First off, as this article touches upon mental health, I would like to point out that (obviously) I’m not a mental health expert by any means, and the following text should be read as my thoughts and musings, based only on my own experience. If you are in any distress and looking for help, please get in touch with a mental health care professional as soon as you can!
The thing I would like to talk about in this article came out of my pondering on my dissatisfaction with work, fighting with art-block, and the fact that making art most of the time fails to make me as happy as it used to.
After giving these problems much thought, I came up with something I think, if not directly causes all of them, then certainly makes them much worse. I considered making up a name for it, but in the end (after advice from my “beta” readers on Patreon), I decided to call it what it is — destructive wishful thinking.
In the beginning, there was Perfection!
I think my current situation stems from me being a perfectionist (about which I wrote a bit in a previous article HERE) — feeling a lot of pressure, stress, and anxiety, related to how efficient I work and how good the results are. I was dimly aware for a long time now that this pressure stems from being a perfectionist, but somehow I managed to explain it away as just having high standards — a trait that basically made me (in my head only, of course) a super-person. My art was better because I aimed for more polished work and spent time and effort digging deeper, probing further, trying for longer, not taking breaks, not caring about other people very much, etc.
Then I saw THIS video which (as they say in Japan) tore the scales from my eyes quite painfully and made me aware of all the caveats that come with being a perfectionist. I could see that I had displayed almost all of the negative behaviors mentioned, with the one most detrimental in the case of my creative work — paralyzing fear of failure, underperforming, and disappointing myself. I experienced it so painfully for years! The other downsides of being a perfectionist mentioned in that video hit home so hard that I immediately decided that I had to do something about it!
Knowing about these pitfalls helped me identify the symptoms in my professional work and everyday life and fight them. But I still wanted to learn exactly what was making me a sour perfectionist! I suspected that one does not just become a perfectionist but instead develops a system of behaviors to respond to some situations or difficulties. I started to analyze the mechanisms of these behaviors, what made my perfectionism “tick.”
Wishful thinking ideal.
I thought a lot about this, read books on this topic, watched videos of people struggling with similar thoughts, talked a lot with Kana, and then just recently came up with the idea of “destructive wishful thinking” to characterize the mechanism behind my perfectionist ways.
Destructive wishful thinking is something different than just your regular vague “wishful thinking.” Instead of dreaming of things that “would be nice if happened,” I tend to create elaborate, idealistic images of reality that feel concrete, tangible and doable. It’s a process similar to planning but more focused on the fabulous and perfect results than on what has to be done to reach them.
I would catch myself doing this type of wishful thinking about most aspects of my life, starting from the weather, my health, other people’s behavior, ending on very trivial things, like the quality of a thing I bought.
Let’s say that I’m buying a very old computer because playing with old gear is my hobby (so it should make me happy, right?) I find a nice, rare one on an internet auction site and immediately start to form an image in my head of how excellent the computer will be! How great the screen will look, how awesome the keyboard will feel, how the case will be nice and sturdy and how the wear will be negligible. In a way, I’m forming a perfect idea of the computer before I even see or touch it! But let’s say that I actually manage to win the auction and buy it. When it arrives, and I see the wear of 20 years on it, and when the technology of the 1990s disappoints me, my vision crumbles. I get frustrated and angry at myself for spending time, money, and effort on this thing, which obviously is not up to scratch.
A similar thing would happen in my art creation process when I had new ideas. In my head, I would spin an image of how utterly fantastic the work will be — as light and free and full of imagination as Miyazaki’s works, but with the color touches of this other excellent artist, or with the simplicity of form of the greatest Japanese woodblock prints and the storytelling of my best-loved manga artist! Just splendid! And this all done without one mistake with my watercolors and pen! What a grand vision that crumbles as soon as I put even just one stroke on paper. The whole thing not up to scratch again. The time and effort I put into it so far – wasted.
Influence on the creative process:
I think that such wishful thinking is very detrimental on all the stages of the creative process because it causes a very destructive kind of perfectionism.
- It causes anxiety before you start doing anything. Each time you want to create something, you have to face the shining, perfect image, knowing from experience that you will never reach it.
- You feel extremely stressed about each stroke during each step of the actual work because every minor imperfection, omission, wrong decision, or lack of attention gets you even further from that perfect outcome.
- Even if you don’t give up on the way and finish the work, it’s very easy to feel like a failure or a fraud to just have lost with the imagined version of yourself. You should have been able to do the work so much better and faster — you feel like you knew how to do it perfectly from the start, and yet — you failed! This self-directed anger and disappointment sometimes happen without one even noticing where their source is.
- Whenever someone critiques your work, you feel like they deliberately show you where you failed at reaching your wishful thinking ideal. You get angry and defensive them and disappointed with yourself.
- It gets hard to fix and redo your work because you fear that you will still not reach your ideal image even if you put even more time and effort into it. If you battle through that and do try to put more effort and fail to reach the wishful thinking ideal (and you will), it will only make you more miserable.
This loop makes it harder and harder to do creative work, try new things, reach further into new territories, learn by failing, have fun just doing things, and sometimes even prevents you from making things that you know how to do well. Even in the area of your expertise, you fail to reach wishful thinking standards. It makes you angry, stressed, anxious, feeling like a loser, fraud, and finally art-blocked, depressed, or hating your profession as a whole.
Where does this way of thinking come from for me? I’m not entirely sure, but:
- Fear of failure is one big possible motor.
- Overthinking and overplanning in a specific way are too.
- Thinking ahead to a successful image before even starting work, focusing on the goal and not on the creative road to be taken.
- Experiencing success and then forcing yourself to aim even higher can be a factor too. Like a band that was really, really praised for the first album feels a lot of stress while making the second one.
- Having a greater “art sense” than “art skill” needed to realize your ideas. One can imagine what they would like to create but can’t realize their vision (yet). Competing with such an unreachable goal can cause a very destructive kind of wishful thinking even though having a good “art sense” should, in theory, allow for a more effortless learning experience.
The romantic artist.
And, finally, I think that the image of the perfect day of making art, promoted for so long through all kinds of media and social standards, is here to blame too. Let’s call it the “romantic” image of an artist at work. The one in which one sits at a perfectly organized desk, with scented candles lit in the room, turns on a computer, and, while feeling flawlessly at peace and happy, writes another ideal page of an excellent novel or draws a masterpiece to upload to Instagram for everyone’s admiration.
The idea is that if you can’t just “sit and create” great art, you are worthless because look — there are so many artists that can!
TV, the internet, and social media (especially visual-based social media) are perfect for spreading this image. It’s easy to feel inadequate when you are bombarded by the vision of so many artists being perfect, churning out great work day after day! Your social media stream is full of awesome stuff!
OK! So off with wishful thinking! What should I do instead?
My personal remedy to destructive wishful thinking, at least in the art-making part of my life, came from the documentary videos and books showing how other artists really create their masterpieces. If we look closely, the process is almost always incremental, with many failed attempts, fixes, and gradual improvement, with the focus on the current and maybe the next step. Even if someone just sits down and paints a perfect piece immediately, it’s because they agonized about how to do it for months or trained specially to be able to do it (it’s the part of their art).
A famous Polish artist and architect, Wiktor Zin, drew beautiful architecture sketches on live TV in just a few minutes. But he admitted in one of his interviews that he trained for hours, days sometimes, to be able to paint this one sketch so well so quickly while on air — we just don’t see this process.
And what’s more important, even really accomplished artists speak about how unsure they are about every step of their process, how difficult it is to start every new piece, and how often dissatisfied they are with the result. Some even can not bear to look again at their finished work! Even if their art looks perfect for us, the artist always tends to see where the finished work failed to meet their goal.
What’s more, even if an artist manages to create a truly remarkable piece of art, they only figured out how to make this one piece. Some knowledge they gained can be applied to their next endeavors, but it’s not like they suddenly invented a recipe for producing masterpieces. Creating each work is a struggle, and the struggle doesn’t get easier — it just changes based on what one is trying to create.
In the end, I think that having a bigger goal in mind while working is very important! It gives the artistic work a purpose. “I want to make a book that will convey X.” or “I want to paint a scene that will show how I felt when Y.” “I want more people to feel like Z,” and so on. But we have to be careful not to get ourselves into dangerous wishful thinking territory!
Off with wishful thinking — in with nowness!
To fight wishful thinking, I think it’s good to focus on the “now and here.”
So, for some time now, I try to look more closely at my thoughts, and whenever I notice that I’m feeling down or anxious or stressed by my idealistic images, I try to focus on what I should be doing right now to get closer to my goals. For example:
- If I want to draw a great illustration, I focus on the next sketch or the next line.
- If I want to write a great story someday, I focus on the next draft, on the next sentence.
- If I want to draw an excellent-looking comic, I focus on practicing drawing characters or doing the next panel as best as I can, or fixing the things that I think I can do better.
What’s more, I try to be aware that almost nothing I create will be even close to this wishful thinking ideal, but by just working, fixing my work, learning, getting better, and so on, I will for sure do my best work! And that should be enough!
I also try to remember why I was drawn to making art in the first place — just putting colorful marks on paper makes me happy, and new art tools make me excited. I try to draw energy from that as much as I can. Focusing on “now” also helps — it’s easier to have fun and focus on painting when my head is not full of worry and stress about reaching some made-up perfectionist vision. So the actual work gets easier too!
While we’re at it, off with the romantic artist too!
Lastly, I think it’s essential to promote the actual image of how creative work is done and how great work is created. Not the “rose-colored” fake idealistic image of creative work I mentioned earlier, but the one that includes all the thinking, trying, failing, fixing, perfecting, flailing about in panic, etc. This image should be glorified and set out as an example! This is something that every one of us could be doing — show the struggle! Be proud of it! Off with the polished and perfect Instagram accounts! Let’s make creating art into what it should be — a wonderful (though often tough) journey together and not a showcase of the best vacation photos.
Finally, of course, in my case, the wishful thinking problem also influenced my family life even including my leisure time and my hobbies. I noticed I would imagine an ideal book before reading one, or I would have problems choosing something to watch because I had made an image of an ideal evening with a movie. That seems silly, but it can make a person quite miserable even though they should be happy and content with what they have!
Overall, for the last few months, fighting off wishful thinking helped me greatly in my work and everyday life. So if you feel any of the symptoms I mentioned, especially if you consider yourself a perfectionist, try to check if destructive wishful thinking ideas also influence you!