What is a perfectionist? Someone competent who likes rigor? Or someone who neurotically stresses over little details?
These questions actually show that many concepts can have two sides: something akin to a Light Side and a Dark Side, much like the way the Seven Vices have their counterpart Seven Virtues. They are not quite the same thing, but they all stem from the same primal source.
The line that separates competent perfectionism and neurotic perfectionism may seem blurry enough to let some people say things like:
“I’m not a perfectionism, I just like things well done”.
And you know what? That may actually be true. But it probably is not. It probably is just neuroticism.
But that’s easy to find out, because the line isn’t all that blurry, to be honest.
Do you spend time and energy taking care of the little details? That on its own is just good ol’ plain competence, a.k.a. the healthy version of perfectionism.
- The idea of leaving a small detail unfixed makes you very anxious;
- You go to great lengths, some which might even be counterproductive and incomprehensible to other people, to make sure a small detail gets fixed;
- You avoid watching or listening to your published work in case you detect a flaw that needs to be corrected.
Then you suffer from neurotic perfectionism.
Around the Internet, you’ll also find other signs such as all-or-nothing thinking, procrastination, defensiveness and low self-esteem.
The line isn’t blurry.
A Jungian Insight
Recently, after falling victim to a serious episode of neurotic perfectionism, I had an insight that led me to a genuine, healthy improvement.
I noticed a pattern: sometimes I am a healthy perfectionist, and sometimes I am a neurotic perfectionist.
The neurotic perfectionism, in its most absurd form, manifests itself in my personal music projects, published under my own name. And in a milder form, it manifests when I’m deciding which content to publish, also under my own name, on my personal website.
When working on someone else’s project, or publishing content under an alias such as Sinewave Lab, that kind of neuroticism vanishes.
Becoming aware of this pattern was the first step towards my insight.
For the second step, the work of Carl Jung, the great analytical psychologist, came to the rescue.
According to him, the human psyche is comprised of multiple sub-components.
Three of these sub-components are:
1.) Persona: this is how we present ourselves to the outside world. It is the masks we wear, that hide any inner urges and emotions we deem inappropriate to the social norms. In a sense, they are avatars we create of ourselves to interact with others.
The idea of having a persona may be subject to some negative connotations, such as being a fake person. And don’t get me wrong: sometimes it can certainly mean that.
But personas are also useful. They are necessary for society to function in a civil manner, for instance. Also, the person with no persona at all is more akin to the social outcast with no social skills whatsoever, rather than any other admirable, heroic and idealistic conceptualization that one might be tempted to imagine.
Ego: The Ego is that which we consciously identify ourselves with. It is the thing you call “I”.
Self: While the Ego is defined as the center of consciousness, the Self refers to the entirety of your psyche – both the conscious and the unconscious part.
Persona vs Ego
The relationship between the Persona and the Ego can sometimes be problematic. And sometimes that can lead to neurotic perfectionism – that was my insight.
Making art is serious business!
A piece of art is not a superficial representation of the artist, of his Persona. It is a deep representation of his inner life, of his Ego.
This creates a trap, in which I definitely fell into: the artist will stop thinking that his art is part of him, and instead starts thinking that his art is him, and he is his art!
In other words, the person’s identity (Ego) and the artist (Persona) become one and the same thing.
However, the Persona should always be smaller than the Ego – that’s the point of the Persona! It functions as a filter, to avoid showing the entirety of the Ego.
But when the person falls into the trap of identifying fully with the Artist Persona, the Ego and the Persona become equal in size, effectively becoming the same thing.
And that’s a state of vulnerability. If the world has access to the Persona, and the Persona is equal to the Ego, then the world has direct access to the complete inner world of the artist.
If the public doesn’t like his art, the public truly doesn’t like him!
And so, he can’t make mistakes. He needs to be perfect, so that his art – and by extension himself – can’t possibly be criticized.
The neurotic perfectionist is risking everything through the art he does.
This is what Jung said about those who completely identify themselves with their personas:
“The danger is that people become identical with their personas—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice. The result could be the shallow, brittle, conformist kind of personality which is ‘all persona’, with its excessive concern for ‘what people think'”
Could it be, though, that this Ego-Persona unification is not entirely a trap, but more of a high risk/reward bet, that the artist consciously decided to make ?
After all, there is the other side of the coin…
For any other regular person, if people compliment the Persona, that may not mean much to the Ego, because it knows the Persona doesn’t represent the Ego entirely.
But if the Ego identifies with the Persona completely, all compliments to the Persona are truly compliments to the Ego.
What else could be more tempting to a low self-esteem person than the opportunity to be liked as he truly is on the inside?
Hence, he will gamble in a high risk/reward bet.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t know that, regardless if he wins or loses, there’s always a price to pay: in exchange for just the opportunity to make the bet, he will be required to become a neurotic perfectionist. And that’s before the game has even begun.
The solution to neurotic perfectionism is, therefore, to stop making that damn bet!, by letting the Ego and Persona being separate entities.
I started that process by stopping publishing art and content under my own name.
As you might imagine, having your Artist Persona and your Ego sharing the same name will make it easier for them to become the same thing.
Of course, my solutions may not be your solutions. There are many artists publishing under their own names to which all these problems don’t apply. Different psychological makeups will require different actions.
And yet, I think the underlying theoretical Jungian analysis explains many, if not all, cases of neurotic perfectionism.
Separating the Artist Persona into something smaller than the Ego allows you to receive hate and criticism without completely falling apart. You may not like it, but you can take it, because now you’re more than your Artist Persona.
But are you much more than your Artist Persona, though?
Maybe, currently, you are not. Maybe you’ve spend countless hours dedicated exclusively to becoming an artist.
Maybe you need to start finding additional things to identify with. Not only will this force you to create multiple personas, allowing you to diversify the risk, but you will also expand your Self by being exposed to new experiences.
And even then, perhaps you need to start learning how to stop extracting meaning and self-value exclusively from your Persona(s).
To transcend the need to get approval through your Personas, you need to develop and mature your psyche. That’s the life-long work that Jung called Individuation.
And that’s quite a challenge!
If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, my advice is start getting familiarized with the work of Carl Jung (I apologize for not delving deeper into the topic but this isn’t a self-development blog after all 🙂 )
Regardless. just know that Jung has been helping me, and he’s the one who led me to the insights mentioned in this article.
I hope it can help you too.
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