Five Situations That Activate My Perfectionism… And Five That Don’t

Perfectionism is the creativity-killer. I do my worst work and have the least fun when I’m putting the most pressure on myself. Expecting and demanding perfect work from yourself does not lead to perfect work – it only leads to burnout. 

The truth is that I’ll never be perfect – nobody is – and for art, “perfection” isn’t even desirable! The best art is weird. Still, making unrealistic demands of myself is an ingrained habit that’s hard to break, and a surefire way to stop myself from trying at all.

Signs That I’m Experiencing Art Perfectionism & Burnout

  • Art feels stressful, obligatory, or a grind; like another item on my to-do list, instead of a rejuvenating escape from my to-do list
  • I find myself procrastinating on art, instead of using art to procrastinate on something else
  • I keep restarting the same project over and over, instead of starting new ones
  • I’m fixated on the end product
  • I’m in my head about how to do things “right”
  • I get stuck in the planning process for a piece, putting off the moment when I have to put brush to paper
  • I don’t “let myself” do pieces that interest and inspire me, pushing them back in the queue behind things I “have to do”, until my interest and inspiration evaporates
  • I’m bored

Situations That Activate My Perfectionism 

I’ve noticed there are some surefire situations that reliably activate my perfectionism. Even though I have a lot of experience with these, it can be hard to remember the drawbacks, and tempting to try again and again. But to me, it’s not worth it!

Second Tries

Sometimes a project doesn’t come out the way I wanted or expected the first time, or I have an idea for how to do it differently. Unless the second idea is so different from the first that it feels like a totally different project, I will tend to freeze up and get perfectionist on the second try. It begins to feel like there is pressure to make the second try “better” than the first. 

Public Commitments

Challenges can be fun, but when I participate in public social media challenges – think Inktober, where you’re supposed to post an ink sketch every day in October  – it can start to feel like a grind. I forget that I’m doing this for me and start to think of it as something I’m doing for Instagram (ridiculous, since I have about two followers, one of which is my mom, but still.) It begins to feel impossible to back out, bend the rules, or miss a day because people will know.


I have a lot of unhelpful patterns associated with school. Even though I enjoy learning, I find that when I’m in a class for credit, I immediately revert to my childhood and teenage study habits, or lack thereof. The goal stops being “learn and have fun” and becomes “get a good grade (learning optional/discouraged).” 

You would think that deciding to do art projects for class credit, where allowed, would make my classwork fun, because art is fun. Unfortunately, I usually find the opposite; it simply makes art feel like classwork. I recently took a botany class on shrubs, and our assignment was to make “guidebook pages” about certain shrubs. It seemed natural to make this an art project, and indeed I found it fun and useful in a way… but the time pressure to get X number of shrubs done by a certain date made it feel like a grind, and I didn’t feel that I could take a break to do some art and clear my head because the art was the work.

Paid Work

Paid work activates my perfectionism even more than classwork. At least with classwork, there is usually a pretty clear rubric for success in an assignment, and I’m comfortable handing in something that I think is bad as long as it meets the requirements. With paid work, such as art on commission, I become freaked out. What if the customer doesn’t like my work? What if I don’t think it’s “worthy” of being hung on a wall or used on a website? What if I waste my “good supplies” on failed attempts? I’m not an art-making machine, where you put in a coin and get out an example of my best work. The work I show on Instagram or in person is cherry-picked. I never know how something is going to turn out, and trying really hard usually just leads to stress and pressure and worse results! 

In our capitalist hustle culture, people always expect you to monetize anything you’re good at and/or enjoy doing. Work should be your passion, right?? The problem is that as soon as I monetize something, it becomes stressful and obligatory to me, and I lose all passion for it. In order to preserve my love of art, I cannot monetize it.


Gifts aren’t as bad as paid work because usually, the person isn’t expecting original art as a gift (unless they’ve asked you to “paint me something,” which is the worrrrrst). As long as you’re planning to surprise someone, it’s okay if it doesn’t come out, because you can always simply change your mind at the last minute and give them something else.

Still, the idea of making something for someone tends to freak me out. What if they don’t like it? What if I got their taste wrong? Will they be insulted if it’s not my best work? Or more likely, will I feel bummed out if it’s not my best work, and even if they love it and put it proudly on their wall, will I cringe every time I go to their house and see it?

Also, to be quite honest, I am usually just not very inspired to make gifts. I’m inspired to explore subjects that I find beautiful and interesting at any given moment; if I don’t happen to find a subject personally inspiring, then painting it for someone else usually just feels like a grind, and if I don’t “get it,” I can’t paint it with the same love and joy as someone who does.

The ironic part is that whoever I was painting for? Probably would have enjoyed my “inspired” work better than my “grind” work, even if, technically, the “grind” work is more aligned with their stated interests. 

End Runs Around Perfectionism

So, all of that is a bummer. But there’s good news! I’ve also found situations that avoid or break out of the perfectionism cycle. These are situations where I’m much more likely to excel. In general, these are situations where I’m focused on the process rather than the end goal.

Deciding What To Do With A Piece After I’ve Made It

In the perfectionism situations above, one of the common factors was deciding on the purpose of a piece before it’s made. For example, deciding “I’ll make a gift for ____” or “a commission” or whatever. This forces me to focus too much on the end goal. Goal-orientedness is not helpful for creativity – not mine, anyway. 

It’s not that I can never give away or sell my art. I love giving away my art, actually! But what’s really enjoyable to me is giving it away after I made it, and made it for no other purpose than that I wanted to. Recently, I photographed a bunch of pieces that I was bored with and had my friends claim any that they wanted. It was great for everyone! They got pieces they clicked with, and I made room to make new art. And I never had to feel stressed about it.

Making Mistakes

Perfectionism is the fear of making a mistake. So, a great way to get around it is to go ahead and make that first mistake! This even works if I do it intentionally, and if the very first thing on the page is a “mistake.” You can’t ruin something that’s already ruined; you can only go up from there.

Following Curiosity

My favorite projects start with an attitude of, “What if?” If I’m curious and inquisitive, I’m engaged in the process, and not worrying too much about the end product. If it turns out nice, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, I still learned something, and generated new “what if” questions to explore next time. 

Interpreting Prompts

While challenge rules can feel stifling, the empty page can be just as daunting. Constraints can really get the creative juices going. I enjoy challenges that arrive in the form of prompts or themes, to be interpreted as you wish. For example, the photography challenge 52 Frames releases a new prompt each week, narrow enough to give you ideas but broad enough to allow for many interpretations. 

Building Habits

My favorite thing about “photograph a week,” “mini-painting a day,” or similar time-based challenges is that they build habits. If you get into the habit of painting every day, you simply can’t worry too much about how any individual painting comes out. If you don’t like today’s, there will be another one tomorrow. And they’re inherently time-boxed, so you can’t fuss too much over any individual one. 

It helps me to think of it as a process-based habit (“do art every day”), rather than a goal-based challenge (“a painting a day”). It doesn’t matter if I finish anything, it matters a lot more that I start.