Monday, July 1, 2013

Curing Anxiety, Part 4: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Painting

Many artists and creative persons struggle with anxiety and depression.

Artists are not known for their superb mental health.  You need only be in high school to understand that there is some truth to the artist’s stereotype.

It’s not such a bad thing, though.

Artist’s can use their sensitivity, wide-range of emotion, and relentless internal struggle to find the meaning of life to their advantage.  Even though, these are seemingly unwanted characteristics, they are the heart and soul of good art.  Artists can often see things that most people miss.  And, artists can often relate to people in ways that verbal communication falls short.

I think that, in some ways, these traits are what make them good artists.  I guess, I'd like to believe that because I fall into that category.

In other cases, if the artist is unaware of his/her unique soul, it can be the thing that holds them back.

In my own experience, I feel like I have to be perfect before I can create.  Because I didn’t know that my “flaws and shortcomings” were what made me a good artist, I kept myself from cultivating my favorite hobby.

These roadblocks were exasperated by an unfortunate occurrence.

A few years ago, I had an unlucky experience with painting that aggravated my painting anxiety.  Because of it, I handed in my artist’s badge with the intention of giving up painting for good.

I was commissioned to paint a large quantity of work for a lady my mom knew.  She was a really nice woman and was a joy to work with.  Her and her husband were remodeling part of their house, and they wanted some new artwork to grace the new walls.  During the planning and preparing process, I had so much fun.  I enjoyed it so much that I thought I found my new life’s work.  In my elated mind, I was on my way to having my dream job.  She had contacts, status, and a promising future for me.

However, after I began the paintings, this woman’s husband became ill with cancer.  In a matter of months, right after I finished all the paintings, this poor woman’s husband passed away.  I was devastated.  I was so sad for her and her loss that I mourned this man like he was a dear friend.  It was unfathomable to me why God would allow that to happen.

I never wanted to paint again.  In some way, I believed, his death was my fault.  I believed this happening was a sign from God telling me that it was not God’s will for me to be a painter.  So, just like that, I quit.

The commissioned paintings sat in my basement for a while, perhaps a year, reminding me of all the death and despair in the world.  Because I was already struggling with depression and anxiety, I let this experience bring me to a new low.  Eventually, I had my mom bring the paintings to the lady, because I sure as heck couldn’t handle it and couldn’t handle seeing them anymore.  And no way was I going to take money from her either.

This unfortunate experience was the beginning of a painting drought.  In my mind, bad things happened when I painted so I was never going to do it again.  In reality, that was the one and only time, so far, that something bad happened when I painted.  And maybe, it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be.

Maybe, the woman who commissioned the artwork loved the paintings?  Maybe she was comforted by them knowing it was the last project her and her husband worked on together?  Maybe I just have no idea and should move on?

Slowly, coinciding with my recovery from depression and anxiety, I realized it was OK to paint again.

However, the experience has definitely left its mark.  It’s been a huge struggle to learn how to overcome my anxiety with painting.

I feel like even the smallest bump in the road can keep me from doing what I love to do.

And if my fear of something bad happening isn’t enough to keep me from painting, I also have perfectionism and procrastination to deal with.

I feel like everything else has to be done first before I am allowed to paint.  And I also feel like everything has to be perfect if I want to spend my time creating art.  Perfectionism and procrastination, I think, are two sides of the same coin.

The house has to be clean, the dishes have to be done, and the laundry must be folded and put away.  The endless list of chores must be completed before I allow myself to paint a single stroke.

Also, the situation, environment, and circumstances have to be just right for me to even think about devoting time to a project.  I have to have a decently long chunk of time.  If I do end up painting, I might only paint for 15-20 minutes; but it takes over an hour to build up my confidence and an hour to decompress and move on with my day.  In order to paint, I also have to feel good and I have to have the right supplies.  If everything isn’t absolutely perfect, all is lost.  No more painting for me.

In the event that everything IS perfect, all the other things are done, and I can’t find anything else to clean, magically, I’ll find something else to do to whittle my time away.

The only time I ever floss my teeth is if I am trying to complete a painting.

If I keep going with this painting routine, I’ll probably create another two whole paintings before I die.  But, on the bright side, I’ll have incredible healthy teeth!

So what do I do about it?

Well, the main problem is that I have unrealistic painting expectations.

I have unrealistic expectations in ALL areas of my life.  So it is obvious to me that I would have unrealistic expectations with painting as well.

Before I start to paint, I make a list of all my expectations for that project.

I want to finish it in one day
It has to look exactly like the picture
I can’t waste any paint
It has to be a masterpiece
There can be no mistakes

Then, after completing the list, I slowly let go and cross off each item on that list.

I want to finish it in one day
It has to look exactly like the picture
I can’t waste any paint
It has to be a masterpiece
There can be no mistakes
If I want to be a painter in the real world, then I am going to make real mistakes.

With anything you want to do, it is important to realize, if you have unrealistic expectations, it's going to keep your from achieving your goals.  Maybe, the expectations are from yourself or maybe you are letting other people put these expectations on you.  Either way, it is important to recognize what rules you are trying to live by.

If you liked this article, check out these similar posts:
Curing Anxiety, Part 1
Curing Anxiety, Part 2
Curing Anxiety, Part 3
Promoting a Positive Body Image
Unlikely Places for Eating Disorder Recovery


  1. It is so good to hear that other people feel this way! I have many creative projects lined up in my head - for the house, for my baby on the way, just for fun - and I never begin any of them because the kitchen needs re-set after every meal and I don't have enough energy for everything. I've often thought, "that's my anxiety," then quickly corrected myself: "no, that's just an excuse." As always, thank you for writing and for showing me that I'm not alone. :)

    1. It is so hard to let go of things in the chores and cleaning and such. It is probably part of our FOO (Family of Origin) :)