AUBSU have worked hard to bring you a series of wellbeing-themed days and support workshops that run once a month across the academic year, with the aim of providing support and information to those who may want it. This months’ is focused on perfectionism and failure, something that we’re often faced with during our creative studies and careers.
WHAT IS PERFECTIONISM?
“Wait a minute, isn’t perfectionism a good thing?” we hear you cry.
Actually, perfectionism is kind of, well, not a good thing.
Perfectionism is less about high standards, and more about unrealistic standards. It’s having goals that physically aren’t attainable, setting standards so high that the likelihood of failure is far greater. It’s leaving yourself no room for mistakes, and having no patience for process, learning, or growth. It’s being self-critical to the extent that you are placing more value in your performance and your work, rather than in your human self.
Perfectionism has links to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem and in fact there are studies that suggest that the higher the level of perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer. Perfectionism is on the rise, and researchers who are interested in the subject are even talking about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue. We’re a generation who are growing obsessed with self-criticism, fear of failure, and undermining our own potential.
As artists and makers, perfectionism can be very dangerous. It’s difficult to be creative when you’re clouded with self-doubt and worries about failure. When we are struggling with a fear of not measuring up to expectations, we end up feeling that our work is inadequate, and we lose any respect for the creative journey – and the creative journey is the part where we truly learn about ourselves and our creative style.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I’M BEING A PERFECTIONIST?
There are multiple signs of perfectionism. If you think you match one or more of the following signs, then it may be useful to sit and think about how you are approaching your work and how you are talking to yourself.
Check your expectations- The healthiest expectations are based in ‘reality’ rather than setting yourself unrealistic expectations that are impossible to live up to - are your goals realistic, and are tasks doable in your allotted time?
Check your responses- Rigid expectations can be a way of coping with the unknown and uncertainty. Having very rigid expectations can mean that if reality does not meet these expectations it can feel like a major problem or failure, rather than just being different to what you expected.
Check your self-talk – what do you say to yourself? Are you kind to yourself, or are you self-criticising, dwelling on negativity and holding tightly to regret? Becoming aware of our default inner dialogue can tell us what we think of ourselves.
Check your actions - When was the last time you did something and didn’t worry about what the outcome would be?
Are you a regular procrastinator, waiting for the perfect time to act that doesn’t ever seem to come? Or are you caught up in details that are largely unimportant to what you are trying to achieve? These restrictions can be indicators that we need to do things perfectly in order to do them at all.
Check with others - What do friends say about you? Would they say that you are hard on yourself? Are you hard on others? Holding yourself to high standards can mean we are often doing the same to others too.
I THINK I’M A PERFECTIONIST, WHAT DO I DO ABOUT IT?
Becoming aware of your thinking means you can do something about it. Replacing your inner critic with kinder words to yourself sometimes sounds easier said than done, but don’t underestimate how powerful positive words can be. It can feel totally daft to sit and say nice words to yourself, but sometimes that’s all it takes. Taking mental stock of where you are and the next steps to take can help you get a do-able plan in place.
Practise accepting where you currently are with your work. It can be difficult to accept the gap between where you are and where you want to be, but if you are gentle and understanding of yourself and your process, you will get there.
Reframe your goals – what are they? Do they enthuse you or exhaust you? Break down your tasks and time – does it fit? If you’re really stuck then check them by a tutor.
Lower the expectations of yourself and your work. You don’t have to create a masterpiece every time you enter the studio, and it’s totally unrealistic to expect that to happen. Da Vinci took up to 14 years to complete and refine the Mona Lisa, and he worked on plenty of other things during that time too. Focus on making more work, more sketches, and enjoying the process of creating instead of endlessly picking apart one project.
Try not to take yourself too seriously. Have fun exploring new ideas and appreciating the work you’ve put in. You are in charge of your career path and how serious or light things get.
Don’t dwell on criticism. Thinking about it for too long is not conducive to creativity. True creativity comes from a place where anything is possible, where you’re not too scared to fail. If something isn’t working, try something else instead. It’s often easier to focus on failures and criticisms than it is to focus on your successes, but take a moment each day to be proud of something that you’ve accomplished.
As well as affecting our work and creativity, a perfectionist mindset can inhibit many other areas of our lives, from the plans we make to the relationships we have. Facing perfectionism can seem overwhelming alone, but there is help available.
This article is part of The Small Things Matter, a wider mental health campaign put together by AUBSU. If you are concerned about anything mentioned in this article, or anything else for that matter, then get in touch with AUB Student Services. They provide a free and confidential counselling service, where you can receive regular weekly one-off support.
 Sarah Egan, referenced in The dangerous downsides of perfectionism by Amanda Ruggeri, 21 February 2018
 Katie Rasmussen, referenced in The dangerous downsides of perfectionism by Amanda Ruggeri, 21 February 2018