My mom used to meet with my classroom teachers to share her concerns about my persistent need for perfection. I found this out when I was older. I still remember the feelings of panic and shame when I performed “poorly” according to my standards. It was hard to breathe. It was crushing. And I felt like I was a complete failure each time it happened.
Though this experience of perfectionism lessened a bit while I was in high school, I never felt willing or excited about taking risks. If I got anything less than an A, I was a failure. All the decisions I made were about working hard to get the best marks possible. This was the same in sports, art, academics: my whole life was about achieving “perfect.”
This also kept me quiet. I was a mouse: too scared to speak up because I might say something someone didn’t like. I might say something someone else didn’t agree with… and well, how imperfect was that? Life, of course, does a great job of teaching you the very lessons you need to learn. And for the case against perfectionism, that lesson arrived in my 20s.
I had these awful headaches that wouldn’t go away. After a few trips to the ER, I discovered an unidentifiable mass on my pituitary that would require surgery. Thankfully, it wasn’t the kind of brain surgery that puts a hole in your skull, but it was pretty scary nonetheless. I signed paperwork that said it was okay if I went blind, needed lifelong hormone replacement therapy, or even died during the operation. I had about a two week wait until the big day. While my family fretted, I hid away in the basement of my sister’s house to paint.
Product vs. Process & The Freedom of Play
It was the most freeing experience of my life. I looked at my blank canvases and realized it could be the very last time I create. And instead of my usual heavily planned, outlined, “perfect” structure, I grabbed a mirror, some diagrams of the brain, and started to paint. For the next few days I painted without a care in the world. It didn’t matter if they were any good. It wasn’t about the product anymore: it was about making.
Thankfully, the surgery was a complete success and I stand here today in gratitude for the amazing doctors and hospital staff that helped me through. I healed quickly and returned home and back to my job as a high school art teacher. But something had shifted.
In the weeks of my recovery I found an open call to artists so I applied, using the two works I created just before the surgery. I was driving home one day from work when I got a phone call. I almost swerved off the road when I heard the news: I was a finalist. I won money, and my art would be exhibited at the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in addition to a two year touring art exhibition featuring the work.
Sometimes thing go even better than planned
It took a while to digest that my unplanned, unprepared, imperfect artwork was being recognized. But it also opened my eyes to another idea about my art, and in the larger picture, my life: perhaps our choices and actions are not perfect, but perfectly imperfect. It’s those quirky imperfections and mistakes along the way that lead us to be the special people we are.
Sometimes I still hear that voice telling me to find “perfect.” On those days, I go for a walk, embroider, or bake. I like to say I’m a recovering perfectionist: the voice isn’t gone but it’s quieter and I can listen to it less. I kind of envision that inner perfectionist as an old, adorable, but slightly crotchety teacher. She’s well intentioned but you know she’s cranky and that crank influences her feedback. And all of a sudden, it loses a lot of it’s sting.
Today, rather than looking at the choices and actions I take as a black and white failure or success, I see things as mini experiments. What variables are in play and what happens when I add new variables? What results do I like? What do I want to remove or improve? My art isn’t the only place to let go, explore and play. My life is also a canvas on which I can choose to paint.
BIO: Carrie Brummer is an artist and educator who believes engaging with our creative interests makes us happier, healthier, more fulfilled human beings. She created her community www.ArtistStrong.com to help everyone honor their desire to be creative.
So what do you think? Can you relate to Carrie’s story? I know I can! While Carrie did not necessarily experiece Art Therapy, she most definitely found the inherent therapeutic benefits of artmaking. Exploring your creativity can be a powerful step in unlocking your true potential. I’d love to hear where you find yourself on this creative journey called life. Leave us a comment and let us know how we support you in letting go of harsh, critical perfectionism and in unleashing your creativity along the way.