Monday, June 23, 2008

Recovering Perfectionist

Hi, my name is Art, and I'm a perfectionist.

Hi, Art!

Let me tell you the story of how I got here to Meeting. It's a long story, so I'll probably get it wrong. You know, tell it imperfectly.

[ hoots of good-natured derisive laughter ]

It all started with my Mom . . .

[ more laughter ]

Okay, that was all too Freudian. But seriously, folks, my Mom was a major perfectionist. I think I learned some of my tendencies from watching her all my life. She was a genuine perfectionist. Everything always had to be as perfect as possible. She could let some things go—she wasn't obsessive, really—but not for too long, and sooner or later everything was brought back into order. For example: Our home always had public rooms, which were kept immaculate and always ready for the unexpected guest, and private rooms, which didn't matter as much. But no one was let in to see the private rooms; no one except family, and only immediate family, not extended family. After Mom died, when some family friends were helping me clean house, some told me they had never before seen her bedroom, or even the hallway leading to it. Mom had a tendency to keep some things very private.

Some of this was generational, probably. My mother grew up in relative poverty, and both of parents were old enough to remember the Great Depression. That period of national deprivation and economic disaster marked that entire generation of children, I believe. More than one of my friends' parents became "always be prepared" packrats. My Mom was obsessed with flashlights, specifically with handing them out during thunderstorms, which terrified her. (I always liked storms.) A friend's mother had bought multiples of survival-supply items, like electric blankets; I helped clean out their house, when she died, and we also found multiple kitchen utility tools in their basement. In cleaning out my parents' house after their deaths, over the past several months, I discovered that my Dad was more of a packrat than I had known, saving things that were important to him. They lived in this last home for about 27 years, so, trust me, sorting through and cleaning out their home was a major undertaking.

Anyway, back to my story, before you get restless.

I admit to being a recovering perfectionist. I tend to still get caught in it, and beat myself up for making mistakes, or even having accidents, and for not doing some task perfectly. I have to actively remind myself to let myself off the hook, and give myself permission to screw up, not get it right the first time, even fail outright. Sometimes a few deep breaths are required.

[ chuckles ]

Here's how it usually catches me: I get an idea for how things should go, a plan of action. But we live in an entropic universe, an imperfect world, and entropy is creeping around the edges of a plan's beginning before you ever get to the end. That used to drive me crazy: I could never get it right. If I could just keep all the plates spinning in the air, when I got to last one, the structure would be complete, and I could be done with it. But it always seemed that when you got close to getting the last plate spinning, the first one would slip, and you'd have to go back and readjust it.

I tend to want to do a job myself, rather than delegate it to someone who might get it right, or do it as quickly and smoothly as I can.

By the way, this is symptom of perfectionism I recognize a lot in others. (You see how knowing your own problems can develop empathy!) I see people who micro-manage, and refuse to delegate non-essential tasks, and I see how it drives them into burnout. Been there, done that—designed and printed the t-shirt, in fact!

[ laughter ]

I'm not attached anymore to my way of getting things done being the only way, or even the best way. I have one friend who still can't wrap his head around this: because his way of doing things is effective and right most of the time, he tends to think he's right all the time, and tells people how to do a job the way he would do it. He cannot recognize that there are other ways to do the job that produce the same result, and are otherwise just as efficient. It's a blind spot for him.

But anyone can spend too much time and effort trying to do a task just The Right Way, that they never actually get it done. This is only one short step away from the obsessive-compulsive repetition of small rituals, that must be done Just Right, or the person cannot continue. Not being to get it Just Right gets them stuck, trapped in a tape loop, unable to move on. If you can recognize this tendency in yourself, that's the start of letting it go.

I've let go of my attachment to specific process, in favor of two things: appreciating the process itself as a Way, a gateless gate; and, a recognition that in many practical situations, an accomplished goal is the most important thing. Two of my favorite four-letter words are Done! and Next!

I'm speaking practically here, by the way, not spiritually. The spiritual side of recovering perfectionism is the recognition that the journey is more important than the destination, and it's the quality of the journey that matters.

One of the truths that I discovered, fairly early in life, that helped overcome a lot of my ingrained perfectionism, was a truth I owe to the Navajo. It was traditional, when weaving a rug or blanket, to leave a deliberate mistake in the finished piece. This is because only the gods are perfect. If you were to weave a perfect rug, especially if that rug contained a sandpainting design used in one of the healing rituals, or Sings (Chants), you would risk calling the gods into the artwork, which could upset the balance of the universe, and cause real problems. The only times sandpaintings are done perfectly correctly is during healing rituals; all other depictions of them contain at least one inaccuracy.

This is useful way of doing things: deliberate imperfection. When you build it in, you are not even tempted to try to make it perfect, and that is a great blessing, because it allows you to relax from the start. Making art shouldn't have to another kind of perfectionism. There's a point it's just Good Enough, and it's okay to stop working on it. I know artists who are so perfectionist about their art production that they never actually finish a piece or work: it is always under revision, and never completed.

The other aspect of the Navajo practice of imperfection was to leave a trail out of the pattern for the weaver's soul: since a weaver puts so much time and effort into a weaving, the soul can get trapped in the rug as it is on the loom. So, a loose piece of yarn is left sticking out slightly from the rug, allowing the soul a way to get out of the rug. This was called the spirit string or spirit line.

Another source of imperfectionism, if you will, that I discovered later in life is the Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi. Stated perhaps too simply, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic attitude, not a style, that finds beauty in imperfection and natural materials, evoking the natural cycles of life and death. An uneven glaze on a tea bowl. The use of weathered wood instead of perfectly milled wood. The preference for asymmetry in form, over perfect symmetry.

What can we learn from this? What does this teach us?

At the very minimum, it reminds us that nature itself is imperfect, fractal, uneven, asymmetrical, and always changing. Perfectionism traps us, because it is unnatural. It's not even a kind of death, because death is natural—it's a kind of anti-life. I find myself able to relax into wabi-sabi, and let go of perfectionism, whenever I work with natural materials, to create a kind of beauty that doesn't require ideological perfection.

Because, after all, perfection doesn't exist. It's a purely mental, dissociative, unnatural state. Perfection is not found in nature. So I can let go of it, and just be, and just do my art.

That I'm still a recovering perfectionist mainly means that I still have to occasionally remind myself of all this. But it's all good. I'm easy about it.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I am also a recovering perfectionist. And the two words I keep at the forefront of my mind at all times are, "It'll do." There isn't an aspect of my life that hasn't caused me upset in the past. It's caused me a lifetime's worth of unhappiness. I'm still obsessive about little things like making sure foreign names all have their correct diacritical marks but if I get it wrong then I get it wrong. I also try and judge my work by other people's standards rather than my own; what will they be happy with. But it's hard. It's a daily struggle. (Actually my wife says I'm a disintegrating perfectionist. I'm just not capable of attaining the perfection I used to aim for).

6:32 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

"Disintegrating perfectionist."

That's a good one: it perfectly captures that feeling of inexorable entropic collapse. That feeling that everything is always becoming more disorganized rather than organized.

My version of "It'll do" is "Good enough." It's that point where it's necessary to reach completion rather than perfection.

I use "recovering" because it's something I've had to learn to live with. I try to not let it get me upset. I'm most vulnerable to falling back into the habit when I'm really tired or really stressed out, and I have to watch myself at those times, to not let myself resume my old bad habits.

9:41 AM  
Blogger hope said...

Um, when will be holding meetings? :)

For the record "MOM" had a lot to do with that reach for perfection. A little ditty I refer to as "the curse" is something she passed on from her Mom [and yet none of my siblings remember]:

"If a job is once begun
Never leave it 'til it's done
Be the labor great or small,
Do it well or not at all."

I had to learn that I should "consider" the job and not believe all of them are mandatory. However, once begun I can't walk away. I suppose it's made me think about what I DON'T want to do.

Okay, who's next?

6:09 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Hope! :)

Welcome to meeting. Thanks for that.

My mom's family saying was, "If you haven't got anything good to say, don't say anything." There was something not unlike your rhyme, but it was just an aphorism, nothing nearly as poetic.


8:47 PM  

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