Giving Up Perfectionism For Greater Joy

A few months back, my husband and I had a little conversation in which we discussed swapping and trying out each other’s interests. Mine is painting. His is building puzzles, of the 3,000 to 5,000 pieces kind. Before he met me, my husband didn’t have any particular interest in art. But in our time together as a couple, sometimes willingly and sometimes dragged by me, as spouses sometimes are, he has seen a lot of art. He has, for example, bought tickets to take me to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring when it came as part of a traveling exhibition to San Francisco. He has stood bewildered when I sat crying after seeing this same exhibition, not because I was ecstatic at having seen this long-dreamed-of artiste’s work but because I was so disappointed that I didn’t have the reaction I thought I would have. Because I didn’t have this reaction, I thought I had lost some part of my creative soul, something in me that could appreciate it. Go figure. I can be complicated at times.

In contrast, my husband is, in his own words, a simple guy. He is also an engineer – logical, objective, someone who thinks about systems and actually enjoys figuring out ways to make them better. His playful side comes out when he is building his puzzles. It takes quite a long time to build a puzzle and the pieces sit on our dining table for more than a month as my husband slowly, patiently, in his spare time, in the evenings, puts them together. I don’t mind this. I think this is part of the creative process. Sometimes, he tries to get me to be part of the building. I pick out a few pieces and feel delighted. But the puzzles are so complicated and the pieces so numerous that very soon I am overwhelmed and leave him to it. The fact that he has the patience and the persistence to sit and look for all the clues, to observe, to be okay with only finding a few pieces on some days, these are some of the qualities that I admire about him.

Trading Places

For my own part, I love to play with colors and draw out the edges of my feelings onto paper. Sometimes, I do “art art.” Sometimes, I do playful, exploratory art when the images seem to just pop out of the canvas, when I just meander and exclaim at that part of me that’s beyond the mind, which has access to images and symbols that I could never make up in my head. For me, art is the most nourishing thing I can do to fill my heart.

When we have the conversation to try out the “other” thing, I don’t realize how serious my husband is. I knew we were intending to try it, but I guess we are trying it right away. He borrows my art supplies, my paints and brushes. He sets up my small table-top easel on the living-room table. He switches on a youtube tutorial and he ends up making, in four or five hours, a really good painting. It doesn’t look anything like a “first painting” done after decades of never having picked up a brush after his school days. We share it with our extended families on chat and they are suitably impressed.

Over the next few weeks, he gets really into it. We go to Micheals, a local art supply store. Soon, he has stocked up on his own supplies. He has his own paints, canvases, and brushes. Words like gesso, a painting primer, have entered his dictionary. He sits down and paints some more paintings. There’s one of a Cherry Blossom lane that he paints using a Youtube tutorial. It looks beautiful. Then, he dips his toe in and just paints a landscape from his imagination. He criticizes it as not being “good” but to me, it’s clear that he is growing. He has already grasped some techniques and has applied them in a quite good painting.

While he has been doing this, I have been trying to complete a writing project I have been working on. It’s overwhelming. It has a lot of pieces. A lot of emotional work has gone into it. I still have a lot of work left to do but I seem to be coming closer to the finish line. It feels a little overwhelming to try and start something like a puzzle right now, especially the larger kind of puzzles that he is encouraging me to do. But there’s never a good time to start anything, and like he says, I can go slowly. It’s not a time-bound thing. So, I start a 750-word puzzle. It’s a kiddie scene of Dumbo the Elephant, the Disney character with people pointing up and looking at Dumbo flying.

Learning From Each Other

My husband tells me how to start. Build out the edges, he says. Soon enough (although it seems like a long time), I have the edges laid out. The pieces feel overwhelming. I am not sure how the scale of the sample picture and the actual puzzle work with each other. I try to force-fit pieces together. I feel myself getting distracted and my husband has to nudge me to get me to work on the puzzle. He gives me some more hints and I am on my way. Little by little, even though it feels overwhelming at times, I start finding pieces. The kangaroos on the side are formed. I have figured out many of the gaggle of kids staring up at Dumbo. One day, I even have a moment when I feel in that magical flow like you sometimes do when you are completely in the present. This is starting to make sense.

I have done maybe a fifth of the puzzle and it’s still a long way to go. I feel rushed and harried. I have my writing project to work on. My husband helps me a bit. He puts together some more pieces. Soon, I start feeling like I have to get the puzzle done before family arrives for a visit. I feel rushed, so I tell my husband to work on it. I want to complete it before the visit, so we can have the dining table free. I had been imagining that I would complete my first full puzzle all on my own, and I feel disappointed with myself. I feel like I have failed. I feel like the work that I did put in is “nothing.” I get a little antsy looking at the puzzle.

Now, I look at it and it doesn’t feel mine.

The puzzle, as I write this, still remains unfinished on the dining table. My husband has been busy. He hasn’t had time to work on it. In the meanwhile, I have been trying to finish my project and running smack against what feels like the last hurdle. Nothing I write is ever “perfect.” Even parts I have finished, which I have promised myself I won’t look at, I take out and then nit-pick all the faults in them. Nothing is ever good enough. Maybe, I am never good enough. But I know that if I continue like this, I won’t finish this thing I have started. I have to get better at being imperfect. I start reading books on perfectionism. They tell me that in studies, perfectionism is not even a good indicator of better work, that assumption that perfectionists make. It’s about having such high standards that you get stuck with fear right at the onset. It’s about the pressure you put yourself under. You end up not doing enough. You end up looking at things not as they are, but as some idealized thing in your head. You end up discounting, instead of counting, like I had done with the puzzle.

With it, I had high standards right at the onset, even though I hadn’t made any puzzle after those childhood ones of twenty or thirty pieces. I had compared myself to my husband even though I had not been in the exact mindset with which he had approached painting. I had started this partly because I had promised him. I had been disappointed even though in a relatively short time, I had figured out a few things and even had moments of pure delight at figuring out something new. I had also discounted my own effort just because my husband had helped me out later on.

Getting Perspective On Perfectionism

But I had totally lost sight of the bigger picture. I had always been interested in big puzzles, much before I knew my husband, and now I had built a little part of one. Now, there could be others. More importantly, we had started exploring more of what’s “other” to both of us. As a “feeling” person, it was my evaluative and linear side. For my husband, it was his “feeling” side, the side that loves beauty. Both of us, to different degrees, had started experimenting with something new and different.

But instead of thinking this as a starting point, my perfectionism told me that I had completely failed. I had thought in disastrous terms about even such a free thing, in which we could do whatever we wanted. My perfectionism wasn’t making me better. It was just taking away my joy. This same tendency has also hurt me everywhere else, in social situations, in my writing, in how I arrange my everyday tasks. Everything has to be perfect. Anything less than perfect won’t do.

But why? Why does everything have to be perfect? Everything doesn’t have the same importance. And even important things are often not perfect.

I know the roots of my tendency. I can sense now how perfectionism is a defense mechanism, often against criticism. I can sense that it just stops me, from growing, from experimenting, from being. Maybe, now with my new awareness, I will resume the half-finished puzzle. Maybe, I will do part of it and my husband will do a part. Maybe, I will do less or do more. It doesn’t matter. What matters is I try to start looking at the bigger picture and see that high expectations should not be a block, but just a thing, and really, the process itself should be put first.  

Be Perfect. But why?

It’s a question I know I will be asking again and again, hoping that as time goes by, doing and being and being imperfect will be not just good enough, but even just right.  

About Ritu Kaushal

Ritu Kaushal is the author of the book, The Empath’s Journey, which TEDx speaker Andy Mort calls “a fascinating insight into the life of a highly sensitive person and emotional empath.” Ritu is a Silver Medal awardee at the prestigious Rex Karamveer Chakra awards, co-presented by the United Nations in India, and given to people creating social impact through their work. Ritu writes about highly sensitive creatives on her site Walking Through Transitions where you can also get two free chapters of The Empath’s Journey by signing up for her newsletter.