I am a recovering perfectionist. A perfectionist is someone who puts unrealistically high standards on themselves with overly critical self-evaluations. Some may project that onto others as well.
I got triggered by my own perfectionism while painting a bird - my second attempt at painting a bird (below). I'd invited constructive feedback by other hobby artists during the process but then I felt my normally low blood pressure rise, I felt angry inside and I felt 'done'. My frustrations came out in scribbling paint over the background and overdoing the highlights as per suggestions. I knew I had to stop.
I have observed many artistic people to have perfectionist traits. I am one of them. Some people will work on their art for weeks and they'll say 'just put it aside and look at it again later.' But then I ended up reworking the background several times, reworking the bird, reworking the foreground. For my own sanity, I need to decide when 'good enough' is 'enough' and just leave it alone, have a break and start a new painting. Start afresh.
Other people have said my painting is beautiful. Other self-critical people will point out what is 'wrong' with it. I am happy with parts of it but am tempted to got back to try to change things. But I've decided I've finished with it. It will never be 'perfect' and I will never be 'perfect'. I was triggered into anger with it and that's not how I want art to be for me. Art is something that helps me relax. It's also helped me to process trauma.
I learned to play piano for years and I used to go back to the beginning and start again if I made a mistake. It took a lot of training to help me to learn to 'bluff' through the mistakes. I ended up preferring an improvising style over classical, as the 'mistakes' can add flavour. I enjoy the experimentation. I think I'm like that with painting as well. I'm not a hyper-realistic painter. I like colour and I capture moods. I liked abstract because I could break rules and the perfectionism would lay dormant.
But then the perfectionism has been coming out when I paint semi-realistic subjects. I fiddle more. I wonder about it looking 'right'. I notice everything that's 'wrong'.
My perfectionism helped me do well in many school and university subjects and in the workplace but then as I had impairment with mental health struggles starting in my late teens, I would feel very alarmed that my brain felt 'broken' and I couldn't retain nor organise information anymore.
After getting As at university for the first two years of a science degree, I had a breakdown in my final year (looking back now it was a combination of my yet to be diagnosed bipolar disorder and PTSD. Finally diagnosed in my forties). I couldn't retain information anymore. I reduced my workload and did the bare minimum just because I couldn't function. I got my first Bs. It took me 2 years longer to finish a 3 year degree because I was unwell and wasn't diagnosed.
During that time, I felt like a failure. At other times in my life, I have felt like a failure. Even after achievements such as winning a major prize in an essay competition and winning a business prize for a pet care business I started from scratch (but then later burnt out from). I got distinction in a piano exam and my teacher couldn't understand why I felt depressed. My perfectionism had come back out practising for the exam. I have hardly played piano since.
I have felt like a failure when I couldn't continue with a career in high school teaching, when my marriage broke up and other losses along the way. It's been brutal for my mental health. Deep down I felt like "I" wasn't good enough. Since childhood. It's quite hard to change those patterns. Perfectionism contributed a lot to my depressive episodes - some of it was expectations from others that I could no longer fulfill when I was unwell.
I read that over half of people who commit suicide were described by loved ones as perfectionists. It certainly is a contributing factor in my mental health issues. I feel very anxious with criticism from others. I was told by a psychiatrist that is one of the criteria of my social anxiety disorder. I fear negative evaluation from others. Yet I do it to myself. But I have learned over the years when to stop - good enough is enough.
I am good enough. That is more than enough.
Effects of perfectionism on mental health
Xanthe finds writing and painting to be therapeutic. She has lived with mental illness for over 25 years. She has been diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety disorder after originally being diagnosed with 'treatment resistant' depression with general anxiety.