Paralyzed by Perfectionism

When I was a younger athlete, I considered perfectionism to be a desired characteristic. I was proud to see my name associated with the term.

Back then if I was asked to imagine a perfectionist, I would picture a dedicated person who spends extra hours meticulously studying every component of their craft and constantly practicing execution. That person would never give up in the face of adversity and would actually be energized by it. Their accolades would already be astonishing, but they would still be continuously striving for even greater accomplishments. On top of that, all other areas of their life would be impressive. Although constantly busy, they would never lose their cool.

This may be how society has portrayed perfectionism to you too. It sounds appealing. The above description does list multiple positive assets, but in fact, this is not an accurate picture of a perfectionist. They may appear this way to the naked eye. Under the surface, there is a lot more going on. Truth is, perfectionism is debilitating. Why is that? Perfection leaves no room for self-forgiveness and it strips us of well-deserved joy.

What exactly is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a rigid desire for perceived flawlessness which is accompanied by the inability to find satisfaction in anything less. Quite simply, it is a quest to achieve the unattainable. Sometimes a good desire has turned into an obsessive one. Other times, an overpowering desire to people-please has created perfectionist tendencies.

Seeking perfection may look different for different people. For example, one perfectionist may appear like the hardworking person described above while another perfectionist may be apathetic and unaccomplished. So why the difference?

The pressure of being perfect causes some people to get hooked on always trying to be better while it causes other people to accept the impossibility and take self-sabotaging action in order to avoid failure. Either way, if you are chasing perfection, you have become a slave. You are burdened by never being good enough. Even if you have reached the pinnacle of your craft, perfectionism has skewed your view of progress. Instead of celebrating your hours of dedication, you will be miserably over-analyzing potentially unnoticeable flaws. Say you fall on the other end of the spectrum and suffer from discouragement and self-defeat, it is still the weight of perfectionism that has burdened you.

Perfection in social media

In this day and age, social media has exacerbated the problem. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. only give a small self-chosen glimpse of a person’s life. Typically, a person decides to display their high points rather than rough or even average days. All of us fall prey to the comparison trap. We know social media doesn’t tell the whole story, yet we find ourselves envious of someone else’s experience. How do we counter this emotion? Well, often we try to create an even more perfect facade.

As everyone else appears to have it all together, we ask ourselves why our life is not up to par? Even worse, what if somebody catches us in a low moment? The whole world can now see our flaws. With all these easily accessible cameras, living life is like walking on eggshells. Don’t mess up because somebody will catch it. How terrifying! We are being asked to live up to a standard that nobody is capable of accurately replicating.

Consequences of perfectionism

Two weeks ago my husband and I were watching the Winter Olympics. The announcer spoke in a complementary manner about one female athlete in regards to her perfectionism. They praised her precision and said that she was so focused on training that her coach had to make sure she was sleeping and eating enough. I guarantee that the majority of Americans watching were wowed by this statement, but our hearts broke for her.

As somebody who has battled perfection in the sporting arena, I know it is not healthy to be dependent on your coach for basic necessities like food and sleep. I can’t pretend to know her specific situation, but I would guess that somewhere along the journey, her passion for sport must have turned obsessive. To deny yourself food and sleep for the sake of perfect performance is counterproductive and a red flag that you’ve zoned into a particular outcome far too narrowly. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon.

Athlete-perfectionists have often become solely motivated by the end-product of all their training. This has the potential to create immense amounts of anxiety. When all your eggs are in one basket and your identity rests on results, you can’t help but feel that pressure. Anxiety causes physiological responses that actually detract from your ability to perform. If a perfectionist is not performing at their top level, it will be viewed as a failure, thus encouraging them to become stricter, harsher, and more disciplined. The following competitions will be surrounded by ever-increasing anxiety. The cycle has begun and will continue down this miserable path until psychological intervention has taken place.

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While anxiety may be the most blatant consequence of perfectionism, there are plenty of others that may (or may not) be more discrete. For example, detachment from reality is a common consequence that the perfectionist may never even realize. In this case, the perfectionist has completely unrealistic expectations of themselves or they fail to realize that their rigid behaviors are a hindrance rather than a help. If the Winter Olympic athlete was less focused on perfection, would she have realized on her own accord that skipping sleep and meals was detrimental?

Along similar lines, a perfectionist is constantly unsatisfied because they dwell on the things that were off rather than the components that went well. The gap between ideal performance and actual performance haunts them, even if all others believe it was a success. They may begin searching for answers and come up with faulty reasoning such as “I need to be more rigid” or “this program isn’t working”.

Athletics require flexibility because there are too many variables outside of our control happening in the sporting arena.Β  Rigidity takes away from our ability to handle inevitable competition surprises. On the other end, a perfectionist may struggle with buy-in because they never see the results they want. Second-guessing your coach or your training is harmful to your competition psyche.

As discussed previously, people handle the pressures of perfection differently. Seeking perfection is polarizing which means it can increase your ‘get after it’ mentality to a point of obsession or it can increase your fear of failure to a point of quitting. You can potentially spend time at both ends of the spectrum. The point is, the consequence of perfectionism is not long-term success.

What IS healthy?

When the announcers praise perfectionism, what they mean to praise is the hard work that it takes to reach that level. This “hard work” does take hours of practice, discipline, motivation, blood/sweat/tears. It does require a desire for improvement. These things aren’t wrong by any means! Most Olympians have a fiery passion that has overcome many odds stacked against them.

The difference between this type of athlete and the perfectionist-athlete is that the former is more appreciative of the process (with hopes of a great outcome) and the later is driven solely by the outcome (and executes the process as a means to an end). When the outcome is the end-all-be-all, the process becomes just a list of necessities required to get there. Sometimes this list of necessities becomes skewed because of faulty correlations with outcome results. For example, if I cleared “x” height in high jump practice two days before a meet and then jumped my best ever, I may be tempted to try and repeat the same thing before all other meets even if it would be more beneficial to just rest. In this situation, the motivation is outcome-driven and there is clearly a misunderstanding of the required process.

To recap, passion is healthy. The desire for improvement is healthy. Hard work is healthy. Keeping a proper perspective on training and competition IS ESSENTIAL.

How to re-frame perfectionism

So if you catch yourself falling into a perfectionist mindset, what do you do? My best advice would be to talk with your coach. Keep an open line of communication about how you are feeling. They will appreciate your desire to be the best athlete you can be, and they can help keep an eye on faulty thinking. Talk through the process with them and begin to appreciate your daily successes. If the issue is not understood or resolved, set a meeting with a sports psychologist. These professionals have the tools to help you transform your mind in a way that can work wonders for your performance and well-being.

Remember that you physically cannot be 100% every day, but you can bring 100% of whatever you are that day. Cut yourself a break because the phrase “I did the best I could” goes a long way even if the best you could do was only 80% of your potential. Bring 100% of that 80% rather than wasting your energy on strife, anxiety, and fear. If you routinely bring this attitude to practice, the process will lead to the best outcome possible without ever having to worry about the outcome itself.

My coach used to say “sometimes its okay to just be okay.” At first, I hated the idea of that. Slowly, as I have gained understanding, I realize the value of being okay with okay. Our goal should be to give our best effort and be able to celebrate the small victories, trusting that this is the path to reaching our outcome.

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