I could never draw stars as a child. In fact, I used to be scared of them. How can anyone draw something with five perfect sides? Whenever I tried, they just turned out lopsided, or too pointy, or like a collapsed square afflicted with the occasional semicircular valley.
Since I knew my stars would be imperfect, I couldn’t bring myself to draw them. When there was only blank paper with no guides to help me, I didn’t know how I could be expected to draw something so symmetrical. I can’t remember why there was pressure now, but for some reason, learning to draw stars was a significant issue for my eight-year-old self.
Eventually, I learned that the only safe way to draw them was to draw one triangle with an inverse triangle on top. These triangle stars felt like impostors compared to my friends’ starry sketches created with no lines or triangles to help guide them, but at the very least they were still stars. I couldn’t go too wrong with two triangles.
Perhaps this post is about my inability to draw. Or perhaps it is about my anxiety, which started when I was a perennially sensitive, shy child. But I think it’s more about my fear of imperfection: my atelophobia.
When I watched my friends draw stars, I waited eagerly to see whether they would draw a ‘perfect’ star. If they did, I felt jealous – because I believed that I couldn’t ever draw like that. If they didn’t, I felt confused – because my friends couldn’t care less about how ‘perfect’ or not their drawings had to be; they were just as happy with a hundred imperfect stars as they were with one perfect one.
Perhaps my example is trivial, but my need for perfection was not. Over the years, it grew into its own life-form, preventing me from wanting to try anything new. I remember being terrified of using an eftpos machine because I was sure I would enter the wrong pin; of not wanting to buy anything from stores because I was scared of speaking ‘incorrectly’ to the cashier; of not wanting to play my cello in the local youth orchestra because I knew my mistakes would be heard by the conductor; of panicking over assignments and exams to the point of exhaustion.
This anxiety over imperfection ranged from the superficial through to the serious, but it was never recognised as a form of anxiety; I was just assumed to be an overzealous person with an abnormal need to keep my room sparkling clean. Eventually, I wanted to get better on my own, and I decided the only way to overcome my fear of imperfection was to practise getting used to the idea that imperfection was fine. Better than fine, even – imperfection was normal.
The first way, possibly the smallest way, in which I began to manage my atelophobia was to start drawing stars. When I was thirteen, now in secondary school and no longer required to draw for ‘fun’ during school hours, I started doodling stars in my mathematics notebooks (along with drawing, I also had no affinity for numbers). At first, I tried to draw the ‘perfect’ star. Again and again I would attempt. I would get close – be almost happy with a star and outline it in black ink instead of delicate pencil – and then, on reflection, I would decide that it wasn’t quite perfect. I still remember the creeping fear that made my neck cold.
But I kept drawing stars.
Over my high school years, I must have drawn thousands and thousands of them. They lined the edges of my notebooks not only in maths, but also in all my other classes. None of the stars would be perfect (in fact, most would be asymmetrical), but I began to realise that imperfection has its own beauty. The many hundreds of stars in all their shapes and colours decorated the page borders in a way that made my normally white notebooks stand out; in a way that made me happy when I looked at them.
The problem with anxiety is that you think everyone is better than you. I’m sure my childhood friends’ stars would have been no better than my own but because my fear told me I would be worse – and that I would be laughed at for being worse – I just never tried. Nobody ever laughed at me for doodling stars in my notebooks as a teenager or young adult. Nobody ever told me that my stars were not perfect. The only one who told me that was me.
Today, I still draw stars. I have a plain sketchbook that sits next to my computer, and when anxious thoughts start to overwhelm me, I draw hundreds of stars and flowers and spirals all over the paper. I draw until there is no space left – until the only thing that is left is a galaxy. A galaxy of beautiful imperfection.