Perfectionism V.S. Perfectly Imperfect Improv

Agh my mind, my mind! Why is it replaying that cringy moment when I almost fell off the stage? Why is it remembering that stupid thing I said about wrists? Why is it ruminating on when I couldn’t think of the word weasel?

Why is it torturing me?

Several months ago, I was in a perfectly fine show that I felt perfectly unfine about. What happened to me? Afterward, people said very nice things. No one said, ‘What were you doing up there?’

One friend even did a hand gesture for ‘nailed it’ at me as I came off stage. So not only did I think I sucked, now I was really confused. It was evident from the feedback I received that I was not in tune with everybody else in the room. Regardless of how many positive observations were being made, I seemed to find it hard to hear them. Instead I was sucked into a spiral of cringing over my perceived mistakes and feeling foolish for doing so.

What was happening to me?

The pressures of performance can sometimes make it hard to hold onto objective reality, especially when it feels like there is so much at stake. Plus some days we’re just more sensitive to our miscues than others. No big deal, right?

It’s great if we manage to remember that miscues can be magic gifts onstage, and the times they are not, they can help us learn to make different choices. But what about when we struggle? When our miscues flood our minds, we can start holding ourselves to impossible standards, feeling we are not enough, striving for the perfect words to perfectly play the perfect set.

That ‘perfect’ talk is dangerous. It can lead us to stray unwittingly into territory littered with threateningly noisy self-doubting egg shells; where a beast was, until very recently, lightly slumbering.

An ominous eye opens.

Cue some periodic earth tremors, a close up of rippling liquid in a glass and a mournful judgey roar. Enter stage right: a well-turned out creature of magnificent proportions.

And that beast’s name is Perfectionism.

RUN… and not for the rickety toilet cubicle. RUN fast and far!

Perfectionism is an illogical creature all things considered. It’s not reasonable. It’s not realistic. It’s a wonder it exists at all. But exist it does, if only as a construct of our imagination.

Does perfect exist? Hell no.

“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception – we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable – there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

We humans have invented a lot of methods that attempt to control how we’re perceived and aren’t they largely a whole lot of nonsense? We know it really but it’s also very hard to let them go once we’ve got a taste. Social media feeds the beast of perfectionism prime rib. It gets stronger. It gets bigger. It gets more ferocious, more demanding, more carnivorous. Ultimately perfectionism sells because there’s a very dangerous myth that goes along with it: that in order to belong, to be accepted, to be loved, you must be perfect. You must appear to be perfect.

“Perfectionism is not about self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – What will they think?”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

We can too easily get caught up in the trap of feeling that as long as we do everything perfectly we will belong, be accepted, be loved. But notice what happens when we flip it: who expects the people they love to be perfect?

When my friends do a dud scene, a suspect show, a less than exceptional performance – and it has been known to happen (sorry, guys) – I don’t stop loving them. That would be ridiculous. Everyone makes mistakes, right? Yeah. Even you.

The shattering truth is, people don’t love us for what we do or even how well we do it. They don’t love us because we are perfect. If you need someone to be perfect, you’re missing the point of love. We can’t love perfect because perfect is blank. It’s empty. It’s nothing. Perfect is the unmade thing. Perfect is lifeless, formless and futile. Perfect doesn’t get it. Perfect hasn’t had to live.

We love the people we do with all their imperfect. We love people who have lived. Imagine all the many parts of a person we miss out on if they want us to only see the ‘perfect’.

“In a mega fake world full of hustlers and filters, authenticity is what we crave. Perfection is boring and ultimately an illusion. Your goofy laugh is what makes you you, so embrace it and don’t apologise for your contribution.”

Liz Peters, Own It!

One of the most revelatory moments I had in learning improv was when trying to sing a hoedown. You may know this one if you’ve seen Whose Line Is It Anyway? There’s a very fast-paced tune requiring a structure and ‘perfect’ rhymes. I was at the end of the row so I’d had the longest time to think about the suggestion. When it came to my turn to sing though, I got all my rhymes in the wrong order and totally lost the rhythm. I made a big mess and slumped over in hopeless humorous defeat. Teacher Heather Urquhart said, “Look at this; this is how you fail. How much do we love Lela right now?”

I had not realised I could be loved for failing. It was revelatory. I’d attempted to plan my perfect rhymes, my perfect words, my perfect rhythm. And that was where I’d gone wrong. It was in letting go and showing my fallibility that I made a connection.

One great gift of improv is it gives us the opportunity to practice being imperfect, to practice being seen in our imperfect, to practice sitting with our imperfect moments. In improv, an ‘imperfect’ thing can also become an offer. In an improvised comedy horror act I recently directed, ‘The Shed in the Thicket’, an extremely talented improviser tripped up getting onto the high stage. She chose to make it something that was happening to her character and created an inspired way forward for the scene and the show.

“Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Creativity and perfectionism aren’t the best of friends. While creativity is about process. Perfectionism is concerned with product. Creating requires us to be able to take a risk and let go. Perfectionism says, “Stay in control and get it right, right now.” Creativity requires experimentation and curiosity. Perfectionism says, “You should know this by now. Stop messing about.”

If we get so caught up in the need for something to be absolutely exactly what we think it should be, it can stop us from making anything at all. And even if it doesn’t stop us, it can at least take all the joy out of creating. If you want to see someone plagued by perfectionism and a preconception concerning how he’s being perceived, watch Sam Rockwell playing Bob Fosse in Fosse/Vernon. It’s an extraordinary portrayal of someone whose joy in creating is utterly stamped out by a pressure to be perfect, by competition and by striving for approval under the spotlight.

“There is a white whale out there in the vast ocean of our imagination called The Great Show. The Great Show is perfection. We know full well that perfection is an unatttainable goal, but that’s where we’re aiming. We know in each show, we won’t get there in at least one of a variety of ways… We inevitably will fall short. That is the nature of being mortal.”

T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, Improvisation at the Speed of Life

While I was writing this article, Liz Peters wrote a post for The Maydays blog which referred to the feeling of ruminating on all the brilliant choices you could have made on stage as l’esprit de l’escalier – the spirit of the staircase. This is where you think of all the things you could have said once you hit the bottom step and the moment has well and truly gone, left behind at the top of the flight.

What I love about this analogy is it’s a reminder that being in the moment itself is the highest point. When you’re flying high, you don’t always think of the best things to say but you’re up there and that’s the greatest thing. You’re not hiding under the stairs. You’re being seen.

What the spirit of the staircase tells us, is that rueing what you said on stage after the curtain has fallen, after you’ve stepped back down onto the ground, can really be quite a natural part of the process of improv. That’s what I failed to remember on the night after the perfectly fine performance. I flapped about, being annoyed at myself, holding myself to account, and ruminating on how I wasn’t perfect enough.

“The point is, improv is inherently risky. Sometimes our onstage choices fall flat, or a scene never really finds its feet. The fact that those come more easily to mind can skew your own impression of your success and ability towards the “I suck” side of the scale. But that’s not the objective reality, that’s just our old friend negativity. Remember that the next time you feel like you had a stinker of a show.”

Ryan Miller, Take It EasyTM

In his book Take It EasyTM, Ryan Miller suggests negativity bias – remembering our miscues more easily than our brilliant choices – is responsible for some of our ruminating. But it is only by remembering our miscues that we can can learn to do better. As Kaci Beeler puts it: “Every aspect of this art form needs you to fuck up to learn.”

We might want to appear carefree and breezy about our improv in the eyes of others, but admitting you sometimes worry about having said or done the wrong thing isn’t weakness. Sometimes saying it out loud to a trusted person can be enough to release it from knocking about inside. You can recognise that no one else saw it the same way you did or you can even swap experiences of ‘the improviser’s regret’.

“In general, stew a little, shed a lot. Everyone (except you) will forget about your off-moments either within an hour or a day. Because when all’s said and done, it isn’t about you. Just do what you can. Let the rest go.”

Ryan Miller, Take It EasyTM

Just because improv is such an imperfect art form, does not mean it is not the art form for the recovering perfectionist. You might ask: but why the earth would improv attract people who struggle with perfectionism? And it is a valid question. Are we seeking the utmost external approval by chasing the impossible? Maybe. Ultimately that is what perfectionism pushes us to do.

If that is so, it is just possible though that improv gets the last laugh. Because it is through the practice of improv that we can learn the lessons of loving imperfections. The process is where we find the joy. We can’t control the outcome. All the good stuff, like collaboration, creativity and learning happens during the in-between times. So let us acknowledge that nothing about this art form requires us to be perfect. That we are not perfect. That we will not be perfect. The art form is challenging, this journey is challenging, and we won’t always get it ‘right’. Not only is perfect in improv impossible to achieve, improv needs mistakes to thrive.

So know that regardless of whether you have moments of struggling with perfectionism, this process is for you. You are enough. Imperfection in improv is your invitation to creativity, to growth and to the practice of self-compassion. If your performance isn’t everything you want it to be, if you say something ‘silly’, if you ‘mess up’, you are still at the top of the flight of stairs. You are still flying. And isn’t that something to celebrate?

Perfect isn’t at the top of the staircase. Perfect has no journey to take. It has no room to move. Perfect is a shimmery mirage. It is sitting stock still on a platform to nowhere, hoping no one gets too close to notice it’s not perfect…

It’s not even there.

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