Train Your Brain (Moving Through Perfectionism to Create) Episode I: Reject Perfection

by Michelle M. Johnson

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The concept of perfection has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Or, more specifically, the concept of perfectionism and the life and brain-space of the perfectionist. 

As a coloring book creator, a creativity facilitator, a dance instructor, a parent, a mentor and a friend, I find myself encountering and engaging perfectionists on pretty much a daily basis. The perfectionism I encounter in my students, my child, my friends, and the colorists who discover my books/workshops/events comes in all different levels. Some of it is fairly innocuous (like struggling over what color to choose next for a coloring page and uttering "I just don't want to mess it up with the wrong choice!"), and other bits are downright debilitating (like tears welling up in eyes accompanying the confession "I'm the only one who isn't getting it!").

Of course, my role in life these days is to encourage folks of all ages to try new things, and new things are scary, so emotions run high. But, all that doesn't really explain why perfectionism is always rearing its ugly head in my presence. I think I am also looking out for the needs and struggles of perfectionists because I am one myself; when I encounter a perfectionist, I tend to zone in on how perfectionism is affecting their progress, whether it is in a dance class, a coloring workshop, or a rant session.

Over this past year of engagement with fellow perfectionists, I have begun noticing trends in their thinking and problem solving when they tackle something new and it doesn't go "perfectly." And, these trends got me to wondering: can the brain be re-trained away from perfectionistic thinking? Because, let's face it, perfectionism is a learned system, and quite frankly, a flawed system (I know, ironic, right? The perfectionist calling perfectionism flawed. I hope y'all enjoyed that!).

Now, how someone learns to be a perfectionist can have its origins in a variety of sources, and the reasons that they hold tight to that way of working through life are just as varied. For myself, I am quite certain that my perfectionism stems from my upbringing in the dance world. I danced from age 2 to, well, this afternoon. In dance, there is no "good job" after a performance from your superiors; there is only "work on this for next time" or "again, from the top," which roughly translates to "do it again; you need to improve." I didn't perceive this as a negative thing growing up. I loved dancing, so getting to do it again was a privilege, even if my shins were on fire and my feet were bleeding. Our goal was perfection, always perfection. The only way to be perfect was to look for what wasn't perfect and come back to the dance floor, not pat ourselves on the back for the parts we got right. And, that made perfect sense to me...until the day I started teaching adults ballet in the late 90s, and I made my students cry because they thought my adherence to telling them what they needed to work on as opposed to what they had done well meant that they were hopeless and would never be dancers; my teaching strategy of focusing on their errors in form and execution in order to achieve perfection in their performance was a hindrance to their overall progress and generally made them feel like ballet failures. 

I was 26 at the time of that story and utterly oblivious to the fact that I was a perfectionist. This is due in large part because media and pop culture presents us with the image of a perfectionist as someone who has all their ducks in a row (I decidedly never have, probably because I prefer cats to ducks), who hasn't a hair out of place (I struggle to care enough about appearances to make sure my hair is dry when I leave the house), who keeps a spic and span living space (I know where everything is, for sure, and it all has a place, but that place is more often than not covered in dust, and I figure no one has died eating our food, so never having cleaned the microwave or oven mustn't really be that big a deal), who dresses to the nines in clothes pressed free of wrinkles (I do have an iron...but I use it for art projects), and who likes everything and everyone around them to be perfect and predictable (yeah, perfection in your environment and relationships always seemed...boring). But, with the hindsight of almost a full 20 years, I now realize I was dangerously perfectionistic. I worked needlessly long hours, checking and re-checking my plans and projects for errors, preparing weeks in advance if not months (I was a high school teacher), and trying to be exactly who each person in my life needed to me to be (regardless of the fact that, if you included my 160 students a year, that meant being a multitude of people every single day). And, I felt strongly that this "work ethic" made me a better employee, a perfect employee, as well as a flawless friend, spouse, sister, and daughter.

I share this personal history with y'all both to provide authenticity (I may not LOOK like a perfectionist, and maybe you don't either, but it isn't all about looking the part when it comes to perfectionism), but also to provide some context: there are instances where perfectionism pays off, and those instances are what help to fuel a perfectionist's belief that holding on to perfectionistic behaviors is what brings them success. As a classroom teacher, being a perfectionist paid off in having the love of my students, the respect of my peers, and the appreciation of my administration. Perfection in the medical field is also highly prized (and I rather liked knowing I had a perfectionist for a surgeon when I was cut open a few years ago), and for heaven's sake, every time I cross a bridge, I really hope all involved with its design and construction had a perfectionist's passion for detail! 

My thoughts on perfectionism and wondering if it is possible to re-train the perfectionist's brain aren't to suggest that perfection as a goal is wholly bad. Rather, I am interested in using my blog to occasionally talk about how to learn to identify when being a perfectionist isn't working for us (and perhaps may be becoming harmful), and then to share some ideas and exercises with y'all that I've been putting to use in my own life and suggesting to my students and clients as of late. Oh, and there will of course be free coloring pages along the way, too (perhaps now the phrase in the center of this month's free page is making "perfect" sense?), because if there is something I have learned over the past three years of leading folks through coloring workshops it's that filling in black-lined drawings with your choice of color not only helps folks discover the boundaries of their comfort zones, but it also gently guides them into stepping out of those boundaries with confidence. And, if there is one thing a perfectionist struggles with it is stepping outside of their comfort zones with ease.

So, with the explanation about my Train Your Brain series of blog posts out of the way, let's move on to this post's super simple mental (or written, if you feel so inclined) exercise that I am currently using to deal with my own perfectionism when it comes to drawing, and that I have also used time and again when I get perfectionist students in my classes who are brand-spanking new to dancing or coloring. I'm thinking about calling this activity "This vs. That," but that title is still a work-in-progess (and, it makes me a bit queasy to be writing this post without all of my cats in a row, but that's what this series is all about - working and learning through perfectionism).

To illustrate how working through a This vs. That exercise ( This = a new experience that easily results in "perfection;" That = a deceptively similar experience that presents the perfectionist with unexpected challenges; then compare and contrast the two experiences, taking an honest look at all the ingredients that make up the perceived "perfect" success and the perceived "failure") can help the perfectionist begin to identify flaws in their thinking about their performance, I'm going to share with you how I am using this exercise to push through a particularly rough patch of perfectionist's thinking I am in the thick of right now.


I recognize that I am dealing with some rather abstract concepts in this post,
so I thought making a visual aid for this post's exercise,
 a sort of flow chart might be helpful. It is imperfect of course
 (I forgot to add the step that after identifying a THIS and THAT,
the two experiences then need to be compared and contrasted), but I thought
 keeping in that error might help reinforce what I was talking about.
Currently, I am getting very hung up on the desire for my drawings for my next coloring book, Feminism Is For Everyone, to be perfect (my That). I also had that same drive while completing my drawings in my already published book, Doodled Blooms, so it seemed perfectly natural for me to have the same expectations for any subsequent coloring books (my This). But, the theme of my first book was so organic. It was structured around only my ideas, and it was filled with shapes and patterns I had been drawing for years, which meant my perfectionism didn't get in the way of my coming to the drawing table and just creating everyday. It didn't even occur to me that a drawing wouldn't be exactly as I wanted it, wouldn't be perfect, as each page was all my ideas. With Feminism Is For Everyone, I am not only drawing shapes that I have had very little practice, much less experience, with over the years (primarily letter forms, words), but the ideas for these pages are not my own brain children (each drawing is inspired by a photo of an actual sign used in the 2017 Women's March that was shared with me after the event). Add onto that that this book is going to be decidedly longer, holds the anticipation of all of the wonderfully generous people who shared their experiences with me of its completion, AND it is decidedly LONG overdue as it is almost now 2019, it makes absolute sense that my perfectionism is getting in the way of me creating this new coloring book! 

The only thing connecting these two coloring book creating experiences is that they are books of the same genre. Beyond that, the creation of Feminism Is For Everyone is an entirely new experience for me! I have had so much I have needed to learn from scratch to make this book exactly as I want it, and comparing myself to the person who created Doodled Blooms in less than a year and with very little gnashing of teeth is ridiculous! 

So, that is a recent This (Doodled Blooms: an exciting, enjoyable, organic creative drawing experience, lacking in audience expectations and filled with my blissful naivete about the whole publication process) vs. That (Feminism Is For Everyone: loads of perceived expectations, tons of new and occasionally very challenging-for-me skills to seek out information on and independently learn, and a rigidly defined theme that while being very important to me is not a natural drawing subject that I have been playing around with my whole life) that I have been working on to try and figure out exactly why I have struggled to find my way to making any progress on next book project. It isn't about me drawing (I have actually created quite a few bits of bite-sized and full-sized coloring pages while procrastinating the work of Feminism Is For Everyone, much of which is available for folks to pick up in the Have Color Will Travel Blog Store), but rather about how much difficulty I am having drawing specifically on this new project. And, because I have refused to see how very different these two publishing experiences are, refused to see just how much study, practice, and trial and error my current project must have, refused to acknowledge that all of that work on top of the actual drawing/writing/publishing of Feminism Is For Everyone will of course take a considerable amount of time for me to complete, I have been dangerously close to not only giving up on the project, but giving up on sharing my art publicly all together. It is my perfectionism that makes me think that because this new project is taking me longer than I thought it would, I should give up art all together. It is also my perfectionism that makes me forget that Doodled Blooms didn't just take 9 months to complete, but rather it was a lifetime of practicing the line drawing of flowers, leaves and patterns, a lifetime of writing out my thoughts in blank journals, plus a degree in writing where I studied under fabulous writers, and then years of practice teaching others how to write. That is what it took to make my first coloring book, and it is my perfectionism that makes me forget all of those steps towards my goal.

Perfectionism has a nasty habit of taking away perspective on just how long it takes to get to a place where feeling "perfect" and competent at something is the norm, and because of that a perfectionist isn't always adequately equipped to handle the inevitable bumps in the road that occur on the path to learning or trying something new. When I encounter a perfectionist in my classes and workshops who wants to give up on what we are learning, I make sure to quietly inquire into how their experience is going. Invariably what they share with me involves a comparison of some sort that they are in the throes of experiencing, and they are coming out with the very short end of the stick, so they want to give up. It is the perfectionist's strong need to compare themselves to others (and to earlier, "more successful" versions of themselves) that leads me to think that perhaps harnessing that natural instinct to compare with the This vs. That exercise might be helpful in getting folks to cut themselves some slack and allow for the time and space to grow towards the "perfection" they currently see themselves as lacking.

So, my suggestion at this point is this: if you find yourself in a place where you are procrastinating something you must do because you "just aren't good at it" or you are thinking of quitting something that you previously were quite interested to learn or do but have now decided that you "just can't get it and should quit," reach back into your memory for the time when you were "perfect" at something similar and make an honest list of all the things/reasons that went into reaching that place of "perfection," and then compare it to where you are now with your new, "less than perfect" situation.

I realize that going through such an exercise as This vs. That could bring out truths/ideas that were hiding - perfectionism is a fabulous hide-y hole for all sorts of issues - and that these truths/ideas may be emotionally difficult to face, triggers even (perfectionism can often have its origins in trauma). It is for that reason that this first post on perfectionism in my Train Your Brain series comes with a really detailed (some might say busy), visually in-your-face free coloring page, one that I hope will be an engaging thing for a colorist to work on with their hands should they choose to work through This vs. That for themselves. You may happen to notice that the lines of this month's free coloring page are, shall we say, lacking in rigor and form rules?


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I drew this on a particularly difficult day for me last spring, emotionally speaking. I was struggling to approve of anything I was doing - drawing, writing, dancing, living - everything. In an attempt to bust my way out what basically boiled down to a fear of failing, I turned to a blank page in my journal and just started throwing down black ink every which way, leaving out care for line development, circle sense, pattern balance, all of it. I drew out of frustration: I was afraid that I was a failure because I couldn't do what I wanted to do "perfectly," and I was angry with myself for feeling that way, for believing "perfection" was the only option when it comes to artistic endeavors. I was furious that I had absorbed the the wrong-headed thinking that if you can't be "perfect" you some how aren't even allowed to give it a try. As I finished the drawing, my anger lead me to wonder whether there could be a different way for me to live, a life that could easily and honestly say 'f*ck you!' to the concept of "perfection," a perspective that ignored rather than looked up to "perfection." As I drew this drawing, I didn't judge or correct a single line; I actively rejected perfection the entire time and it felt awesome! Now, that feeling was fleeting, of course (a lifetime of perfectionism doesn't evaporate into thin air, although the perfectionist in me thinks that I should be over it all already - so.many.layers.), but it did start me down the road to looking at my perfectionism and that of others as more of a problem that might be manageable with some attention rather than a curse that makes us miserable (but, more often than not, really good at our chosen professions). It also brought me to the conclusion that if muscles can be trained to be stronger over time, well then surely the brain can be trained to be more resilient against perfectionism! 

I refuse to believe that myself and others are doomed to be trapped in the clutches of perfectionism for the rest of our lives (who's creating our standard of perfection anyway?!), but I also know that change doesn't happen overnight. So, welcome to my Train Your Brain series of blog posts. I hope this and future posts are helpful, or, at the very least, not a waste of anyone's time (even if you're not a perfectionist yourself, chances are you love one, so maybe you'll find an idea in here that will help you relate to your perfectionist better), and I welcome any comments, suggestions, feedback on both the ideas and the art.

And, don't worry - Have Color Will Travel will still have plenty of coloring & creativity content! I just happen to think that creativity and perfectionism interact a lot, and I have some ideas about that that I think are worth sharing.

Oh, and by the way, this drawing became something I am really am proud of, flaws and all. And, that pride comes not from the shapes and ideas so much (although I'm totally going to color this baby myself - I think it turned out cool!), but because rejecting perfection as a goal is really f**cking hard for me to do, and I did it with this drawing AND shared it with y'all just as I share all my other more "perfect" art. It's a baby step in the right direction, I think. Thanks for being here for me when I took it:)



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