One birthday, towards the end of my twenties, my parents came to meet me for lunch during a busy day in a design agency.
They gave me a greeting card which had a joke on the front in comic-strip form; in the first image, a man is looking through the window of his house at the flooded street outside. Another man in a beaten-up rowing boat suggests he join him in the boat and save himself from drowning. He replies, ‘Thank you, but no. I’ll be OK; God will save me.’
The next image shows the water at a much higher level with the man sitting out on his roof. The skipper of a yacht shouts for him to leave his house and climb aboard. Again, he replies, ‘Thank you, but no. I’ll be OK; God will save me.’ Next, the man clings to the peak of his roof as the flood water almost swallows his house. A rescue helicopter hovers above, a rope ladder dangling beside the man. The pilot insists he climb the ladder because there are only minutes remaining until he drowns. ‘Thank you, but no,’ he says, ‘I’ll be OK, God will save me.’
Finally, the man stands at the gates to heaven. He speaks to God and asks why, when he was steadfast in his faith, God chose to allow him to die. God replies, ‘I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?!’
I considered the man, marooned in his house, nothing good enough to tempt him away, and was struck that my parents (both of whom, I’d been sure, didn’t understand me very much at all) had understood my perfectionism and found a way of holding up a mirror so that I could see it myself. It resonated to my core.
I knew I’d always been a perfectionist; I wanted things to be a certain way, to a high standard, and that when they weren’t I felt disappointed and frustrated.
What I hadn’t realized is the extent to which being a perfectionist had isolated me throughout my life, from other people and myself. It’s one thing to have high standards and to have pride in one’s creative work, but perfectionism isn’t that.
What can seem to be heightened conscientiousness is a death trap in the form of rigid expectations that mean satisfying destinations are perpetually out of reach. My parents showed me that I was stuck in the habit of blocking the life I claimed I wanted, merely because it hadn’t materialized in a form I’d expected. In short, I had no idea how to be grateful.
The man in the flood didn’t know how to be grateful either. He was polite. He said, ‘Thank you,’ but he blocked help because he wasn’t able to realize the gravity of his predicament and accept that only a real, down-to-earth solution was going to prevent him from dying. God asks him, ‘What more did you want?!’ The implicit answer was some kind of divine intervention, maybe a huge hand reaching down from the clouds to lift him to safety or a magical parting of the floodwaters or something else that involved bright lights and miraculous, fantastical happenings.
Perfectionism is hope for, an appeal to, the extraordinary, to something out-of-this-world.
The only way to get closer to this far off goal is to engage in a journey, to allow various phases of that journey to unfold and to manage ourselves to stay the course. But this is what makes perfectionism such a confounding trap, a creative block par excellence; it prevents us from engaging in travel because to the perfectionist the first steps in the journey are so intolerably rudimentary.
Perfectionism is a belief system that only thrives as an untested faith, and what the first step does is burst the bubble of the grandiose interior fantasy. When the perfectionist rejects the initial execution they abort the creative process itself; the very thing that connects the spark of an idea to a completed work.
Perfectionism leaves us stranded, with itchy feet and nowhere to go. It breaks connections between creative inspiration and creative output, between our latent potential and our real achievements, and between our private selves and others. It leaves an isolated figure, like the man in the flood, locked in an illusion that brilliance only comes in a flash.
External factors reinforce the perfectionist trap; almost unbelievably, the education system still values creativity less than academic subjects. This contributes to increased pressure on people who choose careers in the arts to prove themselves as worthy or talented enough to have committed their lives to wishy-washy pursuits.
Another reason, not unconnected, is the polarised responses to creative people in the culture; established artists are worshipped as geniuses and visionaries who make the world a more vibrant and brighter place, whereas unknowns are vilified as wannabes playing around when they should be doing proper work like the rest of us.
This line of thinking doesn’t leave much opportunity for the process of learning a craft or growing a body of work.
What it does do is reduce the possibilities to an almost binary state of being an overnight success or an abject failure, which when scaled down to personal experience manifests as the writer who can’t tolerate the shabbiness of a first draft or a painter who can’t bear the initial sketches that are a world away from a masterpiece.
Perfectionism is a rigid shell around a space where genuine self-worth could be, and it’s this rigidity that cripples creativity, whether that’s artistic expression, or relationship-making, or the spontaneous freedom required in becoming a full person. If we want to disorganize perfection, we have to grow ourselves to fill out the hollow. To build real self-esteem, it is essential to move into real action. When we do so, we must do it with love, kindness, and flexibility. We must let go of what we thought would happen when we initially expressed ourselves, and be prepared to discover who we are, rather than bending ourselves into the shape that matches expectations, internal or external.
The initial action is a starting point only.
Rather than murder it with criticism and abandon the journey, summon up the softest, most welcoming response possible. Be as confident as you can and try to see the potential in what’s there. Focus on the good.
The first step is always the most comfortable place to form a ‘No,’ but instead go much easier and find something to say a ‘Yes’ to. Later on in the process, when what’s being realized is more substantial and robust, it might be valuable to expose it to a more critical gaze but in the first instance be ready to recognize the value in any form, including so-called mistakes, however disappointing they may seem. The beaten-up rowing boat seemed to be a shockingly inferior answer to the man’s prayers, but he wasn’t being asked to live the rest of his life on it, only to use it as the first phase of a journey to experience elsewhere.
What I am describing here – the antidote to perfection – is gratitude. Being grateful is the essential ingredient in reshaping ourselves to accept life and flow with it as we move into action. By softening the boundary between our private selves and our real, expressed, shared selves, we increase the exchange of give and take, between ourselves and reality and that creates more possibilities. Whether the gift is a first sketch, a first draft, or the imperfect parents (there are no other kinds of parent) who show up one day with a profound cartoon on a greeting card, these things are opportunities for more; more steps, more adventure, more life, more authenticity, more satisfaction.
My parents caught me unawares with a truth that penetrated my defense of them (they don’t understand me at all!) and helped me receive them and their love in a new and more profound way at that moment on my birthday. I recognized their generosity and managed to be grateful instead of protecting and separating myself with dismissiveness. I offered them something that felt generous in return, an acknowledgment of how much it meant to me; I allowed them to see the emotion on my face and said, ‘That’s me.’ They smiled their warmest smiles to me, and one of them said, ‘We know.’
Tony Linkson is a psychotherapist, coach, creativity consultant and writer based in London, UK. The heart of his work is supporting people to get clear about who they really are and how they might create the lives they want. Visit Tony’s website or find him on twitter.
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