On Being a Perfectionist

I admit it: I am a perfectionist. I constantly am trying to polish things until they are golden, until you can’t see anything wrong with them. I did it throughout college because I was so hung up on my imperfections early on in school that I felt I needed to cover them up by only producing work that I thought people wouldn’t give me criticism about. Truth is, though, when you’re a writer, artist or any person in any career, you cannot avoid criticism. You can’t even avoid your inner critic. While your inner critic can help you take less risks sometimes, it can also hold you back. There were times I wouldn’t go for performance opportunities or wouldn’t sell my writing because I assumed if it wasn’t perfect (whatever that means) then no one would read it. But if you try to base your expectations on what, in your own microcosmic little brain, you think people are going to think of you, then you end up procrastinating and not doing any work at all.

Which is why I scoured the Internet for tips on overcoming impostor syndrome and perfectionism, which are very closely linked, and instead of watching Sarah’s Key like I was going to do (I thought about all the tears I would shed in my sleep after watching a movie about the Holocaust, so I opted to watch the film during the day at a later time) I watched three brilliant Ted Talks about overcoming impostor syndrome and perfectionism. The first I watched was by Lou Solomon, a communications expert who spoke on overcoming her own battle with impostor syndrome. For those who don’t know impostor syndrome is this really sinister feeling many successful people have that one day, someone is going to come knocking on their door and take away their trophies and tell them, “You only got to where you are because of luck”. Impostor syndrome tells us to erase any memory of the accomplishments we achieved in our lives, and so we end up feeling stifled in terms of creativity. Lou said that she grew up with an alcoholic dad who constantly made her feel small, but that even the clients she works with had happy childhoods but took on careers that require you to constantly receive criticism (namely artists. I can attest as you know by now). Lou talks about how she thought she had the perfect career in communications and didn’t have any problems, but then she reached a breaking point when she was just burned out constantly over work, so she finally did something out of her comfort zone and reached out to her friend for help.

Lou also says that embracing your “Radical hero”; she called her inner critic Ms. Vader (after Darth Vader) and her radical hero was Betty Lou. Unlike Ms. Vader, who placed restrictions on Lou, Betty Lou cursed and didn’t take any B.S. I remember taking a workshop on impostor syndrome in college with a friend and we thought about creating a story together where we personified our emotions into real-life women (think Angry Anna, Stressed-Out Sandra, etc. You can do the same with any gender identity though.) From time to time, I have personified my anxieties and doubts and it has served as catharsis. Betty Lou says that the most important thing to do in order to succeed in life is to fail, live, love and ask for help. She grew up in a family where vulnerability is seen as weakness, but overtime she had to learn that in order to do one’s best work we have to ask for help, we have to go outside our comfort zone and share our experiences so that we can help someone else. As someone who struggled with mental health, I know it’s hard to share your experiences with people, but I always feel good knowing that someone else feels inspired to just keep living even just by me opening up about my experience with mental health and perfectionism.

Another video I saw was David Rae interview rapper Macklemore (aka Ben Haggerty) about his career, his songwriting process and what advice to give to artists about perfectionism. In the interview, Macklemore shares his past struggles with drug addiction and says that he had to get sober so that he could produce his best work, and that while the process of recovery hasn’t been perfect it has helped him keep living. During the interview the audience also saw live footage of Macklemore feeling sick backstage and going into the restroom quickly to vomit (he had food poisoning) and then going quickly onstage in his super expensive-looking costume. It’s hard to sit through to see Macklemore in pain like that, but it showed me how it’s important to see the truth behind being a musician and not hold on to this stubborn mainstream belief that being a musician is easy and comfortable. Macklemore couldn’t cancel his show, he said he just had to hope that he wouldn’t vomit in front of people onstage. I often still hold on to romantic beliefs about being a musician, even a background musician for a famous singer or rapper, but truth is, it’s just as important to gain insight into what goes on backstage as it is to see the actual performance. Performing is nerve-wracking; as a musician, I can attest, and especially if it’s classical music, which tends to be perfection-driven. But after performing for many years I can say this: not everyone is going to like your stuff. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your best every day, but just don’t assume that you have to get everyone to like your work the first time around. I, like many people, have faced consistent rejection in my early years, and by my mid 20s I had grown complacent with just doing as I was told because not doing as I was told would earn me harsh rebuke.

And yes, you always need to be working on something, even with your day job. But at the end of the day, I write because I love to write, and Macklemore stresses this a lot in the Ted Talk interview. He says that he looked up several quotes on perfection before coming to the Ted Talk, but the most important thing he learned as a songwriter was that the thing that can kill you is if you let your perfectionism stop you from beginning in the first place. It takes courage to write a good song, and the most challenging thing is to look at a blank piece of paper and not feel like you have it in you to just write something. Macklemore says that writing was challenging when he first started at 16 and it’s challenging even at 30 because he has such a high expectation for his art and his potential, which is why he’s so wildly successful. But he says you just have to start writing, and when it sounds like the best it can be, you can put the finishing touches on it and just call it a day. I still remember reading about how the singer-songwriter Joss Stone writes every day even when it seems she doesn’t have perfect songs. When asked how she knows when she’s finished a song she says

I’m probably the worst person to ask that cause I have the most boring answer, I literally write a song until I run out of ideas and then that’s the song [ laughs] I deliberately, unconsciously don’t take too much time on that because I’ve done it in the past, and trust me you can do it. I’ve made records that took me a year to finish, I’ve written 70 songs and picked 12. Are they better records? No. The process was just more involved, careful and less enjoyable. Now I like using my first thought because they’re usually the best. Once you start thinking and honing it, you question yourself and the most raw version of yourself, thinking it’s not good enough. But guess what, it is your best version. If something sounds like sh*t, you just don’t put it out. I don’t even know if anything’s really finished, it’s just a moment.

“No Plan, No Problem: An Interview with Joss Stone”

She does what Ira Glass, Macklemore, Sam Smith and just about every other successful person does: they just do a lot of work every.single.day. Also, it doesn’t help to just sit alone and write. You need to share it with people so you can get feedback on it. In college, I was constantly getting criticism: during private lessons, when I got my papers back from professors, any time of day I was getting constructive feedback. But after college, I lost that creative soul that needed to be fed and listened to my depression tell me my work wasn’t good anymore and that I should just retire. But you have to just get out of that mindset that everyone needs to like, see or comment on your work the first time. If you’re really passionate about something, you’re going to put in the work to do it regardless of whether you’re tired, depressed, or stressed. Even if I was to get sick, I would still take care of myself, but that wouldn’t stop me from writing at least something.

And yes, I do slip up sometimes and end up choosing to take better care of myself over honing my craft (sometimes, putting the tools down and just recovering from the common cold actually does help you re-focus on your craft, although you need to be the judge about this because missing too many days can become a habit). But as Macklemore says, and this goes for anyone of an profession: don’t let unhealthy standards dictate your work. Just start something, anything. Just don’t let this nagging inner critic tell you to not bother producing anything because you have an important voice that needs to be shared and creating art is what makes us human. What would things have been like if Macklemore hadn’t taken his song “Same Love” and showed it to Ryan Lewis? Macklemore says in the interview that he originally wrote the song from the perspective of a gay youth, but Ryan Lewis told him to instead write about how he feels about LGBTQ+ discrimination, just from his own perspective as a straight man. Not trying to speak for LGBTQ+ youth and instead sharing his own perspective on how he’s seen homophobia in the media and his own observations through life really encouraged a lot of people, especially LGBTQ+ people. And sure, he may have gotten criticism for the song, like all artists do at some point, but regardless of how one feels about the song (I’m queer and while I didn’t enjoy hearing him use a homophobic slur in the song, I understood that he was trying to make a point to show how bad anti-gay discrimination has been in this country).

The last TedTalk I watched was one by Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., whose research focuses on creating innovative programs for people to handle stress better. In this talk, she asks us a seemingly simple but actually hard-to-answer question: is there such a thing as healthy perfectionism? She talks about the different triggers for perfectionism, including body image, grades and family expectations. Body image is a big one because even with the ever-growing body positivity movement and more stores having plus-size clothing and models, girls still feel that they have to have a certain weight or look to be successful, and that eating disorders are very common among young women in school. Indeed, I remember beating myself up over my body for a long time. I also remember that when I was younger, before I got to fifth grade, I didn’t care about whether I could make perfect grades. But after nearly flunking out of 5th grade, like I said earlier, I tried to make up for that by overstudying until I practically got no sleep, until I felt getting eight hours of sleep a night was lazy and that I wasn’t working hard enough. I remember actually doing poorly in 5th grade because I was staying up trying to figure out why I had suddenly hit a snag in my math skills, and this lack of sleep affected my self-esteem, how I interacted with my peers and teachers, everything. In college, I set myself up for making A’s because I didn’t want my past failures to show, but I actually ended up procrastinating when I focused on waiting until I had the perfect first paper to turn in my work. I subsequently ended up falling behind in much of my course work. Dr. Domar talks about one young woman who was so focused on excelling at sports in school that she didn’t sleep, didn’t eat well, and didn’t make time for friends, and as a result she burned out and dropped out of college because she felt that she failed to do everything perfectly. I remember sacrificing a lot to be the best student and orchestra player, and it nearly killed me. Literally. I have learned in retrospect that while it’s great to pursue your passion, you also need to make money from doing an imperfect day job (e.g. dish-washing, waiting tables, working corporate) to make the dough needed to pay for gas money and other expenses needed to cover that passion. Passion isn’t free, and even for this blog I had to pay for the domain. Even for cello, I need to pay money to go to summer camps, even to gigs (gas money, transportation). Working a day job is a form of self-care for me to some extent because I do not have to worry when my next paycheck will come in or whether I will have savings for an emergency that comes up. As much as sports, music activities, and courses matter on resumes, you also need to show folks you can calmly deal with a snappy customer or two.

Dr. Domar also says that having gratitude is important because when we compare ourselves to others constantly, we are a. forgetting that we don’t know other people’s situations and they’re only portraying what they want to on social media because their day-to-day life isn’t perfect. and b. we forget that sometimes we do have it a lot better than other people. I look at the news everyday because I have so much down time at work, and when the government shutdown happened I at first was complaining about my job, but then I read news stories and saw photos of government employees struggling to get by with no paychecks coming in, and I really had to swallow my pride and be grateful. Yes, you shouldn’t be complacent, and you should strive to keep getting better opportunities. However, it’s important to remember that what may seem like a huge problem to you may be pennies to someone else who has gone through much worse. As I mentioned in a previous post, even as a struggling musician, I have to remember that I had access to private lessons, access to great mentors, and went to schools that, despite budget cuts, really worked hard to keep arts programs going. I know many musicians who do not have this luxury. That’s why I’ve found keeping a gratitude journal helps, and I know I’m back in that funk when I haven’t written in that gratitude journal for a while.

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