Abandoning the Alter of Perfectionism

By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW


Being a recovering perfectionist, (my motto: cultivate mediocrity one day at a time) I’ve had my problems with this disease.  It shows up in the darndest places!  For instance in addition to being a psychotherapist, for the past many years I have been writing in my spare time.  With two decades of practice one might think I was published in more than just a handful of mostly unknown newspapers and magazines.  I’m not.  But the thing is I am still writing. 

In the past I rarely sent out work beyond family and friends because receiving those thin envelopes months later in the mail bearing misaligned Xeroxed rejection form letters or the slightly less crushing personalized rejection letters would send me into a funk for days, lamenting my Dyson-like suction at this craft that I so love. 

This year, I’m applying my exercise philosophy to my writing.  I work out even if I don’t feel like it because it’s healthy and I always feel good afterwards.  So I’m sending out articles and essays with that same commitment.  I’ve decided to tell myself,

“Someday I will look back at these rejection letters with humor and compassion for the arduous path my writing took.  I will feel pride for remaining committed to something I love and finally finding a measure of success.”

A possible lie, one might say.  Ah yes, perhaps, but so what?   If it makes me feel better, and it keeps me doing something I love, that is frankly more important than the mere accuracy.   This is called positive self talk. 

“But that’s not true!  I just don’t believe it,” some of my clients lament when I tell them to say kind and loving things to themselves.   This kind of perfectionist concrete thinking begs for a magnifying glass. 

Accurate, factual information can be vitally important in some circumstances.  Knowing who has the right of way while driving springs to mind.   The importance of reducing our carbon footprint in the face of global warming does as well. 

But empirical truth is not only irrelevant it is downright toxic when we are reaching for an intended truth, one that is not currently obvious.   This is the creative spark behind every human invention.  Religious people call this faith.  Therapists call this learned optimism.  

If we didn’t grow up in a family which nurtured our hopes, we can learn how to in therapy.  Positive self talk is one way to develop learned optimism. 

Here’s is the miracle of positive self talk:  the more we do it, the truer it becomes!  The more we are kind, loving and generous to ourselves, the more we are able to tolerate and gain traction around our own and other’s shortcomings. 

Negative self talk is the product of perfectionism.  To put it in fancy clinical language, perfectionism is a big fat liar with its pants on fire.  Perfectionism will amputate your life and then make you resent your lost possibilities.  If perfectionism were a mother, she would smother her own babies to “protect” them from being hurt by others. 

And so, let us all worship at the altar of perfectionism less and wellbeing more! 

Jenna Rizzo: Paint, Place and Permission

Interview with Jenna Rizzo

Jenna Rizzo is a Seattle-area coach, EMDR therapist and artist who combines her approach to mental health with her approach to art and teaches multi-media art making. 

How did you become an artist?

I’ve always played with paper.   I knit, cook, and studied photography but I never thought I could be an artist because I couldn’t draw.  A lot of people believe that “I’m not an artist” myth. 

How did you get over that?

I unraveled it by doing art.   I started with photography, took classes on art theory and composition, and then studying Visual Journaling in 2004. I unraveled it by risk-taking and going into that intuitive place, by asking myself “What do I love?  What do I see?” 

What do you say to the person who says “I can’t make art.”?

I’d say creativity and intuition is available to everyone.  Art is self care and a can be really fun too.  You can take your stress and dump it into art.  You can take what’s joyful and make it bigger.

What about that initial resistance or hesitation? 

If it’s hard to get started take a class

Why is art important?

Art matters because the journey to being satisfied and confident as an artist parallels the journey to being satisfied and confident as a human beingBeing in the creative process is a relationship with the self.  Cultivating the ear to listen to the creative voice or impulse is where artistic skill comes from. 

People make art mysterious and unattainable.  It’s not about being famous or accomplished.  It’s about listening to the inner thread of consciousness. 

I’ve noticed that folks often shrink their lives by avoiding taking risks.  I think art-making offers a perfect low-stakes opportunity (no real life-ramifications) to take risks.  How do you encourage risk-taking in your art classes?

I encourage people to mess up.  I tell them if you don’t like it you can just cut it off, cut it up, or throw it away.   I get them to focus on process instead of product and ask them to notice what happens.    I intentionally buy “low brow” art supplies.  I get ninety nine cent paint just to get the juices flowing.  And I give people the four pillars which are: time, space, supplies and permission

How does your art influence your work as a therapist and vice versa?

The therapy process parallels the creative process.   Judgment and insecurity, underlying values and beliefs show up, such as feeling “I’m not enough.”  My journey was about how to love myself.  That brought me to becoming an artist as well as a therapist.  

On August 18th Jenna is teaching a Personal Altars Class which looks terrific.   You can find out more about it here:  http://jennarizzo.com/?page_id=298

Art and Healing: Courtney Putnam


Courtney Putnam is a Seattle body worker who creates multi-layered healing experiences for her clients like combining massage with aromatherapy, reiki, affirmations and chocolate.  She is also a mixed media painter and poet.   We sat down at the Sunlight Café recently for this interview. 

What is the process of art making like for you?  How is it similar to your work as a massage therapist and how is it different?

Courtney:  “Creating art is a lot like doing body work.  Both require care and focus and flow.  Creating art is a healing process.  I don’t know where I’m going to go so I allow myself to be open.”

Your art often seems to have a theme or intention around healing.

“My art represents something I’m struggling with and want to inhabit more.  For me art is a healing expression or a source of inspiration.  I use art as a map of my future self.”

What would you say to those people who say “I’m not an artist”?

“Broaden your scope of what “art” is.  We are all artistic.  Play if you have a playful side.  What in life do you find colorful and artful?  Images come before words.  Images are primal, and we can tap into our innate connection to color, shape and symbol.  Playing with color, cutting up images, making delicious food, that’s all art.  Art is curiosity and play; NOT making things look a certain way.  It’s surprise, not knowing where you’re going. The unknown is scary so we have to get rid of keeping the end result in mind.”

I pay close attention to how people talk to and about themselves in my work and I notice folks are often terribly critical, even abusive in their self talk.  What can people do with their inner critic if they want to make art but are too critical or frightened to start? 

“I send mine on vacation.  Or I work quickly because then my mind doesn’t have time to catch up with my critic’s negative messages.  I really make messes and encourage other people to do that too.  I involve whimsy.  You can also create an art piece of your inner critic because that makes the critic less scary.  I use mediums like wax paintings where I don’t have a lot of control which allows me to make mistakes.  If I don’t like what I created, I just smear something on top of it.”

How do you honor and take yourself seriously as an artist? 

“The key to honoring is finding safe people to talk to and share your work with.  I started an art blog (http://oriart.blogspot.com) to make my commitment to art making more public.   And I started hosting art shows in my space.”

Thank you Courtney!  

Courtney’s next art show is August 14th at the Phinney/Greenwood Art Walk.  The painting at the top of this page is one of her recent pieces from her art blog. 

You can also find her massage business online at http://www.therising-bird.com and her healing blog at http://www.thehealingnest.blogspot.com. 


Loving the Parts That Hurt



Imagine you are a newborn with a nurturing, loving mother.  You cry, and in response your mother picks you up, holds you close, whispers in your ear.   You smile and in response your mother smiles even wider, makes a gleeful noise, buries her face in your hair and kisses your sweet little baby scalp. 

You are learning from all these joyful experiences:  that you are safe, your feelings are important, your needs will be met and you are loved. 

You grow up believing that life, in spite of its chaos and challenges, is basically a fun and friendly experience. 

It all starts in the original relationship between you and your primary caretaker, where you learn that you matter.

Relationships are both the cradle of healing and the seat of damage.  Humans are dependent on the care of adults longer than any other animal on earth.  A human baby cannot so much as lift their head at birth.  By contrast, horses can get up and run within hours of birth.  Because of this prolonged state of fragility and dependence, young people need adults to show them love and caring, or quite literally they will die. 

But not everybody gets that loving mother.  Not everyone is celebrated and welcomed and cared for by the family they are born into. 

What happens to children who are neglected, abused or (as more commonly is the case) cared for with grudging efficiency?  They are learning too, but what they are learning causes major emotional problems and can take years to un-learn.  They are learning that they do not matter, that the world is an unsafe place, that their needs are too big or too bothersome.  They are learning to shut their feelings away, deny them, stop crying, stop wanting because they don’t matter.

A few years back I read a harrowing account written by an American nurse who did service work in an orphanage near Chernobyl.  In the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown there were many orphans due to parental death from cancer.  In the orphanage the nurse described walking into a large nursery where there was…silence.  The babies sat or lay in their cribs in stony silence, long accustomed to the fact that their cries didn’t matter.  The staff did their best, but with limited funds and volunteers could provide only the basic physical care: diapers, formula, and crib space.  The babies that lived (many died in infancy) later had attachment disorders, brain damage, and behavioral problems. 

Lack of human connection is deadly. 

The reason why good quality therapy, as opposed to just reading self-help books written by therapists, is effective is because therapy happens in the context of a relationship.  Therapy is two people sitting across from another, talking about what matters, what hurts, and what helps.  In the therapy room, a person gets to have their pain honored and that transforms the pain.  Pain that is honored is healed. 

The other day my son was playing outside and fell and scraped his knee.  He ran to me, tears in his eyes, pointing at his scraped knee.

“Owe,” he said, “I hurt myself.”   I picked him up, kissed his cheek and got a Band-Aid.  The scrape was slight and within minutes he was playing happily as if it never happened.  How much harder would it have been for my dear boy to bounce back if I had sneered,

                “You’re not really hurt.  Don’t be a baby.”    Yet I hear so many people telling themselves this kind of thing about their own pain.

I believe in gently, softly, loving the whole self, especially the parts that hurt.