My article contributing to Geek Mental Help Week 2014 is late. It's a year late.
Last year Geek Mental Help Week looked to create conversation around the fact that so many people working in the creative and tech industries are living with mental health difficulties. Often in silence.
A lot of designers, developers, illustrators and writers are freelance workers, leading a relatively solitary existence. Some of us work in agencies, surrounded by people, but – because of innate personality traits, or because of the solitary nature of certain tasks and roles – still feel isolated and inevitably end up internalising a lot of negative feelings.
After the various articles, podcasts and events from last year – looking to raise awareness and encourage us all to speak up and seek help if necessary – I felt inspired to contribute. I could perhaps give my own perspective, highlight my own struggles or at least carry forward the message that there are plenty of us out there – facing similar plights, ready to listen.
Notes were made. A loose structure was planned. And then, before I knew it, months had passed, client work had taken over and the timing was gone. I had failed.
Work vs. Life
The thought of failing, or generally feeling like a failure, is part of the problem. A lot of us enter the creative and tech industries based on a passion, or an innate interest. This energy and natural ability then gets intertwined with our self-esteem and personal aspirations. The double-edged sword of being in an industry or career you love is its ability to blur the lines between work and play.
We care about our products, projects and clients. Each new venture is an opportunity to demonstrate our latest skill, approach or technology. To facilitate this we can fall into the habit of setting ourselves impossible standards – over-optimistically relying on multi-tasking and squeezing in the extra hours to meet them. Except rarely do we actually meet these standards.
We all want to bolster our portfolios, get a place on the exciting new project or grow our own business. This understandably takes focus, dedication and commitment. Unfortunately this often also means obsession, sacrifice and perfectionism.
“Perfectionism” is a psychological term. It sounds great doesn't it, who wouldn't want to be perfect?! But it refers to those who set unrealistically high standards, combined with self-consciousness and an overly-critical judgement of their own behaviour.
Perfectionism can lead to an all or nothing mentality. The overwhelming task of achieving perfection can cause extreme results: either spending far too long on a task, a cautious, overly-thorough approach to details that others aren't necessarily likely to notice or benefit from; or avoiding a task altogether. The fear of not finding perfection perpetuates repeated, counterproductive behaviour. Perfectionism is often linked with depression, anxiety disorders, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), OCPD (Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder), eating disorders, procrastination and more. I first encountered perfectionism when diagnosed with mild depression. For a long time I'd been setting myself mental traps, validating myself through my social and health “performance”.
This could manifest itself as analysis of how funny or interesting I was with friends, whether I had enough counter-cultural interests or how “perfect” my daily diet of food and exercise was. If I noticed myself not performing sufficiently in certain social situations I would go quiet, stop contributing at all or even run away (literally). Many times a group of friends would suddenly say “where's David?!”, after realising I hadn't been back for 20 minutes. Excuses (lies) would later be made to these friends in text messages…
By leaving and avoiding these uncomfortable situations not only was I failing to fulfill my own notion of perfection, I wasn't achieving anything at all. And it was having potentially negative effects on – otherwise normal – relationships.
To properly monitor my food intake and exercise habits I would keep an excessive amount of hand-written lists. To me lists reduced the chance of failure, of not achieving my definition of perfection. This evolved into a fairly restricted and blinkered existence. The obsession over these things gradually took over from normal, healthy habits, relationships and a well-rounded life.
Perfectionism at Work
Whilst this behaviour has mostly been addressed, some equivalent negative patterns have started to creep into the work environment.
With a growing number of responsibilities, tasks, projects and processes it can be tempting to procrastinate and put off those less desirable – potentially undermining deadlines.
I'm a natural introvert who enjoys sporadic sessions with clients, end-users and industry peers. But if there hasn't been much opportunity to recharge between these sessions, sometimes public events can become daunting – especially if this involves a room full of strangers. Pretending to be an extrovert can be incredibly draining!
Some of our modern techniques – like agile and Lean UX – encourage swifter, more manageable and more incremental approaches to our work. But sometimes the relic desire to sit and obsess over a design or task to the nth degree takes over. This can mean results based on rushed assumptions – created at an unconsidered pace and with a lost perspective of the initial challenge or need. Ultimately this can lead to wasted time, unnecessary work and an outcome that isn't meeting a brief of client expectations.
I wonder if there are a good few of us in the field allowing perfectionism to get the better of us?
None of Us Are Perfect
Perfectionism is destructive when it inevitably leads to a failure to meet excessive standards. There are too many variables – human nature, the human natures of colleagues, bosses, clients, third parties, technology, time, unforeseen circumstances – for perfection to be a realistic option with our work.
If too much of our self-worth and confidence is tied up in our work, then our emotional stability is in danger of rising and dropping along with our work environment. The nature of our industry exacerbates this: long hours, emails vibrating in our pockets all day and night, high expectations from clients, colleagues and bosses.
This sensitivity means we're going to be a lot more susceptible to creative block, imposter syndrome, burnout, exhaustion and worse.
There is no instant solution to untying ourselves from our work, finding a healthy distance from the office. There is no quick fix. For some there is no fix at all.
Instead it's a case of looking for a balance. Learning to live with certain mental disruptions – gradually reducing their frequency, minimise the damage and building a mental toolkit with which to deal with recurring negative thought patterns. Together with keeping tabs on ourselves, trying to stop focus, dedication and commitment turning into obsession, sacrifice and perfectionism.
A simple, yet intimidating first step can be writing out on scrap paper, saying out loud or telling a friend what we've been feeling and what we've been through.
At Studio Mashbo, for example, some – or all – of us have faced at some point:
- Social Anxiety
- Suicidal Thoughts
- Self Harm
- Self Deprecation
- Avoidance Behaviour
We Are Starting to Help Ourselves
In the last year there have been some innovations created by people like us, entrepreneurs, designers and app developers:
These tools are great for encouraging anyone to be mindful of our many complex feelings and remember to stop, take a breath and relax.
In our own small way Studio Mashbo has contributed to the effort to tackle mental health problems. Fresh is an initiative started by young people going through the CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) programme with Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust Charity.
Our website for Fresh looks to tackle the stigmas that surround mental health, allowing teenagers to cathartically admit the negative emotions they're currently feeling and address these with distraction therapy or coping strategies in the form of interactive games and exercises.
For anyone who might have observed perfectionism in their own work life, a journey towards relinquishing control can prove liberating. Shunning fear and learning to flexibly deal with the twists and turns of life as it happens is generally a more robust approach to trying to predict and control every detail in advance:
When we surrender to the moment, to change, to messiness or imperfection, we allow the seeds of excellence to grow. Excellence is that drive toward raising ourselves up to our own highest good thereby allowing our unique gifts, talents, and personalities to benefit the highest good of all.
Excellence, unlike perfectionism, is about lovingly pushing ourselves to act, think, relate, and create from the highest part of ourselves.
Perfection is about controlling the outcome in order to receive love and acceptance. It’s all about fear. Surrender is about accepting where we are at in any moment, knowing that we are a work in progress.”