Pagan Leadership: Community Building, Facilitation, and Personal Growth

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Sacrificing Perfection for Excellence


Some of us are haunted by the idea of perfection. It holds us back from our creative work; from any of our important work, for that matter. We fear we won't be able to do justice to the idea in our head. We've tried writing or painting or dancing, and somehow the brilliance of what we envision becomes corrupted as soon as we try to make it manifest. And there's that nagging voice in the back of our heads telling us what we have always known...that we're not good enough. That we will never have the skill to create what we dream of. That if it's not perfect, they'll deride us, they'll tease us. They'll reject us. Nobody will like us.

How many books haven't been written because the authors got trapped in the swamp of perfectionism? How many paintings never made it onto a canvas? Or sit rotting at the bottom of a drawer, unfinished?

Years ago, I was stuck in the cycle of perfectionism.

I knew my art wasn't as good as my favorite artists. And my writing wasn't as good as my favorite authors. I'd been to enough writing workshops to know that, as a fantasy writer, your first book has to rock. If your first book isn't amazing--if it's not perfect--no publisher will touch you. Of course, this was back before e-publishing and self publishing was a thing, and that paradigm has somewhat changed, but it deeply impacted my ability to write at all.

As a graphic designer and web designer, my bosses and clients expected perfect. Anything that was a little off was cause for getting reprimanded, if not fired. I knew that at some of the high pressure design agencies, designers used cocaine in order to keep up the brutal pace.

The point is, all through school, and in my professional life, I knew that people expected perfect.

What's Wrong With Perfectionism?

If I were still stuck in that mire of perfectionism, I would not have any books out today. I would not be a professional artist making a (sort of) living off of my artwork. How did I get out of that insipid cycle? And there are two answers to that. One was a process of just writing and painting and getting better, getting good feedback, and getting better still. The other was some personal work that I did, particularly a ritual where I deliberately sacrificed perfection for excellence.

Recently, a Pagan writer asked me how I write, or more specifically, how I keep myself from being blocked. My honest answer in the moment is, I actually haven't been writing a lot because I work a 12 hour day 6 days a week to make a below-poverty-line living. Most of my income comes from selling artwork. The artwork pays, the writing does not. At least, not in the short term. It's been hard to justify carving out time to write books when I won't see any money from that for a year or more.

He pressed me for writing advice on getting past blocks. "What about when you first started writing? How did you make yourself do it? How did you keep yourself from getting sucked into anxiety and writer's block?"

And then I remembered what a perfectionist control freak I used to be.

I've gone back and forth so many times on writing. I started writing my first fantasy/sci-fi novel when I was twelve, and I finished it two years later. Of course, it sucked, but I did write it and finish it and I learned a lot just from that. I wrote and finished another historical fantasy novel shortly after. It was easier to write back then because I wasn't quite as worried about it being perfect, I was just trying to get the story out. (That, and reading and writing fantasy was my escape from the daily bullying at school.)

Later, though, I'd go for months or years without writing. I'd read published authors that I loved and realize my writing was just not there. It became really hard to finish anything. It was by accident almost that I started writing nonfiction.

When I was at Diana's Grove there was a monthly (later quarterly) magazine called Between the Worlds. One staffer offered to write a column on dreamwork, then backed out of writing it.I mentioned that I did dreamwork, and they asked, "Will you write a monthly column?"

Taking A Risk

I took a breath, jumped off the cliff, and said yes. Back then, it would take me weeks of mental wrestling to write a thousand-word article. And I first had to do all this research to get just the right quotes...and write a really long article....then hack off half of it and wrestle some more. I was fortunate in those days that we had a peer editing system with the magazine, because I learned a lot about writing by having people offer feedback on my work. However, I used to panic before I sent that article off every time. I tried to make it perfect so that I wouldn't embarrass myself; I always ran over my deadline for when I was supposed to send the article off to be edited.

So much of procrastination is rooted in the anxiety generated by perfectionism.

The positive feedback I received from the folks editing my work was something that really helped inspire me to keep going. I also heard from people that enjoyed reading my articles, once they were published, and that was another source of strength. Writing got easier as I went along and there were fewer wrestling matches in my head. I gained confidence as my skill improved.

(Pro tip: This was the same progression for my skill building and confidence as a public speaker, too.)

Ritual and Magical work

Diana's Grove was also a place where there was a heavy focus on personal and spiritual work. Given that we had an email list with seed questions, monthly readings and homework, and monthly intensives that went from three to eight days, it's hard to boil down the one moment that helped me get past my perfectionist, control-freak nature. Over time, one of the most helpful transformations I made was simply learning to love myself. It was building a healthy sense of self esteem and self confidence. By healing some of my old wounds from past rejections and bullying, I gained the strength to be able to hear critical feedback.

On my last two posts here (and in many previous posts) I've written about how wounds in the ego cause unhelpful coping strategies such as perfectionism, being a control freak, or being a know-it-all. In short, when we are bullied and abused, when we grow up in a culture of shame, we often have a very poor sense of self esteem. One coping mechanism is perfectionism--trying to be perfect so we are never rejected. Or being a know-it-all; you'll like me better if I'm smart and right all the time.

Right? (Nope.)

When we have these issues we tend to be really defensive and we can't accept critique of our work. Critique feels like we're being attacked. Critique is death, or at least, it feels like it.

So being genuinely loved and accepted helped me to heal some of those old issues and gain the self confidence where I could hold the many paradoxes of creativity. Yes, I am a good writer, and, I could be better. Yes, that was a helpful article, and, it needed work.

The moment that really helped me crystallize my issues with perfectionism, though, was a ritual.

Altars of Distraction

During one particular weekend intensive, we worked with a concept called the Altars of Distraction. During the afternoon workshop, we brainstormed as a group. What are the things that distract you? What pulls you from your path? Where do you spend your time? What do you value, in the sense of, if you look at your bank or credit card statement, where are you spending your money? What do you value enough to actually put your time and money into it? And, is that what you want to value?

What came out of that brainstorming was a realization that--though I had specific goals in my life for my creative work--I managed to spend an awful lot of time not doing the things that would get me closer to those goals. I procrastinated a lot. As the brainstorming progressed, we began to boil down the many concepts into five or so categories of our core distractions.

We broke into teams, one team for each distraction, and each team was responsible for building an altar for that evening's ritual. I knew immediately which altar I was committing to, the Altar of Perfection. That was definitely my roadblock. I spent so much time working on writing, design projects, or not working on it. By procrastinating it. By envisioning it and never manifesting it.

There were other altars, and I don't remember all of them. There was an altar to sex, drugs, alcohol, and all the standard addictions. There was an altar to information and technology, an altar to drama, an altar to scarcity.

That year, we were working with the story of Psyche and Eros. Each night, the ritual would take a small piece of Psyche's story and dive into it as a metaphor and map for our own transformation.

At this point in the story, Psyche has already been sent up the mountain by the Oracle and told to wed the monster there. She is swept away by Eros, son of Aphrodite, to his palace, but she does not ever see his face. He makes love to her in the darkness and tells her she can never look upon his face for he is a god. One night, consumed by doubt, Psyche lights an oil lamp and sees his beauty and perfection. He wakes and sees her, and then vanishes, and she is left wandering the world. She grows close to death, crossing the River Styx in her pain at losing him. The song of Pan calls her back to life, and she climbs her way to a temple of Aphrodite to offer herself to the Goddess.

The Altars of Distraction ritual is that moment where Psyche seeks Aphrodite. She seeks to lay herself on the altar as an offering, a sacrifice. She wants to beg Aphrodite to find a way she can be with her lover again.

Offering Ourselves to the Goddess

The ritual began using chanting and trancework to bring us each to that place of being Psyche, desperate, ready to do what was needed. Each of us became Psyche, worn and weary. Each of us had been just barely called back into life by the song of Pan. Each of us was ready to offer ourselves up, ready to sacrifice ourselves to the Goddess of Love, in order to find our Beloved.

Together we stood before the altar of Aphrodite.

There before us was a sand table, and we each took a cup full of that sand to hold. Through trancework, that sand became our soul. Our essence, our life force. It was the time we spent, the energy we spent. Before she would accept us as dedicants, Aphrodite commanded us to visit the Altars of Distration, to pour out our souls in accordance to how we truly spent our time. And to be brutally honest about it.

And so we journeyed to the different altars in candle light as a soft drumming and chanting held the space. We spent our grains of sand, our souls. Sometimes a few grains at one or two altars, and many of the grains poured out of our cups at one specific altar. We were ruthlessly honest with how we spent our time. As I stood at that Altar of Perfection I wept, realizing how much of my life I spent there, how much I wasted.

One by one we returned to Aphrodite's altar. We offered her our cups, half empty or with just the dregs of sand left.

"Is this what you offer me? This is what you sacrifice? This is what you think worthy of me, the Goddess of Love? It is not enough. You spend away your soul and your life force and leave nothing for your calling. If you would devote yourself to me, you must devote your soul."

We wept there in the candle light, we wept because we knew. We knew it wasn't enough. We knew it was an unworthy offering, and yet, it was true. We had spent our soul elsewhere.

"Go back. Go back and reclaim your souls. Go back and fight for that life force, for that essence, and return to me."

This time when we journeyed to the altars where we had poured out the sands of our lives, there were Challengers. They stood before the altars and would not let us approach. "Why do you think you deserve that piece of your soul back? What gives you the right?" We had to negotiate with them before we were allowed to dip our soul-cup into the bowl of sand to reclaim that piece of our essence.

Weeping, I said, "I sacrifice Perfection. I sacrifice Perfection for Excellence. I will always strive to do my best, but I will not let Perfection steal my life." And I was allowed to pass.

Finally we returned to Aphrodite, one by one, and she nodded. "You have fought to reclaim your soul. This, now, is a worthy offering."

Together, we committed to Aphrodite. "This is not your only challenge," she said. "This is just the first of many. You walk a hard road, Psyche. You must face many trials. Only if you become more than you are can you be with Eros. Only if you become a Goddess can you be worthy of a God."

Sacrifice is Making Sacred

I have followed that guideline ever since. It's not that I don't sometimes get bogged down in anxiety and perfectionism. Gods know I still procrastinate, though I've gotten a lot better about it over the years. It's that I strive for excellence, and when I notice myself getting sucked into perfection, I work to not spend my life force there.

In my writing, blogging has been a tremendous help with that because I'm able to write with a little less formality than if I'm submitting an article to a magazine or working on a book. My current art style is also very forgiving; the texture paintings go a lot faster than my retentive watercolors, and I don't need anywhere near the level of planning to execute a painting.

I'm confident enough in my writing these days that I'm starting to post drafts of my blogs, articles, and book chapters as a perk for people who subscribe to my Patreon. Maybe the article isn't perfect. Maybe there's a typo, or maybe a whole section of the piece is unclear. I'm strong enough now as a writer that I can take a lot more feedback than when I was struggling with an intense lack of self confidence.

In sacrificing my perfection, I was able to embrace excellence. I wouldn't be a professional author or artist or ritualist if I hadn't. What do you need to sacrifice, to let go of, in order to commit to the work that calls to your soul?


You may be interested in these posts:

Control Freaks, Perfectionists, and Micro-managers Part 1
Control Freaks, Perfectionists, and Micro-managers Part 2

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An artist, author, ritualist, presenter, and spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for Circle Magazine, and her writing also appears in several anthologies. She’s also the author of several fantasy and paranormal romance novels. Her mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations, as well as decorating many walls, shrines, and other spaces. Shauna is passionate about creating rituals, experiences, spaces, stories, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination.  


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