not to have a more rational slant on our perfectionist tendencies, to improve our situation?
As with any other irrational behaviour it is not easy to set aside the feelings that follow on from the thoughts, the feelings of anxiety, of depression when we feel we have failed. The feeling of anxiety, which arises whenever we approach the task we are attempting to perfect is indicative that you are suffering with neurotic perfectionism. It is not an easy matter to overcome such compulsions even if we have insight into what is going on and why you really cannot face painting that picture, picking up your sewing, writing your essay, decorating your sitting room, or whatever it is that you are obsessively attempting to perfect. Despite such insight it is nonetheless not an easy matter to set aside such feelings and try to approach the problem in a more logical and rational manner.Neurotic perfectionism is a problem not easy to contend with any more than any other difficulty borne from irrational thinking and behaviour. Such thinking that seems to be beyond our control as though such a compulsion is innate and programmed into your brain. Right now this very moment as my fingers scurrying over the key board I am anxious, the anxiety rising to my throat I have difficulty swallowing, an anxiety borne of fear of imperfection, fear of failure, of not getting this piece of writing exactly right. And this is a huge problem. I rationalise the situation over and over, I try to gain a more normal perspective. I know that if I where to sit here forever this and any other piece of writing would never be perfect. I am not a professional writer and even if I was I know that I would not be satisfied for this tendency is a bane for all those who suffer with an obsessive-compulsive type of illness. Moreover I have ADD and other problems of an undefined nature that effect my ability to write therefore anything I write will never be perfect. On a rational level I know this but still these feelings remain and after a ruminative, exhausting editing and checking session eventually I have to let it go as it is or abandon my endeavour. I than have to live with these feelings that my accomplishment is anything other than perfect.
But how does one handle the feelings of dissatisfaction, anxiety and depression which arise that is the question. It is not so much that you have achieved your best imperfections and all and have let whatever pass as acceptable but it is handling the feelings that arise that is the problem; the question is how to not allow such feelings that cause you to procrastinate, become unmotivated, loose your natural creativity become depressed and in the worse case scenario abandon your endeavour altogether, to have full reign.
Firstly one needs to differentiate between excellence and perfection. Also you need to know that the task you undertake is within the remit of your abilities. You need to know the difference between getting something just right to the best of your ability and being overly fussy or painstakingly accurate. You need to know when accuracy is vital to your endeavour and when it is not. A surgeon has to be accurate, lives depend on it but your art or your decorating does not need this same level of accuracy. Like all neurotic conditions after a while we quite forget that our behaviours are the result of irrational thinking and we can forget quite what is normal behaviour and what is not.
Another way to offset negative thoughts which are precipitated by perfectionist expectations is to stop focusing on your supposed mistakes and imperfections and instead concentrate upon what you have done right what part of your task or project or whatever you have completed to your satisfaction.
You should not set for yourself to high a goal or overload yourself with projects. This is a major problem for me personally. I have many ideas buzzing round in my brain concerning either this website or my artwork and indeed many other things and a To Do list as long as your arm. Doing this you achieve nothing but misery as you try to over extend yourself particularly when you have OCD or other anxiety disorder and the battle with this also interferes with whatever it is you attempt. Be more forgiving to yourself apply a little positive self talk, it may take a time for it to become engrained into your thinking processes, particularly if you have been a perfectionist for years and suffering this torment with little or no insight. I have to keep telling myself that perfection in my writing is a goal that is not attainable, I have to consider my handicaps, the OCD checking compulsion for example that hinders this endeavour. I have to accept that until these change I will never obtain perfection in my writing and indeed for the most part perfection is an unattainable goal for anyone.
The following websites may give you more specific advice concerning overcoming your perfectionist tendencies. As a person who tends towards perfectionism I am perhaps not in position to give advice about overcoming this difficulty.
Perfectionism will make your life a misery as much as any other unwanted irrational thought induced state of being. I saw this in my son the day we visited Beverly Minster in Yorkshire, the anxiety although relatively mild was there nonetheless, the anxiety to get the perfect photograph the tension distracted from the pleasure of being in this peaceful place.
The following quotation is perhaps in the end the only advice that we really need as such philosophy can easily be applied to any situation where perfectionist tendencies arise.I have done my best." That is about all the philosophy of living one needs.
Links to websites concerning perfectionism.
Take the perfectionist test:
Return to : Articles