I’ve studied and written about perfectionism plenty . . . my own experience with it, tips to overcome it, etc. But what I now know better than ever is that all the reading in the world doesn’t help one deal with it compared to a living, breathing experience. I’m talking about the act of DOING instead of thinking, analyzing, theorizing, trying to understand. Since I can’t give you that in an article, I will attempt to relay here a recent experience of mine that has made a tremendous difference in me being less of a perfectionist and living life more fully. I hope it inspires anyone who has perfectionist tendencies. (Note, if you live in the Netherlands and do not yet speak Dutch, let this be a motivating factor!)
A bit of background
I am NOT a fan of labels. So to call myself a perfectionist goes against my grain. However, observing my behavior does shed light on a tendency or two throughout my life. For example, I can quickly feel frustrated when I cannot easily learn something new. I do not dare to perform in front of others unless I know I have mastered something and not likely to make mistakes. I can feel shy at best and intimidated at worst to try new things, especially if I know others are already “good” at them.
These observations tell me that I hold myself back from quite a bit in life. Now that I’m on in my forties, I’ve come to realize that I’d really rather not live the second half of my life like this. It’s my ONE life – why hold back so much?!
And yet, how many times have well-intentioned people in my life (including myself) said things to me like, “Just try it, you don’t have to be a perfectionist!” “Nobody is perfect.” “Who cares how it turns out?” . . . Eh, well as a matter of fact, *I* do, evidently. I care very much. Too much, yes, but please just don’t tell me nobody cares!
The invitation & resulting struggle
Earlier this year, I was invited by a good friend to do something very foreign to me . . . spending a 3-day weekend camping in sparsely populated Drenthe at something called “Buitenkunst,” which means “outside art.” There were two distinct parts of me that reacted to this invitation:
1. The Protector:
“I’m not an artist – who am I to go and be among them and pretend I’m one, too?”
“I don’t know anything about this and therefore have to research it, ask around until I understand what it’s about.”
“Go only if it’s within my comfort zone.”
2. The Curious Adventure/Fun-Seeker:
“Everyone seems to be saying that learning and growth happens outside of one’s comfort zone. I really enjoy learning and growing!”
“This sounds like so much FUN – being in nature, while playing and being creative! YES, I want to play more in my life, and this could be an amazing opportunity!”
“What could go wrong? If I feel too nervous to join in, I can walk in nature, take a nap, or read my book. Just try it and have fun no matter what that might mean for me.”
I took the plunge and bought a (very reasonably-priced) ticket for me and my nine-year-old daughter, who had no reservations whatsoever. I on the other hand felt quite scared not KNOWING what I was getting myself into, diving into the unknown. Yet the other side of me was excited, somehow trusting that this was going to be a very positive experience.
There’s not really much you CAN do to prepare yourself for Buitenkunst, other than bring a solid tent and plenty of dry clothes. No program is posted before the weekend begins. You show up, set up camp, then the leading (very well-trained) artists present themselves and the next day’s offerings in the following categories:
- Visual arts
The big message that got across to the 500+ campers (ages 3 and up) was this:
The theme of this weekend is that every level is welcome; failing is a good thing; mistakes are helpful; let go of outcomes; enjoy the process.
These are tips I’ve heard my entire life, yet didn’t do much to bring change in my behavior. There I was in a huge (scary at first) group hearing that this is the theme, not just some helpful hints. I felt my guard go down and open to the possibilities the coming days. I found it so hard to CHOOSE between all of the
colorful offerings! I followed 2 half-day art workshops, a half-day theater workshop, and 1 full-day learning “Viva la Vida,” a beautiful Coldplay song, surrounded by trees with 40 men and women singing 4-part harmony (the absolute highlight for me!).
I can say without doubt that I had the most creative fun I’ve had in a very long time. I wasn’t busy comparing myself to others, or sweating over my end products, or worried in the slightest about pleasing my teachers. I didn’t feel frustrated at myself by not meeting certain standards. I stayed in each moment, feeling happy to be stretching myself WHILE enjoying. And best of all, by DOING this, living the theme, these messages have since been more embodied than ever. When I come upon something new or scary, I remind myself that if I can manage to keep it light and fun, I can learn and get to a new, happier place.
So if you relate to having perfectionist tendencies, ask yourself how can you listen to all of your “parts” and not just the Protector who is always trying to keep you safe. How about those parts of you calling for fun, play, adventure, learning, growth? What opportunities exist that help you experiment with meeting all of these needs at once? I hope you can find it. As for me, my daughter and I have decided to make it our tradition to attend Buitenkunst each spring (Pinkster weekend – it is also open throughout the summer for week-long visits: http://www.buitenkunst.nl/redirect/drenthe/paginas/home/home.htm).