Have you ever been afraid to start a scene because you didn’t think you had the perfect initiation? Or do beat yourself up when you make a move that your teammates don’t seem to understand? If you suffer from these symptoms, there is a word for what ails you, and it’s called perfectionism.
If you think perfectionism in your improv is about making better art, you are wrong. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It robs you of the joy of improvising and ultimately causes you to want to quit. If there’s no joy, you are not making art, you are creating pain.
Improv is a very intimate art form. When it’s working, we are exposing our imperfections and we don’t even realize it.
The bad news is I am a perfectionist. The good news is I cannot think of anything better for a perfectionist than improvising. Doing improv shows and taking classes helps you confront your perfectionism and become more comfortable with our imperfect selves.
Perfectionism in improv for me can show up before, during or after a performance. It’s an obsession, it has no boundaries, it’s a black-and-white thinker. It may show up as over rehearsing or not rehearsing at all. It may look like having panicked notes session after a particularly rough show, or like taking too many classes at once.
In my life, my perfectionism can be so powerful that I won’t take any action at all. I can sit paralyzed on my couch for hours with a whiteboard on my lap with a list of 15 names of potential guests for Improv Nerd, and I can’t email any of them because I’m afraid of not picking the perfect guest. The only way I get out of it is with the help of my wife, Lauren, who says, “Just send the emails out. There is no perfect guest.”
The whole point of perfectionism is to get you to not do the thing you love doing.
If you think you may suffer from it, get help now. Here are five tips I have found that have helped me with my perfectionism in improv:
1. Admit It
Perfectionism is not an asset, it’s not noble. It’s a problem. So realize you are doing it and admit it to yourself and others right now.
2. Set up boundaries, and don’t do it alone
When I record the intros and outros of Improv Nerd, I can really get into my perfectionism and waste hours trying to get it exactly right. To help, I will say to Lauren, “I am recording for no more than one hour.” By doing that, I become accountable to someone else and my perfectionism hates that.
3. Trust the process
Remember that the real joy in improv is in the process — the learning and the self-expression that comes from the connection with others, not the results. When we focus on the results, we are feeding out perfectionism junk food, and it gets so fat that it crushes our art.
4. Accept that improv is messy
If you want to get good at anything, you are going to have to suck at it first. By sucking, you are getting closer to perfection. Sometimes, this cliché can snap me out of my perfectionism for 20 minutes, and often that’s all it takes for me to have fun again.
5. Get professional help
Your perfectionism may be a lot worse than you think. Find a mental health professional or therapist to talk about this with, because let me tell you, perfectionism is serious shit.
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