Color Me Perfect

How coloring helped me find the source of my burnout

Growing up, I was always known as the one who liked to draw. It started on one of those magnetic drawing boards. I used to draw balloon-headed women with heart-shaped lips and sparkling eyes. Their names were always something like Crystal or Sparkles. I loved how every time I finished one, I could literally clean the slate by swiping a little plastic knob from left to right, and back left again.

Seeing my fascination with drawing, my parents enrolled me in art classes pretty early on. I graduated from doodling on napkins and little scraps of paper around the house to discovering the greasy, vivid colors of oil pastels and the whimsical trickling of watercolors.

The art class that I remember most vividly was taught in a room next to the cafeteria of the second of three elementary schools I attended as a child. I think it was held after school. I have a distinct memory of eating Austin’s peanut butter crackers after each class. That was the year I decided I liked peanut butter.

During the first few classes, we learned about Claude Monet, and created our own water lilies with oil pastels instead of oil paints. In that same class, we explored pointillism, looking at pieces like George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and got a very basic intro to Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers. We made clay sculptures: pencil holders, dinosaurs, flowers, and masks. There was something so powerful about the act of building something from scratch — creating the foundation for something novel.

I was around eight years old when these art classes started. It was around that age that I also started developing a competitive streak.

My first memory of being academically competitive comes from a project that we were assigned in the third grade. We had to design a carnival, complete with rides, food stalls, and other amenities. We had to figure out how to price things, how much money would go into running everything, and how the carnival would be laid out. It was supposed to combine all the skills we’d developed during the year.

It was towards the end of the school year, and I had already established myself as an art aficionado. If someone needed help decorating something for their notebook, I was the one they came to. If someone needed a crayon hookup, I could probably help them out.

Drawing out this carnival was the first artistic opportunity I’d had outside of art classes, at least in the sense that I could create whatever I wanted to make. I had so much creative freedom. I could make my booths 3-D with puffy paint. I could make them all the same color, but in different tints, and flaunt my knowledge of the word “monochrome”. I had big plans.

There was another girl in my class who was always a little weary of art. We’ll call her Reshma. On the first day of in-class time we had to work on the project, Reshma brought a ruler and a set of pastel-colored pencils and thin felt-tipped markers. She sat about drawing hexagons that were perfectly angled, and brought in other tools to make perfectly spaced circles and squares. She used her markers to delicately line them on the inside, and then used her colored pencils to shade the space inside. It was some of the neatest coloring I’d ever seen. I hadn’t even started my chaotic plans, and I already felt stupid for not being as calculated as her.

There were, as I noticed, actually a few more students in the class that were taking similar approached to Reshma. Our teacher peered over approvingly, impressed by how carefully they’d composed these delicate booths. She seemed stunned by the idea that a child could make something that looked so grown up. I backtracked and decided to conform.

The project I turned in had similar shapes, neatly drawn in pencil first. I’d written all my labels in uniform capital letters. It was picture perfect. I got a good grade too.

My most creative year after that was the fifth grade. I had moved to India, and had taken a sense of fearlessness upon myself. Once, we had to make booklets that talked about the different systems of the human body, and I decided to make giant food-themed books out of chart paper. They were larger-than-life. In fact, everything I made for classes was loud and colorful — I was determined to make it my brand.

At the end of the year we had to make projects about our favorite books. My favorite book, at the time, was Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord. I went ahead and made a huge model of Venice, complete with a shining blue river and 3-D buildings that contained little excerpts of my book report in each of them. It was messy, it was chaotic, but it was somehow perfect.

With each of these projects, however, I fell into a pattern. I’d be excited by the idea and throw all my energy into making something wild and exciting, and then come to school and feel my heart sink. Everyone around me had made something neater, cleaner, and easier to read. Their handwriting was more legible, the colors they’d chosen didn’t clash, and they didn’t have glue dripping off the edge of their structures.

What I seemed to interpret from this pattern was that I was putting too much effort into creating something that was annoying to carry around, and easy to pick out from a crowd.

When I made a clunky booklet with jaggedly-cut handmade paper covers and a metallic ribbon-binding, others made booklets that lined up perfectly with their covers, filled with words written in evenly-spaced, straight lines. It was too hard not to make comparisons. I got tired of my work being dismissed for not being the most aesthetically pleasing.

In middle school, I whipped out my ruler. I started focusing more on my handwriting, and making sure things that I made were the pinnacle of tidiness. I, quite literally, began coloring inside the lines.

In the art classes I took, I began getting weary of experimentation. I became an expert on drawing eyes, and shading a certain way, and would only really create what I knew would turn out nice. I would draw sketchily to justify imperfections in my compositions, and work on my still-life drawings with exhausting focus.

Soon I discovered that when I colored, the bits that escaped the lines I drew looked unsightly. I noticed that working with markers created uneven levels of darkness, and coloring with pencils left unsightly strokes. If I used watercolors, I couldn’t predict where the trickles would go, and if I used acrylics they would either dry too fast or not fast enough. I colored only when it was absolutely necessary. In my personal sketches, I almost never colored anything in — not unless I knew exactly how to get the effect I wanted.

I didn’t want to give people reasons to call me out. I didn’t want to give people a reason to think I was anything less than perfect.

This attitude has found its way into a lot of things that I do. I’m that person who will write ten pages when a teacher only asked for five and that will spend a whole night making you a birthday card if you’ve been even the slightest bit kind to me. I believe the term we, as a generation, have assigned to this sort of behavior is “extra”.

As an incredibly “extra” person, I’ve found ways to justify this excessive effort I put into maintaining an aura of composure. I think I truly believe that putting in a little extra effort has helped me stand out in ways that have been positive; however, I’ve recently found that the mental effort I’ve exerted over the years is starting to take its toll on me.

This past year forced me to put my life in perspective.

I’m currently finishing up my year as an English teacher in Thailand. Over the past year I’ve taught 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, and to say the least, they’ve forced me to really check myself.

When you work with kids, you realize how arbitrary adult norms truly are. “Be quiet!” I’ll yell in frustration. “Why?” A child will ask. Do I have a good answer? Not really. So what am I supposed to do in situations like that? What is the point in planning thorough, scaffolded lessons if no one is going to listen to you?

I’m not fluent in Thai, and I only see most of my kids once a week. Objectively speaking, they really don’t need to listen to me — and sometimes it doesn’t matter how much thought I’ve put into a lesson because it’s raining outside and the kids can’t hear me over the sound of drops pounding on the metal roof.

BUT — even with all those frustrations, that seemed like the perfect formula to take down someone like me, I survived. How? Well, I really have my kids to thank.

I sometimes feel destined to be teaching kids that are the same age as I was during the most creative years of my life. To see, from an adult perspective, the sheer freedom that they exercise in doing things they enjoy is inspiring.

When I asked them to write their names, they pulled out rulers to make sure the lines were perfect, but when I asked them to color something in, they’d grind their pencils into the paper until it glistened. I watched students grab obnoxious neon colors and scribble lines clear across their nametags, and then take five other colors and pound them down in a fist to create an ocean of mismatching dots.

Part of me was horrified. I’d come to adapt words like “tacky” to describe things that are too loud, too unapologetic. But, part of me was a little green with envy. It looked like fun.

During lunch breaks, kids started coming in to sit with me to look at what books I was reading and ask how to say random words in English. One of my students caught me doodling and asked if she could color it in. With great hidden hesitation, I said yes. I watched her take a bright red marker in her fist and furrow her brow as she navigated around my drawing with its tip. The ink found its place in areas that made me clench my teeth. Soon she was reaching for orange, then green, then purple. Before I knew it, she said she was done.

I don’t mean to sound too dramatic, but I couldn’t believe I had survived what had just happened. I was fine. The drawing had color. It didn’t need to go anywhere important, and my student was incredibly satisfied with what she’d done. She looked to me for approval. I weakly smiled back at her, confused and content.

The first step

Later that week, during a free period, I drew a face and used some markers to color it in, sort of how I would usually color with crayons. It was a mess, but I kept going. I put on my headphones and started playing some upbeat music. The image looked nothing like I wanted it to, and yet it looked so much better than I could have imagined. It was awful, but I did it. The next time I’d do it, it would look better. The next time, I could maybe try a different lip.

I’ve realized that part of my perfectionism that I mask as an “extra” personality comes from taking everything I do a little too seriously, even things that are for leisure. When I read, I usually try to remember as much as I can so that I can discuss the work later, and then end up exhausting myself to the extent that I can’t finish what I started. When I write, I think too much about who is going to see it, and end up dropping projects before they can amount to anything. When I do something professionally, I burn myself out, because I have to finish what I’ve been assigned, but I’ve already put so much effort into everything else I’ve been doing.

I can’t enjoy what I do for myself, and I can’t put enough honest effort where it really matters. My fear of being “messy” or imperfect has rid me of my sense of ease in the simple things, but I’m determined to get it back.

Last week, I started reading a book, and didn’t freak out when I couldn’t process the full extent of the page in front of me. I flipped to the next one. It was a RUSH.

I also typed out an email and sent it right after I finished composing it. No overthinking — or rather, no chance for overthinking. Groundbreaking.

I threw on a show on Netflix even though I hadn’t done yoga yet. Yoga would happen afterwards. Revolutionary.

I even grabbed my notebook at school and began drawing. In pen. I colored it in. In marker. I made another, and another, and another.

Some of my marker drawings

I’m certainly not cured of my perfectionism, and there are many aspects of my life that I don’t want to take my “extra”-ness out of, but I’ve recognized a glaring problem and how it’s made me unhappy.

I’m really good at turning everything into a competition, and I mean everything. So, rather than try to deactivate that part of my nature, I’m going to try and revert it inward. How many things can I do for myself? How early can I shut off my mind from the worries of external criticism? How often can I do something that scares me? How often can I color in something that I draw? How often can I do any of those things, just for myself?

Maybe I’ll even post this without proofreading it.

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LOL, okay we’re not quite there yet, but maybe one day.

This blog, medium.com/@aatal, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Apeksha Atal and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations

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Apeksha Atal

Apeksha Atal

Trying to make sense of the world, one word at a time