By Merlin Györy
Many (if not all) gifted creatives have had many monsters to battle internally which have kept us from making space to create. Shame and lack of self love are two of the biggest monsters I’ve known, and they can combine really well to form the "perfectionism team". As artists, we often put a part of our soul via our perspective into our work. Art is all about communication, and whilst true for any artist, we gifted and twice-/multi-exceptional people confront something specific when we put our art out there. For us, the fear of being not seen, or not understood, can be amplified as we have often had to deal with not being fully seen or understood throughout our life, and not just in our creative endeavors. This can create enormous pressure in many forms and shapes.
One of the forms that many of us are very familiar with is the "trap-voice" in our heads which tells us that by making our art "perfect", we can protect ourselves from those who will not see us or who would even use the "opening" our art provides to hurt us. And that by being our own toughest critic, we can protect ourselves from the critics outside - after all, we’d often rather deal the blow ourselves in the name of “becoming better” than let others do it to hurt us. This is one of the most dangerous arguments I’ve heard from my own perfectionism and the perfectionism patterns of the gifted creatives I coach in my practice. As gifted creatives, we can't allow our natural drive for mastery and excellence to become hijacked and thus lend its immense power to what limits us; rather, we can encourage it to be the force that lets us create the joy and expansion we crave.
I’ve discerned that very often, the issue behind gifted creative perfectionism has to do with self-love...or rather, its absence. I’ve taken to finding a way to drive towards the opposite direction from what my own perfectionism and shame tell me my creative process is for, and I encourage and coach my clients to do the same. I ask myself this: What if “good” doesn't mean what I think? What if I don't create for others, but for myself? What if perfect art doesn't make me invulnerable, but vulnerability makes art perfect? What if being an artist means showing my mistakes rather than my accomplishments?...etc.
This exploration for me has been ongoing for over a decade now and still yields invaluable insights and inspiration. Since we creatives bring forth from our "inside" to the "outside", it is a main part of our work to explore and housekeep our internal space, so that what we bring to the outside represents our authentic selves, and not the pressures of lack of self-love, shame, defensiveness or imagined invulnerability. One recent inspiration for me on this topic has been the work of Brené Brown, particularly her book Daring Greatly (and her recently released live show, in case you have netflix). She talks about shame on a relational-interpersonal level, but I’ve found it applies just as much to our own inner self-relationship and how we cultivate the space inside ourselves. If we have a lot of internal shame, our attempts to communicate (via our art) to the outside will be filled with perfectionism, rather than self-love.
One thing I’ve done to get around my "lack of self love" was to take my practice back and treat it as a gift to myself. I committed to writing a small piece of music or just a sketch every week, or sometimes every day, and I promised myself that I wouldn't show them to anyone (forever or however long I need to feel completely free in creating). It's just for me, for the joy and the pleasure of practicing without ANY goal. This is a form of practicing self love, and has left no hold for any inner shame voices to take over since it is only for myself.
This kind of practice approach builds on some of the advantages of our gifted creativity (drive, diversity, growth potential, flexibility), by turning the "thing" we are doing into the medicine that resolves the block that kept us from doing "it" in the first place. Self-love is like a muscle and needs to be built, so having a creative practice dedicated to working that muscle is creating the built-in medicine for the creative block.
There is a wonderful animation-piece I keep coming back to it when I feel blocked:
Like the example of the animation shows, sometimes we need to create something in order to resolve the block. I’ve often sat down to create a big piece and found myself completely blocked, and the only way around was to make the block the subject. I wanted to write a classical orchestral piece, but nothing came out....until I picked up my guitar and wrote a quick lamenting campfire song about not being able to write, and only then returned to the orchestral piece. It was fun!
You can utilize this mechanism also in the form of a practice, and it is a different, essential form of cultivating self-love - in this case, through "play". For example, through making one blackout poem every day, or one quick sketch or doodle, or one song that you improvise dance to...you get the idea. The point being that it's for you, it's fun, and something you can look forward to. To "play" is one of our most hardwired and oldest brain modes, and an essential part of how we learn. It has helped me often to break free of the commonly skill/performance/outcome-oriented approaches beat into me by "traditional" education and society, which my brain can get stuck in. To develop a practice is about will and space to play, not about self-violence or shame; it is actually the antidote to the latter.
NURTURING A CREATIVE PROJECT
And while finding (possibly many) ways to develop a creative practice of fostering self-love is a solid step, another step can be crucial for combating perfectionism: that’s learning when and how to ask for the feedback you really need. When we struggle with perfectionism, we often tend to seek feedback from others even more strongly, either for reassurance where we are lacking self-love or even as data for self-recrimination. But we need to be very intentional about what we ask for, and when and from whom we ask it, in order to effectively nurture our creativity and our "creative babies".
Projects in their infancy (the ones only there in our minds) are often extremely delicate and fragile, and hard opinions, criticism or discouragement from others (or our own inner “perfectionism team”) may break or destroy the project altogether. At the infancy stage of a creative idea, I like to think that the idea or project is just learning to exist and how, so I make sure to treat it with a tone of space and love, acceptance and attention. I am very careful to keep it safe from potentially overwhelming or harmful influences, and rather focus on “holding” and nurturing it.
An idea, project or practice that has had enough “safe holding” to mature into childhood is already a lot more resilient and less fragile, so it can and needs to handle some challenges and influences that will allow it to grow. However, it still needs its “parent's” love and affection, especially when challenging or scary things happen. This idea or project might not know yet how to deal with criticism or challenge on its own, so there always needs to be a safe adult they can go to for reference, support and care. In the childhood phase, you cannot (and shouldn’t) avoid a scratched knee or bloody nose here and there, but what matters is that it happens in an overall atmosphere of safety and care. For this phase of a project, the question of who you share with is essential. A good friend, trusted collaborator or partner might very well be able to comfort or support you if their requested feedback hits too hard, reminding you that there is a safe space in which you can learn from this experience. Someone with less of a real or healthy relationship to you, or someone lacking the relational skill to read and interact in such a situation, might not be someone to ask for feedback in this stage, since they likely won’t be able to provide a sense of comfort and encouragement if their feedback hits too hard.
Teenage projects are figuring out who they are, so this stage of a creative project might be as rebellious and turbulent as human teenagers can be. Both freedom (safety to just be) and feedback (challenge to become) are both crucial in figuring out who and what a project is becoming. So in this stage of angst-y insecurity and enormous power, we can try our best to walk the edge between letting our projects figure it out on their own and making sure we are allowing and giving them adequate and wise external input on which they can orient themselves. Here, we may seek out quite challenging feedback from strangers or other people who may not also be able to provide a sense of complete safety, knowing we still have the safety of home to return to when the outside world becomes too challenging.
For adult projects, they know who they are and what their purpose is, so they don’t need so much external protection. They can defend themselves by virtue of what they have and are becoming. However, I always remember that, yes, they have come far, are skilled, and usually not so easily harmed, yet they still have needs and the more are met, the stronger they are and the further they grow. We don’t stop developing as adults either, and neither do our projects. And it’s worth nothing that at some point, they may even have “offspring” projects, which deepen their maturity and help them become generative to other “project children”, “families” or even “communities”. A project can even, in certain contexts, become a “generative elder”, having given birth to and having created a generative space for many other projects. Especially for gifted mulitpotentialite creatives, this can be an extremely common and rewarding scope of creation.
Something to keep in mind here is that just like humans, projects or practices don’t always develop all parts linearly, so I might feel confident about parts of my project, and those parts might be developed enough (i.e. teenagers or adults) to “want” to be pointed to where they can improve to grow even more, through constructive feedback. Other parts of the same project might be new (infants) or just haven’t grown to where the desire to “work” and are still just “playing” (children).
THE RIGHT KIND OF FEEDBACK
Most of the time when we look for feedback, we tend to think we are wanting something evaluative in nature ("Is my project good or bad?" or "Am I a good or bad artist?"), but what we and our projects really want and need is appropriate mirroring: to be seen, acknowledged and valued for what we are, and to find our place. Our society has not primed us well to know how to seek or even recognize appropriate mirroring, and as gifted and twice-/multi-exceptional people who are a tiny neurominority, appropriate mirroring may feel like a foreign concept to us in general - to say nothing of our creative pursuits.
A lot of clarity in this question can come from a deep self-understanding of your neurocognitive profile and finding the right mirroring for yourself as a gifted or twice-/multi-exceptional person. Again, we come back to the question of self-love here because if you don't know yourself well (perhaps because of a long history of unattuned mirroring related to your giftedness or exceptionalities), it's hard to love yourself fully, and thus it's hard to know what kind of relational and creative feedback (mirroring) you are seeking, and how to recognize it when it shows up. Assessments, coaching and learning about gifted trauma are all great ways to build up this foundation of self-love.
With this foundation in place, it becomes easier to listen and get to know your creative projects, to really hear what they want and need, and to respond accordingly. It reduces the chances that you'll confound mirroring ("here is what your creative project feels like") with evaluation ("you/your creative project are good/bad"), and increases the chances that you'll be able to ask for nuanced, targeted feedback that will give you the best and most helpful view of your project, so that you can use that feedback generatively.
This whole process has to do with cultivating the skill of understanding your and your projects’ needs and how and when to ask for them; it is also about learning who to ask. Providing feedback is a complex skill and very few people actually spend time to learn it. Even other creatives aren't necessarily a safe bet. So, just as, as a gifted or twice-/multi-exceptional person, it's important to ask yourself whether a person has the complex skill of providing you accurate mirroring considering your neurocognitive profile, it's essential to ask yourself whether a person, group, or inner voice is aware, skilled enough, and willing to provide the appropriate mirroring for your project, given its stage. Of course, evaluating whether they are or not is a skill of its own which requires, among other things, avoiding binocular behavior. These are all aspects I work on with my gifted and twice-/multi-exceptional creative clients.
With the ability to develop self-love, deep self-understanding (especially of your particular neurocognitive profile), and the skills of asking for the right feedback at the right time from the right people, it becomes much easier to face other blocks and to start internalizing that there is no such thing as "perfect art" or a "perfect self" (and that's a positive thing!). That allows us to stop using our creative practice to fill a hole in ourselves, but rather to utilize it to heal inner wounds and as a compass toward joyful play and self-expression.
Invitation: If you're a gifted or twice-/multi-exceptional creative, join Merlin's InterGifted Art & Creativity Group!