So, it has been about six months since I found myself once again sharing some thoughts here.
Yeah, I know. It’s been a while.
But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
No. Sadly, I have been having a really tough time justifying publishing something new. Not because I can’t write, but because I feel like if I don’t write a banger of a piece, then, well, what’s the point?
Here’s the thing. I’m a bit of a perfectionist… on the things that matter to me. And writing is one of those things that, if I don’t bring something thought-provoking and fresh, then it feels like it shouldn’t be written. And especially when there’s already so much great writing out there. At least for now.
And so, as much as I enjoy the creative process of verbalizing my thoughts and then publishing them for the world to see. I didn’t. I was gatekeeping myself, and you might be doing the same to yourself.
Paradoxically, that realization gave me the enlightenment and drive I needed to finally break my cycle and put pen to paper… or finger to the keyboard… you know what I mean.
So let’s talk about how our own skewed ideas and expectations about our art can actually end up censoring our creativity.
Perfectionism and the Creative Process
This is not the first time I have shared with you my personal struggle with perfectionism, and probably it won’t be the last. Mental hangups are just that dang hard to get rid of. But, for the most part, I’ve had no issues living with it.
Being that I’m an engineer and mainly a methodical right-hemisphere kind of guy, having perfectionist tendencies were, in fact, kind of an edge. I produced quality work, focused on the details, and consistently got results. My health and sanity notwithstanding. I was making progress in my career, and for the most part, that was my priority.
Or rather, I should say, that was all I had.
You see, when you are a young and hungry professional, coming from an upbringing full of uncertainty and lack, and are then trusted into a world of grand possibilities, lavish lifestyles, and many, many zeroes in paychecks, you tend to skew your priorities towards what provides you with relief against past trauma. What this means is that if you grew up in an environment with scarce resources and opportunities, you tend to put work and your career above other aspects of your life. As a result, your bank balance becomes a gauge of your anxiety level and the work you produce a statement of your worth.
When you are in that mindset, you don’t see workaholism as a vice (which is what it is) but you see it as a valuable trait, a virtue even. Overwork and perfectionism provide you a framework to excel and a shield to deflect concern from others.
If you want to learn more about how perfectionism and workaholism are vices you should avoid, check out the conversation Wendy and I had a little while ago.
“But OK, what does all this have to do with the creative process?” I hear you asking.
Well, perfectionism can be quite crippling, actually.
The image of a painter might have come to mind at this point, obsessed with his piece. Focusing on every stroke. Carefully observing every minor detail in his muse. Tormenting over the experience the final work evokes in the viewer.
He is clearly leveraging that perfectionism to express incredible creativity, right?
Well, we don’t really get to see all the pieces that never lived to his impossible standards.
Of course, we get to see magnificent works of art. Just the best of the best. But art is subjective. What some people find mundane, others might find life-transforming. In a way, his perfectionism deprives the world of much-needed experiences. And this is just the artists that manage to work despite the anxiety and perfectionism. Many spend years wholly shunned.
Here are some of the most critical indicators that can help you spot signs of a mentality of perfectionism:
- Procrastination: Constantly delaying tasks or projects due to the fear of not being able to complete them perfectly.
- Unrealistic standards: Setting excessively high expectations for oneself that are difficult or impossible to achieve.
- Fear of failure: An intense fear of making mistakes or failing, which can lead to avoidance of trying new things or taking risks.
- All-or-nothing thinking: Viewing situations, outcomes, or performance in black-and-white terms, with no room for grey areas or acknowledging partial success.
- Excessive self-criticism: Harshly judging oneself and focusing on perceived flaws or mistakes, often leading to feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem.
- Difficulty delegating: Reluctance to delegate tasks to others because they believe they cannot complete them to the desired standard.
- Discontent with accomplishments: Struggling to feel satisfied with achievements or completed work, always finding areas for improvement or dismissing successes as luck or insufficient.
- Overemphasis on details: Spending excessive time and energy on minor aspects of a project, often at the expense of more important tasks or overall progress.
- Workaholism: Compulsively working long hours or sacrificing personal and social life in an attempt to achieve perfection in one’s work.
- Paralysis in decision-making: Difficulty making decisions, often due to the fear of choosing the “wrong” option or the desire to analyze every possible outcome before making a choice.
I define Self-Gatekeeping as the act of imposing barriers or limitations on oneself, often driven by self-doubt or a belief that one does not belong or deserve to participate in a certain community, activity, or opportunity. This behavior can be based on factors such as perceived lack of knowledge, skill, or experience, as well as impostor syndrome, where one feels like a fraud despite evidence of competence or success.
For most of us, whose creative outlet might be an instrument, a comedy career, or a blog about silly ideas, this battle with perfectionism and impostor syndrome can deter us entirely from any form of expression. As a result, you might find that your work is not up to your standards or that you can’t keep up with a certain level of quality. Suddenly, a hobby becomes daunting, and you might start finding excuses as to why you have nothing else to add.
Self-gatekeeping can hinder personal growth and development by preventing individuals from pursuing their interests, trying new things, and reaching their full potential.
For me, the struggle to do anything creative was monumental. I felt the urgency of deadlines and the need to bring my thoughts to my readers, but I couldn’t sit down and actually do the act. It was as if the act of opening the documents app and facing a white page was emotional torture, and I had no mechanism to stop the anxiety. Moreover, I couldn’t stop the many ideas that came to me. I was overwhelmed with thoughts, but I had no real outlet.
I had no mouth, and I needed to scream.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have the intellectual prowess or wit to engage and entertain my readers. It was that the premise of me being the writer, the one to conceive the ideas and bring them to the world, felt wrong, as if suddenly a frog stated that it wanted to explore other planets.
A frog has no business exploring the universe, much like someone like me had no business writing thought-provoking pieces.
Eventually, time did its thing, and the urgency to write went away with most of my anxiety. I let work and business take over my free time and focused on preparing for the future.
Of course, it also happens that at that time, I was going through a big transition moving my whole life to the US and starting a new life there with all that that implies.
Yet, I kept checking the blog. I kept revisiting my work. Checking the website, maintaining it, and working on the technical stuff. The stuff I was comfortable with.
It took tremendous self-reflection, painful conversations, and a few half-assed tries to get to this point. Finally, I realized it wasn’t the idea of not meeting an arbitrary level of quality stopping me; it was the fear of exposing my vulnerability and imperfections to the world. I was gatekeeping myself, setting unrealistic expectations, and denying myself the joy and fulfillment of creative expression.
Additionally, I had fallen off the horse. Writing is as much a practice of building healthy habits as it is a creative endeavor. If you stop writing for a long time, starting again can be extremely hard and feel wrong. Getting back into it can take a lot of perseverance and reassurance. And the same can be said of any other creative activity.
Breaking the Cycle: Embracing Imperfection and Authenticity
The turning point came when I understood my creativity wasn’t about pleasing everyone or achieving particular acclaim. It was about connecting with others, sharing my thoughts and experiences, and growing as a person through my writing. I had to let go of the idea that everything I created needed to be a masterpiece and embrace the beauty of imperfection.
I started by setting small, achievable goals for my writing, such as writing a certain number of words each day or completing a blog post within a week. I also made a conscious effort to remind myself that it’s OK to make mistakes, fail, and learn from the experience.
One technique that helped me was to practice “free-writing,” where I would write for a set amount of time without worrying about grammar, spelling, or the quality of my ideas. This allowed me to silence my inner critic and focus on getting my thoughts down on paper. Over time, my confidence in my writing and ability to push past self-gatekeeping improved.
Another critical aspect of breaking the cycle was seeking support from fellow creatives, friends, and family. Sharing my struggles and successes with them, and hearing their perspectives and experiences, helped me realize that I was not alone in my battle with perfectionism and self-gatekeeping.
Of course, all this doesn’t mean that the battle is over. Far from it. But now that I’m aware of the mechanisms of my psyche that hinders my creative voice, I’m better equipped to work around them and I know what I need to work on improving for the foreseeable future.
Reclaiming My Creative Voice
The journey to overcoming perfectionism and self-gatekeeping is a deeply personal and ongoing one. It requires self-reflection, patience, and a willingness to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections. By acknowledging and addressing these mental barriers, we can free ourselves to create, share, and connect meaningfully with others.
My hope is that by sharing my own experiences, I can inspire others who may be struggling with similar issues. Remember, creativity is a gift, and the world deserves to experience your unique voice, ideas, and perspectives.
So, let’s break the cycle together. Embrace imperfection, silence the inner critic, and share your art, whatever form it may take. After all, we can only grow and thrive as creatives by being unapologetically ourselves.