How to Rescue Yourself From the Ice Cold Claws of Perfectionism


In the late spring of 1987, I stood in the art book section of a large bookstore in Arnhem, the Netherlands. I was 23 years old, my hair was dyed bright purple, and tears were streaming down my face.

I had just realized that the book: Esther de Charon de Saint Germain, An Artist Life., would never be written.

I gazed at the books about the genius of Picasso, Louise Bourgeois and Claes Oldenburg, and took a decision that would change the course of my life forever.

I accepted that, as an artist, I was a failure in the making.

Gone were the days of art. Designing and painting were a thing of the past.

It was so obvious to me. Being an artist was for the chosen ones. The brave ones, who were prepared to suffer, to live in drafty attics. Wait for commissions to magically appear.

I was not borderline enough to roll in the mud. Too prudish and scared to show myself. I was just very middle of the road.

Within 1 week I left the art academy, and enrolled in the University of Amsterdam to become an art historian.

At the university I studied, described, discussed, compared and categorized art. Without touching it. And you know what? I loved it! Walking through the Rijksmuseum with my notebook felt so safe -- like being in a feel-good movie.

I relied solely on my brains. And they were working fine. Who could argue with grades?!

Gone were the insecurities about the quality of my art. No lineup of art school teachers hovering over my sketches, muttering something like: "Hmmm... interesting... maybe... Not sure about the inherent quality, though."

Gone were the feelings of inadequacy. No more looking at the work of a fellow student, feeling caught like a rabbit in the headlights: "She is so much more original, braver, outspoken than I will ever be."

I boxed my art supplies, and trashed my paintings. I carefully deleted everything that was remotely artsy.

For 27 years I worked in the field of art, culture and design as an organizer, curator, manager and coach. The only time I touched an artwork was when I lifted a painting out of a box, and hung it on the wall of a museum.

A year ago I found out my secondary archetype is the creator.

My first reaction: "Who me? A creator? No way!"

But then I learned the creator has a huge pitfall: Perfectionism.

To be honest, I never considered myself a perfectionist. I gathered that, had I been a perfectionist, my life would have been less messy. More, well... perfect.

But than it dawned on me. Quitting art school was NOT the best thing I'd ever done. I had given in to perfectionism. I had been so scared to be not worthy enough, I had taken myself out of the game.

I had been in the slimy ice cold claws of perfectionism since I gave in at the bookstore in Arnhem.

Perfectionism has nothing to do with being perfect.

Perfect is an A for an exam. A table set by Martha Stewart. A smooth paint job on a '39 Cadillac.

Perfectionism kills your creativity because it convinces you that your talents are nothing special -- that you are not creative at all, that you are just plain ordinary - and by the way - also too fat, thin, old, young smart, stupid small, tall, rich or broke.

Perfectionism is the silent killer of your happy talents.

It whispers in your ear when you're writing an article: "Are you sure people like to read this?" Her ugly daughter Procrastination will take over.

She presses her moist check to yours, and hisses: "Why don't you do something different first. Your house is dirty. Clean it! What will people think?"

Perfectionism will visit you when you're almost ready to start your own business. She will occupy your brain: "Sweetie... Are you sure? Are you up to it? Look at what happened to Carol. She's broke! Have a good look at that beautiful website Tom has made. It's very difficult to be as good as he is!"

Perfectionism will call in her ugly twins Self-Doubt and Overwhelm. Like an army of Uruk-Hai they will immediately start trashing up your ideas, causing such turmoil and chaos, you would rather give up than having to clean up after them.

How can you deal with perfectionism

  • Most importantly: Acknowledge it.
Don't wait for 27 years like I did. Stand up and say: "Hi, my name is... and I'm a perfectionist."
  • Be compassionate to yourself.
  • Being a perfectionist is not some kind of punishment from the universe. It's an unwanted byproduct that came with your creativity and talents.
  • Laugh at it.
  • Nothing puts the uptightness of perfectionism more in perspective than a good laugh.
  • Act like a product designer.
  • In order to have a strong product you need to fail -- a lot.Every failure makes for a better end product.
  • Let go of the fear, but do not let go of your beautiful ideas!
  • I promise you, once you get the hang of it, you will be able to let go. To hang loose.

But don't give up on that blog post, the drawing, the idea that came up in the shower, the little dress. Make it, do it. It has not to be the idea that will cure cancer or spread eternal happiness.

It will be something that makes you happy, that brings you joy, and that's how you change the world.

One Happy Mind At The Time.

I'd love to hear from you. How do you cope with doubts, procrastination and perfectionism in your business and life?