Celebrate Yourself: As a perfectionist, I was creating stress for myself by pushing myself too hard on getting things done in work and relationships. I was so unhappy with myself that I never rewarded myself for my small wins. Acknowledging my struggle, appreciating myself, showing gratitude to my body and especially to my hands for working tirelessly with me put me in a different state. I learned to let go of my mistakes and forgive myself.
Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” and just complete and wrap up a project. What is the best way to overcome the stalling and procrastination that perfectionism causes? How does one overcome the fear of potential critique or the fear of not being successful? In this interview series, called How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’, we are interviewing successful leaders who can share stories and lessons from their experience about “how to overcome the hesitation caused by perfectionism.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ayesha Ashfaq.
Ayesha is an Arabic Calligraphy artist, and mindfulness coach, living in Istanbul, Turkey. She creates online courses on Calligraphy, has authored and illustrated a mindfulness journal called BELIEVE, to inspire people who are stuck in out-of-control life situations, to go deep in their heart and transform their lives.
Ayesha uses Calligraphy as a mindfulness tool to pause, focus and connect with the present moment. She has taught Calligraphy to 700 plus students all around the world. Ayesha teaches calligraphy in a different way: she makes students let go of fear of their own judgement and perfection in the process of learning. Use of handmade natural inks, wooden reed pens and the calligraphy paper creates a beautiful setting to begin the calligraphy journey.
Her method is powerful: combining calligraphy with mindfulness; creating a new meditative experience for her students.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in a big house with eight siblings in a small city of Pakistan. My parents were not happily married and the environment was tense and stiff. I mostly felt out of place in that chaotic home environment and began looking for ways to dissociate from the stressful environment. Reading offered me the solace and imagination I was missing in my life. Prayer timings were observed in our home: becoming the second-best thing for a sensitive person like me to disconnect from where I was to where I wanted to be; a place of absolute calm, acceptance, a parallel reality and unconditional love. In real day to day life, I was scared and a perfectionist in my home and school. A small mistake in my behaviour led to unforgiving response from my parents and siblings creating a scared, people pleaser version of me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Yes, my favourite life lesson quote is “There is no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”. Nelson Mandela.
This quote came across me, as I was reading Nelson Mandela`s interview in Reader`s Digest in July, 2005 on a long summer afternoon. These words spoke to me when nobody believed in me; including myself. Despite having good education, work experience, there was no opportunity for me to work and grow. Mandela`s words validated my truth, and the journey of self-belief began.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
`A man`s search for meaning` by Victor Frankl has made a significant impact on me. Victor was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author and Holocaust survivor. He talks about controlling people physically in life or in his case imprisonment in Nazi concentration camp during World War II. As a doctor and psychiatrist, he discovered his psychotherapeutic method, which involves identifying a purpose in life to feel positive about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms, to choose one`s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one`s own way”. No one can control your inner world, your thoughts, your spirit and the inner truth which makes you, YOU!
I relate to Victor`s life as I was once stuck in a restricted and controlled environment, which lead me to turn inwards and rediscover my purpose. Meaning of life is found in every moment of living: Life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. The inner hold I had on my spiritual self, relied on having a hope in the future.
With self-belief, your inner truth shines so bright creating alignment with the external world, eventually. Victor points out the simple beautiful moments like, pastel hued sunset amidst freezing cold snowy landscape and inspires readers to enjoy such moments, no matter how negative our circumstances are. Our thoughts, hopes and dreams keep us alive through the most difficult times.
In Victor`s words, he imagined himself being on stage one day, sharing his story of life in concentration camp, his hopes and emotions during imprisonment with world when he gets freedom. His ambition gave him enough courage to bear the inhumane treatment in camp life. After witnessing disease and deaths of fellow prisoners, Victor observed that ` man dies when he has lost all hopes and dreams`.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Believe in yourself. Unfortunately, we are not taught some basic self-believing tools: like taking action builds confidence, in schools and takes one lifetime to understand very basic human behaviour.
- Resilience is another quality which kept me moving despite many failures in my journey of becoming a Calligraphy artist and a successful online course creator. Failing is a sign that you are doing something and next time do that thing a bit differently. (I learned this from Tim Grover: Winning, a must read if you want to succeed in business, sports and everything. It’s the best personal growth book I have ever read). Observe your mistakes and don’t repeat them.
- Talk to your fears; write them down. I had all the fears in the world as a people pleaser and perfectionist. From what would people think of my online course, how do I look, how terrible I might sound on audio to I am not lucky enough to become successful ever in life. I never felt special. There were layers and layers of fears living for decades inside me, mostly dictated by people around me, which had become the truth of my personality. Addressing them through writing and letting go of them became my daily ritual. And the liberation and freedom are something worth all the tribulations of my voyage to self-discovery!
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly is a perfectionist? Can you explain?
Perfectionist is a person with unrealistic expectations, high aims, with a way of thinking and feeling that says “if I look perfect, work perfect and live perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame and judgement”.
Perfectionists do their best for people to like them, they don’t realize no matter how good they look, or how well they perform, people will find reasons to criticize them.
Perfectionism puts a lot of stress on us to appear flawless and strong, denying the soft and vulnerable side of being human. Perfect people are unable to make true and warm connections with others, because of their perfectionist façade. Perfect hair, perfect makeup, perfect body, perfect home, perfect partner: all things being perfect can still evoke feelings of uneasiness. The pursuit of perfect may be the number one obstacle in finding happiness.
We experience life in the most imperfect moments; like an end of the most cherished love affair, death of a loved one…. these are the moments when we come to know the strength of our beings, the truth of our friendships and the fickleness of life. Life happens in imperfect moments, true connections and lasting friendships are formed in these moments of vulnerabilities.
The premise of this interview series is making the assumption that being a perfectionist is not a positive thing. But presumably, seeking perfection can’t be entirely bad. What are the positive aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
Perfectionism worked well for me in my studies and acquiring new skills. I kept learning and practicing just first alphabet of Arabic calligraphy, ALIF hundreds of times, until I became perfect. Calligraphy requires perfection in writing; by using a numeric measurement system. I learned the mathematical measurement of each alphabet, and with practice I could write all alphabets in flow state. This is where being a perfectionist helped me.
What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
Negative aspects would be the fearful you, feeling of stiffness in body, judging everyone including yourself, fear of trying new things, procrastination and keep putting things off.
As a perfectionist and people pleaser, I did not like to step out of my comfort zone and stayed where I was, and where everyone expected me to be. Living a life like a puppet is not living; it’s just existing.
Calligraphy requires absolute perfection in writing each letter, one cannot become successful as an Arabic calligraphy artist without decades of writing practice. Traditional methodology is very strict, requiring perfection from very beginning in learning Calligraphy. Such strict methods are discouraging for new students. I teach the same calligraphy skill to students; but without fear of perfection and failure.
Perfectionism is like trying hard to hold sand in your hand, don’t try to be perfect and accept your flaws. Perfectionism is a mirage, a fantasy.
Perfectionism is fear; and I know we only become fearless when we face our fears.
From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common reasons that cause a perfectionist to “get stuck” and not move forward? Can you explain?
Perfectionist get stuck in one situation because of fears and assumptions created in their minds of imaginary worst consequences. They stress about all petty things, and are scared of other people`s opinions.
Contrary to the goal Perfectionists seek, they are focused on failure. Perfectionists reject the possibility of success. There is another category of people called Optimalist. They accept their flaws, understand both situations of success and failure and take action to see what works and what doesn’t.
Optimalist accepts failing as a natural part of life, and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success.
Here is the central question of our discussion. What are the five things a perfectionist needs to know to get past their perfectionism and “just do it?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Evolve your thinking: As a perfectionist, I would be stuck on one thought and let my mind wander, creating worse possible scenarios out of this one thought, paralyzing me from taking action. Evolving from this fearful thought pattern and focusing on execution of my idea changed my perspective. Perfection is a way of thinking and feeling which says “I am perfect, nobody can minimize or shame me” and with this mindset nobody can succeed in life. In my Calligraphy work, I play with vibrant coloured inks on smooth calligraphy paper with reed pens of different sizes. I tell myself and my students to enjoy the most vibrant pinks and blues of inks and observe their flow on paper. Pick up a wooden pen and make strokes in any direction you feel like, get to know the nature of your tools and embrace their flexibility and limitations. Enjoy the process all the way in your journey of calligraphy art.
- Optimalism: Celebrate your small wins even if they are not visible to others. Reward yourself for completing a task by going out for a cup of coffee or anything similar. As a perfectionist I would beat myself up for not getting things done perfectly and on time. Becoming an optimalist has made things fun and easy going for me. As an optimalist I am open and accepting of my flaws.
- Shift your Focus: Shift your focus from negative traits of your personality to the solutions you are creating for yourself. As a perfectionist I was focusing on failing, rejecting the possibility of success. I shifted my thoughts on “What if it works”? And a number of good feelings would follow, just saying these words. Honest journaling, means writing out everything out that you are feeling, even its shameful or your most hidden secret which u don’t want others to know helps healing the stress of perfectionism. Our brain creates new neurons when we externalize our internal thought through writing and it becomes easier for subconscious to record new emotions.
- Accept your flaws: When we accept our flaws, we become less judgmental of ourselves and of others. Self-compassion is good for us. My flaws of perfectionism got me well in my journey of becoming a Calligrapher and has helped students gain from my knowledge. I can now spread my knowledge in a very different way from how calligraphy is taught traditionally.
- Celebrate Yourself: As a perfectionist, I was creating stress for myself by pushing myself too hard on getting things done in work and relationships. I was so unhappy with myself that I never rewarded myself for my small wins. Acknowledging my struggle, appreciating myself, showing gratitude to my body and especially to my hands for working tirelessly with me put me in a different state. I learned to let go of my mistakes and forgive myself. When I changed my thoughts about myself, when I began loving myself , believing in myself; I noticed the response of people change from critics to admirers.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It’s a great honor for me to have people think of me as a person of great influence.
My movement, to bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people would be to teach people on How to believe in themselves. Self-belief inspired me to take action on my ideas, made me an entrepreneur while living in the remotest part of the world. Self-belief has taught me “I am enough “.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would love to have lunch with Aubrey Marcus. His wisdom is divine, so much beyond how we perceive this material world. Aubrey`s aura, humbleness and creating human connection is so inspiring and heart touching. I watch his podcasts and feel a sense of connection with him. I would love to meet him in person.
How can our readers follow you online?
I am most active on Instagram, where I post daily https://www.instagram.com/ayeshacalligraphy
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you for this interview. My pleasure and honor to be here.