Train Your Brain (Moving Through Perfectionism to Create) Episode 2: Approve of Yourself

I spend a lot of time encouraging perfectionists to take risks with their creativity. I help them get through the natural anxiety that comes along with taking a creative risk because I know that there benefits on the other side of these emotional hurdles that can't be achieved any other way: increased self-confidence and a recognition of their own power over their fears and self-talk, to say nothing of the accomplishment of completing the creative project itself.

I don't choose to make the emotional struggles of trying something new and out of one's comfort zone a priority in my coloring workshops, tap classes, and blog posts because getting through these sorts of situations is an easy thing for me to do (remember, I am a perfectionist, also). I focus on these issues because getting through the anxiety and negative self-talk of creativity is probably the single most challenging thing for me to do in my day to day life.

It is a continuous struggle for me every time I start something new, this battle with myself and my expectations of my performance, whether I'm taking on a creative risk in my drawing, my coloring, my writing, my dancing, my teaching, my speaking, or my social media. Every time I take a creative risk, my perfectionism rears its vicious head and tries to take me down, remind me of my place, and put the breaks on whatever it is that I had the audacity to try. 

And, I have been trying *loads* of new stuff this year: I started an adult tap class in my home town of Seguin, Texas; I opened an online store on my blog to sell the variety of coloring experiences I've been making in addition to traditional coloring books; I've made a commitment to blogging with more frequency and vulnerability, and then actually sharing it as widely as I can (embracing this space as *my* blog, a place where I proudly call the shots and then tell others all about it has been INCREDIBLY hard for me - I was raised to see all positive self-talk, whether internal or external, as bragging and therefore sinful, and I was regularly encouraged to keep my opinions to myself because sharing your opinions is akin to bragging, and as I just said, that's what sinners do...yes, I'm an Irish Catholic, how could you tell;); and, I started an email list for my blog this August, finally heeding the advice of countless artistic and creative professionals who were kind enough to share their business wisdom with me.

Of that rather long list of creative risks I have undertaken in the last few months, the one that has kept me from sleeping (you know, the buzzing brain, can't-rest-because-my-anxieties-and-fears-keep-rerunning-like-a-cable-all-access-channel feeling?) was the creation of my email list. For some reason, this particular creative business decision felt the most risky, the most "who do I think I am?!" I felt like I was laying my soul to bare for all to judge in asking for folks to submit their email to me in exchange for my free-coloring-of-the-month pages and that sort of vulnerability makes me want to puke or yell obscenities at strangers, both of which are not acceptable coping mechanisms. But, with the support of my family and a few close friends, I ventured into the world of email lists and email marketing (yes, there was some gnashing of teeth, some kicking, some screaming, but no one got hurt, and in my book, that's a win!).

Recently, I got my first UNSUBSCRIBE from my email list...and it hit me like a rock.

My gut response to this unsubscribe was as follows: I should quit, I can't write, I can't draw, I can't handle rejection, I should give all this up because I can't be this vulnerable day in and day out, putting myself out there for all to judge - I just wasn't born with a 'thick skin' and there's no possible hope of me growing one! Discovering this piece of data threw me into an emotional tail spin that lasted a good 5 to 6 hours, time where I was completely useless, and time I will never get back.

I chose not to reach out to my support team that day (big mistake as I probably could have cut my emotional processing time down by at least 50% by sharing this rejection with a kindred spirit, but we all make mistakes...), but what did bring me back to my sanity (and eventually to writing this blog post in my Train Your Brain series) was remembering something I had *just* told a former student (who is now a seasoned teacher) and fellow perfectionist only a day earlier: your work is not YOU once you set it out into the universe. 

As perfectionists, we put our hearts, our souls, every ounce of our attention and energy into our projects, whether that work is a drawing, a speech, a lesson plan, a performance, a blog post, novel, a song, a report, a meeting agenda, anything - that's just how a perfectionist works. But, while our work is wholly ours, a representation of ourselves that we feel very connected to and protective of while we are doing it, once that work is released into the universe to its intended audience, what we made is no longer us but something else entirely, and the world is free to have their opinion about that work, regardless of the great personal risk we took to share it. 

I have been very proud of the work I have been doing and sharing to the world and to my email list: my writing is more personal and yet relatable, my drawings more detailed yet still approachable, and I have been working to make my all of my art always with the intention that its function is to lift society up, to empower folks. All of that means that my art, my work, the things that I share to my community of followers can now, on occasion, be perceived as political (for heaven's sake, I am throwing the lion share of my creative energies into making a feminist coloring book, something I may not perceive to be political - I don't *believe* in gender equality, I *accept* gender equality as scientific fact, something that JUST IS, like gravity or the number of hours we have in single day - but a vast majority of the Internet considers the concept of gender equality to be a highly politically charged topic), so it makes absolute sense that on a day when I send out an email containing links to what I had been working on that week (two blog posts, one on finding hope to keep fighting for gender equality in unexpected places and the other on my frustrations with the attention economy, its overlords and their effects on independent artists, and a reminder that my Reject Perfection coloring page would soon be replaced by a new page in November), I receive notification that a subscriber is "no longer interested" in my emails.

The person who unsubscribed from my email list obviously did not approve of my work.

But, I never ever release ANYTHING out into the universe that I don't wholly approve of myself, never. For me to share my art, my work, anything to the universe, it must always A. not be a waste of anyone's time, including my own, B. be of the best quality I know how to produce, and C. hopefully be of some use or enjoyment to someone, someday, somehow. 

But with one unsubscribe, I went from approving wholly of myself and the work that I do all the way to "I should quit, never make art again, never share my words again," even though that individual was entirely within their rights to decide my emails, my art, my work were "no longer of interest."

Self-approval is very challenging for perfectionists. We measure our success in numbers, in the comparisons to others, in the amount of work and/or time it takes us to achieve a goal (if it takes too long to learn something, to make something, well, we must not be good at it, so we should quit and move on to something we can do perfectly with ease), and in the approval of sources outside of ourselves. But, the reality of creativity is that for us to make art, to learn new things, to keep creating, the only approval we have any control over and desperately need is our own.

This all sounds simple, but in the end, it is not, and for perfectionists it is a constant struggle (#WIP and all that...). That one unsubscribe last week sucked all of my hard won self-approval out of my sails, leaving me drowning in a sea of unworthiness and defeat.

But, this was not the first time this has happened to me (and as I type that sentence my logical brain is telling me it will not be the last time, either - I will never be perfect at self approval, ironic, but true), which is why I have my studio rigged with images to help diffuse the "must have everyone else's approval" bombs that I invariable stumble upon. Below is one of my favorites, and I have it framed for me to see as soon as I enter my work space.

In the months after leaving an toxic work environment,
I struggled with feelings of worthlessness because I hadn't been
able to fix a broken situation (and have I mentioned I'm a perfectionist?).
I saw my departure from this job as a complete failure (even though
I left to pursue other interests AND because the stress was affecting
my health) and was beating myself up over my decision to leave
until one day it hit me: my family and friends approve of my decision, so
the only approval I'm still looking for is my own. I decided that I needed 
something visual to help this message of self-approval sink in, so every time I felt 
myself sinking into self-loathing mode, I forced myself to write down on
 a huge piece of paper some version of the following sentence: 
You need no one else's approval but your own. 
Obviously, the message took some time to sink in...

I sent this photo which displays my constant battle for self-approval/acceptance to my former student (who is now a teacher) in hopes that it might encourage them, might remind them that even those folks they look up to have to work diligently on the basics (for some reason my former students remember me as the most put-together, competent, confident teacher they ever had, and it is a shock to them that not only was I human then and now, but their struggles today are the same ones I was having back in their day...and we all turned out just fine!), and to help them remember that their lessons, their classroom, their students are not themselves, and when a difficult parent makes them feel inadequate, that doesn't mean that they should quit their job. No matter what you do professionally, there will be days when folks don't approve of your work, your art, but their approval is not the vital ingredient for getting sh*t done - it is our own. 

I totally approve of the direction my work is taking right now - it's more personal, my lines and my words are deeper, more diverse, full of emotion and sometimes I am so proud of what I made I find it hard to believe that it was me that created it (I'm not sure what to think of that feeling, that "I made this?" feeling - is it positive or negative; only time will tell, I guess). What is it that they say? That if everybody likes you, then you mustn't really be doing anything worth doing? I think I butchered that quote, but you get the point. 

After some thought (and realizing that I need to actually practice what I preached only a day before!), I can actually say I'm as proud of that recent UNSUBSCRIBE as I am of the work that moved that person to flush me from their email box. 

Learning to approve of yourself when you are a perfectionist is f*cking hard because that means we have to acknowledge and approve of our mistakes as well as our successes, even if what feels like a mistake to us actually isn't (a parent not approving of how you're running a classroom or a member of your email list not approving of your politics is not failure - it means we are trying, doing, innovating and perhaps hitting a nerve). Whatever hacks you can figure out for yourself to help you along this journey to consistent self-approval, whether it's like my visual aid of seeing me having written "Approve of YOURSELF" over and over or something completely different, hold onto those babies, stockpile them like you would wood for a long hard winter, and make sure to revisit them whenever the phrase "I should just quit" bursts out of your mouth. 

When we take creative risks, the likelihood of coming upon stumbling blocks and disappointments is, well, 100%, and these tumbles we must take to reach the other side of a creative risk (they simply are a part of the game) are most definitely triggers for our perfectionism. Arming ourselves with reminders of whose approval REALLY matters (our own) is our only defense against these feelings of inadequacy and failure, and they will help us continue to keep creating, keep learning, keep growing; they will help us pick ourselves back up and get back to keeping on keeping on no matter what anyone else thinks of us.