The performers I work with often claim perfectionism as a badge of honour; an indication of exacting standards; something to be proud of - and indeed it certainly can be - but there is also a dark side to perfectionism - the key is how you handle setbacks or the inevitable ‘imperfections’.
By definition, perfectionists set excessively high standards for themselves and tend to be extremely critical of their efforts or results. The problem with this is there is no such thing as perfection. Perfection is like a mirage: the closer you get, the further it pulls away. So, if you are aiming for perfection you will be constantly striving for a goal that is impossible to reach! This means you always feel like a failure and, as a result, your self-confidence will flounder. Riddled with low self-confidence (a key aspect of performance excellence!), your performance will suffer and you will feel anxious, which inevitably leads to more bad performances!
But how can I be great if I don't have high standards?
The good news is that not all perfectionism is bad. Studies indicate that there are two different dimensions to perfectionism. The first is 'perfectionist strivings' which involves setting high standards and striving to meet them. This side of perfectionism is not so bad, in fact it has been linked to greater motivation, effort and even quality of life. It is the other side of perfectionism that can bring us down: 'perfectionist concerns'. This is when you start to worry about every little detail that wasn’t right, beating yourself up over your mistakes and worrying about what others think or pinning your self-worth on how perfect your performance was. Unfortunately, this is associated with higher anxiety, depression and distress.
So how can we aim for perfectionist strivings without falling into the trap of perfectionist concerns?
Accept error in order to minimise error
What often catches people out is the misconception that if they aren't hard on themselves then they will never be good enough, without realising that by setting such impossible-to-reach standards they are less likely to attain their goals. There is a principle in research that you have to accept error in order to minimise error, that, in trying to make sure there is no error, you are more likely to make mistakes. In performance this is also true, particularly in high pressure situations. If you accept that 100% isn't realistic in a highly pressured situation and aim for say, 80%, you can reduce some of the pressure and you may even find that you end up achieving closer to 90%. However, if you are expecting 100% you will probably be under so much pressure that you will end up with more like 70% - or worse! You can still set high standards, but it’s important to recognise that in a highly pressured situation, perfectionism is more likely to make you anxious and choke than lead to a great performance.
“Nature to be commanded must be obeyed”
If you beat yourself up over your mistakes, you won’t make the same mistake again next time, right? Actually, it turns out that you are more likely to reach your goals by relating to yourself kindly than by being hard on yourself. This is because when you are hard on yourself, you trigger your body's flight or fight response - you basically take on the dual role of attacker and victim! This is why research (by Kristen Neff) indicates that self-compassion reduces cortisol levels (the hormone released in response to stress or anxiety) and increases oxytocin (the ‘feel-good’ hormone). Next time things don't go well, try being kind to yourself. Ask yourself if you would expect this standard of a loved one? Embrace the fact that we all have flaws, and that you can only do your best within that given moment.
Acknowledge the good parts of your performance
Perfectionists tend to be too busy beating themselves up over their mistakes to recognise everything that they did really well! Or even worse, they don’t even acknowledge that the good elements were their own doing (how could they be - they are clearly a complete failure so surely they didn’t get anything right!?). Instead they try attributing their successes to external factors such as luck or favouritism on the part of an adjudicator or employer. Next time you perform take the time to consider everything that was right about your performance and all the things you did really well; in the end these are the things that will make you stand out from the crowd, not that one little mistake that most people probably didn't even notice!
Learn from your mistakes
Perfectionism can also cause you to avoid situations that could help to expand your skills and accomplish your goals. Carol Dweck talks about this in her book Mindset. She outlines two different mindsets: the Fixed Mindset, where one believes his or her intelligence and talent is locked in at birth, and hence out of his or her control, and the Growth Mindset where one believes any ability can be developed with hard work and practice. The problem is that if you feel that mistakes reflect who you are, rather than what you still need to learn, then you will prefer to avoid mistakes and cover them up. When you can own your mistakes, and know that they don't mean you are a bad performer, you free yourself to start learning from them.
"We either learn to fail or we fail to learn"
Tal Ben Shahar, The pursuit of perfect
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