The Paradox of Perfectionism
Balancing Perfectionism With Positive Self-Esteem
Posted by: Alex Easby l University of Denver Graduate School of Professional Psychology
We are taught as we grow up, that success in sport is about hard work. Putting in the tough yards, improving, growing, becoming a true competitor. Hidden within this message is an expectation, intended or not, that our improvement should be linear, on a constant upward trajectory to the peak of the mountain. If you don’t improve, you don’t play.
That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be standards of practice. Athletic development needs divisions to ensure effective competition and growth, and sport absolutely needs appropriate rules and guidelines, but how much of this message is teaching our youth athletes to fear imperfection, to dread making the errors all children should feel free to make. I know because I’ve been there, and it’s important because I still am. A life of the “no mistakes” mindset at the hands of various coaches from rugby, soccer, football, volleyball, and swimming has left its mark. Perfectionism now rooted in my own mental paradigm, and with decades of experience of how it’s impacted my life and mental health, I’m clear on the fact that something needs to change. In our constant pursuit of excellence, is there space for imperfection?
Perfectionism is exactly what it says it is, wanting everything to be spot on, perfect, no smudges, clean as a whistle. Needless to say, perfectionism is rife in sport. The desire to have everything a certain way, pre-performance rituals, superstitions, eating the same foods before every match etc. The thought that creating the perfect process is what’s needed to yield the perfect outcome. This need for perfection spreads insidiously throughout other aspects of life besides that in which it was molded. School, work, our home lives, gradually get judged against increasingly unrealistic standards, often leading to frustration, self-doubt, and apathy.
Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, and author of, among others, The Gifts of Imperfection, posits that “when Perfectionism is in the driving seat, shame is always riding shotgun.” From experience, this is scarily accurate and speaks to the paradox of perfectionism in that, the more “perfect” we try and become, the more we start to notice our flaws and realize just how imperfect we are. Awareness of imperfection, to a perfectionist at least, gives rise to the shame riding shotgun. In the all too black and white world of success and failure, if perfection is a success, then imperfection, well, you see where I’m going.
In life and in sport, we’re faced with any number of challenges and tests. Personally, I think this is one of the greatest gifts sport offers the world, particularly for children and teenagers. A safe environment in which to be challenged and tested, a canvas on which to express themselves: the pride of victory, the reality of loss, and everything in-between. What can happen, however, and what we need to be aware of, is the meaning we attach to winning, losing, and making errors. Emphasizing the perfect performance, and the absence of mistakes only serves to cage us into inaction, throwing away the key of creativity for fear of messing up, of letting the team down. The contradiction here is that, in practice, in perpetuating a culture of perfection, we eventually end up creating the exact opposite, and no, I don’t mean imperfection, I’m talking about inaction. When we accept that errors and imperfections are not only possible but likely and acceptable, we free the reigns of progress and take the pressure off. With a persistent push for perfection, however, at some point, when we realize that it’s unlikely, near impossible to achieve, a natural reaction is to stop, to do nothing. Take this blog post for example. If before writing, I set myself the goal of writing the perfect piece, of scaling my own personal literary Everest, of hitting the bullseye, I’m likely to never start, or at least to procrastinate. Wanting to be better and to improve is great, it’s what we do oh so well as a species, but expecting the finished, polished article every time is unrealistic, prevents growth and can be very damaging to our mental health.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, perfectionism is something I have more than my fair share of experience with. Reflecting on a childhood filled with sport, I now recognize the role this mindset had both in my enjoyment of and development in sport. I remember before rugby matches, painting this image of myself playing the perfect game, and expecting that of myself. I’ve got no problem with optimism, absolutely not, but painting the perfect picture, and attaching your performance persona firmly to it, allows no room for smudges. And so, for every mistake, every error, the picture cracks, flakes, and starts to fall apart, and what we’re left with is the distressing reality and a whole lot of shame.
Besides the distress this can cause, it also blocks the perspective we can have surrounding our progress. If, after every practice and every game, thoughts focus solely on eradicating errors, refining improvements, and generally being more “perfect,” we miss out on the chance to appreciate the improvements we’ve made and to take a perspective on to acknowledge our growth.
Outside of sport, this often plays out in school as an obsession with grades. No one’s saying that grades aren’t important, but what happens if we fall slightly short, how do we respond? Is the response to a B+ instead of an A, “I messed up, I didn’t do well enough, I’m no good at Math,” or is it “Last time I got a B-, so I’m headed in the right direction. I’d like to get an A next time, what didn’t I understand well enough this time and how could I learn it better?”
My developing perfectionism as a child/teenager manifested itself uncomfortably when I arrived at graduate school here at the University of Denver, less than two years ago. The program involves a fair amount of presentation to the rest of the class, 26 people, and the professors. I remember my first like it was yesterday. I’d done the work and done it well, I had the notes, the script, the practices under my belt, and I was ready to crush it! Everything was perfect until it wasn’t. I stood up at the front of the room and froze. As I began to read, I forgot to breathe, and instead, started to pace back and forth like a lion after a double espresso, words falling from my mouth faster than a formula-one race car. After what felt like an eternity, it was over, and I drew breath like I’d just surfaced from a submersion test in a swimming pool. Besides using some extremely useful breathing exercises, by far the biggest help for my public speaking has been acceptance, acceptance of the fact that I can and likely will make mistakes, that it will not be perfect, and that for it to be successful, it doesn’t need to be. We assume that success requires perfection, but what sport teaches us is that it’s possible to win, to succeed, in entirely imperfect circumstances.
So how to identify perfectionistic tendencies, and how to distinguish between them, and simply the will to improve. As with most things, it’s rarely a single criterion and more of a collection of traits that can result from perfectionistic thinking. I find the clearest signs come in the language used. Sticking to sport, is the player overly self-critical, even when they’ve done something positive? They may have an uncanny ability to pick out the tiniest detail that wasn’t “right,” the needle in the haystack.
Worrying about other’s perceptions of us in our teenage years is fairly common, however, perfectionistic thinking can send this into overdrive, leading to a fear of judgment at every turn. “If I try this and don’t get it right, X will think that I’m…” Another significant piece of the perfectionist puzzle is a fear of failure. When we judge our every effort against the standard of perfection, suddenly the whole world’s a minefield of potential failures and setbacks. We spoke earlier of procrastination, a very natural response to the fear of failure. We have a goal, it means a lot to us, there’s a fear of imperfection, the perception is failing at something we want badly, which denotes that we’re not worthy of it, resulting in a whole lot of emotional pain. What’s the easiest way to avoid the pain?? To not even start! That gives us the excuse, and believe me, I’ve used my fair share of them. “It’s not the right time,” “I’m not in the right head-space,” “I haven’t had a coffee yet!” Ok, that last one’s totally valid, but you get the message. When we learn to accept imperfections, there’s no reason not to give it a go and we shift from self-preservation to self-exploration.
So how can we help? How can we as coaches, consultants, parents, family members and friends, help shift the narrative? First and foremost, acknowledging that things don’t need to be perfect to be great. It’s very often the imperfections, the flaws and the setbacks that allow us the perspective to truly appreciate our successes. Give people the space to mess up, and hold back on the judgement. There can be a tendency to narrate the person’s errors to them under the guise of coaching, just to make it absolutely clear. If there’s a technical piece to be learned, fine, but do we honestly think that, unless we tell someone they messed up, they’re not going to know? Believe me, they know!
Allowing people the space to explore their ability, to make safe errors, to learn, to try new things, can not only improve their enjoyment of and thus longevity within the sport or activity, but it develops a perspective that prioritises creativity and exploration over confined limitations. A “let’s give it a go” mindset, instead of waiting for that ever elusive, ideal moment.
Wanting to do better, and wanting to be better, is a hallmark of a progressive and evolving world. Seeking perfection at every turn is the opposite of progress, and it often becomes the shackle, chaining us to a wall of inaction and self-doubt. To trouble-shoot, to evaluate, to develop, to improve, requires imperfection at its core, and acceptance of that, is the very first step.