The Problem with Perfectionism

advice Oct 19, 2020
The Problem with Perfectionism

When I wrote my dissertation on perfectionism for my degree, I had no idea how much there was to it. I thought I'd just found a subject I could relate to and would genuinely enjoy researching. Turns out, I learnt an awful lot about myself in the process and found it incredibly helpful just to be aware of what perfectionistic characteristics are and figure out which ones I recognised in myself, so that I could gradually work on not letting them control my life! 

  

PERFECTIONISM 

DOES IT EVEN EXIST? IS THERE SUCH THING AS 'PERFECT'?

Simply, I'd like to say no. However, when we break it down, it's actually a pretty complex topic.

Firstly, if we speak as if 'perfection' is possible, it is highly subjective. An opinion, not a fact. What is 'perfect' for me will almost certainly not be 'perfect' for you; my idea of a 'perfect' holiday might be visiting Christmas markets and drinking vast amounts of hot Eggnog and Mulled wine, whilst yours might be lying on a beach, cocktail in one hand and a juicy page turner in the other. Is one of these objectively 'better' than the other? Absolutely not. It is merely a choice.

So, we've established that 'perfection', if it does exist, is subjective. However, that was a pretty trivial example to use, and having the idea of a 'perfect' holiday isn't likely to do much damage or cause anybody too much angst in their day to day lives. I'd like to discuss when the idea of 'perfection' becomes more difficult and I would argue that this is when we describe ourselves as 'perfectionists'.

 

WHAT ARE THE TRAITS OF A PERFECTIONIST?

'Perfectionists' usually carry a number of traits including having extremely high standards for themselves (and sometimes for the people around them), setting huge goals and striving for excellence. For these reasons it's unsurprising that the statement: 

 

 ‘'YOU'RE SUCH A PERFECTIONIST"

 

carries a lot of positive connotations would most likely be taken as a compliment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not discouraging having big goals and striving to be excellent or holding ourselves to a high standard, in any way. There are definitely healthy ways of achieving these, it's just that for someone who has perfectionistic tendencies, these positive aspects of perfectionism more than likely come hand in hand with some less desirable ones.

 

OTHER PERFECTIONISTIC TENDENCIES INCLUDE:

  • Not being able to let go of mistakes

  • Feeling like a failure when a mistake is made

  • Going over and over past situations

  • Holding onto things that we feel should have been done differently

  • Wanting to know that a project or action is going to have the desired outcome before it's even started

  • Craving approval from those around us

  • Setting goals that might be unattainable

  • Being unkind to ourselves if we don't feel we have met the exceedingly high standards we have set ourselves.   

 

THE IMPACT OF BEING A PERFECTIONIST

It's also worth mentioning that although I'm going on to discuss the effects of these characteristics within the performing world, they can affect every aspect of life including social lives and relationships, organisation, grades, social gatherings and occasions, simple decision making (it can't just be a good decision - it's got to be the best) - just to name a few.

IN AN INDUSTRY SUCH AS THE ARTS, HIGHLY SUBJECTIVE IN ITSELF, BEING A 'PERFECTIONIST' CAN BE EXHAUSTING.

As performers we can fall into the trap of attempting to change ourselves to be the 'perfect' fit for the mould of whatever part we are up for, for a teacher we want to impress or creative we want to notice us. We want to please everyone. This is exhausting and impossible. In training, we are surrounded by talented people, which can be inspiring, motivational and amazing. But it can also be terrifying. We can end up feeling trapped in a draining state of constant comparison, trying to jigsaw together a new perfect person out of everyone else's best bits - but when each jigsaw piece belongs to a different person, it's no surprise that we can't seem to get them to fit and consequently we're left feeling anxious and inadequate. 

 

“IN TRAINING, WE ARE SURROUNDED BY TALENTED PEOPLE, WHICH CAN BE INSPIRING, MOTIVATIONAL AND AMAZING. BUT IT CAN ALSO BE TERRIFYING.”

 

So much energy can be wasted agonizing over the aspects of ourselves that are out of our control; our height, the shape of our face, size of our bodies, the length of our legs, the tone of our voices, the size of our eyes… the list goes on.

Now you may argue that some of those things are within our control to change, i.e. the size of our bodies, and this is where being a 'perfectionist' can cause us serious distress. In an industry where so many aspects can feel out of our control, we can become obsessive over the things we feel are within our control. We already live in a society that, although is slowly but surely improving in this area, has engrained in us that when it comes to our bodies, smaller = better, so it's not unfair to assume that someone striving for the 'perfect' body is going to want to shrink.

There is plenty of research that shows a correlation between those with more 'perfectionistic' tendencies and poor body image.  In the world of performing, it's far too easy to believe that if we can control the size and tone of our bodies, it's one item on the list of 'reasons I might not get this job' that we can cross out and 'fix'. Well it's rubbish! You are awesome as you are. Don't change yourself for other people, regardless of who they are. The happy and healthy you will always come out on top. 

I guess we are a bit like holidays ourselves - not everyone is going to have the same idea of their 'perfect' person or 'perfect' performance. Being aware of 'perfectionistic' tendencies we may carry can help us recognise when we are being unreasonable to ourselves and help us let go of situations, move on and be happier and ultimately, stop getting in our own way!

 

“BEING AWARE OF ‘PERFECTIONIST’ TENDENCIES WE MAY CARRY CAN HELP US RECOGNISE WHEN WE ARE BEING UNREASONABLE TO OURSELVES.”

 

As performers we want to be able to throw ourselves into something with confidence, show off our wonderful talents (which you all have an abundance of) and be able to say 'this is me, like it or lump it'. The fear of failure that a 'perfectionist' might experience can be so powerful that the prospect of starting something new can cause crippling anxiety. Our imaginations are incredible and open up wonderful worlds of creativity which we rely on for our jobs, however, they also enable us to be first class worriers.

A perfectionist will win gold each time when it comes to imagining all the possible negative scenarios/outcomes when contemplating a project or action, making risk taking an utterly exhausting feat. The fear of something not working out, the prospect of feeling embarrassed in front of professionals, teachers, peers and not meeting our higher than high standards can feel devastating. When we do try, the process will often be unenjoyable and if it doesn't go to plan it's back to the drawing board to figure out which jigsaw piece is 'wrong' and to start the search for the 'right' one.  

This fear of failure also puts all the focus on the end product and takes away much of the enjoyment and importance of the process. It's that age old idea that happiness is a destination found in an achievement, a goal weight, a house purchase, a relocation etc. when happiness is really found in the day to day, the little things weaved within the process, the people we surround ourselves with and the experiences we enjoy along the way.

We can all fall into the trap of thinking that if we just had x,y,z like our friend does we would be happier - but I promise you that although the grass always seems greener, it's really not - and besides, it's not your grass! Everybody has their brown patches that the sun hasn't quite reached recently, everybody has a few weeds here and there and we all most definitely have that patch of wild flowers that we didn't plant, but they're actually pretty beautiful and the bees love them and, actually, we're learning to love them too. We all have plenty of beautiful green grass as well, and the more we nurture our own, the more luscious it will grow. 

 

OVERCOMING PERFECTIONIST TENDENCIES

The reality is that we learn from mistakes far more than our successes - take risks and be OK with it not working out and remember to be able to laugh at yourself! We don't always have to take ourselves so seriously. Competition exists everywhere in life but our biggest competition should always be ourselves- being the best version of you is your superpower, nobody else can compete with that. No, you won't be everyone's cup of tea, but by being unapologetically you, you'll find your people and you'll end up with an army of SuperPeople!

Naturally, the perfectionist in me wants this blog to be 'perfect' - which doesn't exist, have I learnt nothing?! Having never written a blog before, it took me a while to even begin, because I didn't know the formula that would equal 'successful blog' (btw, there isn't one), and trawled through it too many times tweaking things here and there! But now, I'm cool with it as it is - if it's pants, my apologies, I'll do better next time. 

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