Taking a Look at Perfectionism
by Ashley Mowrey
Several months back, before Covid-19, I wrote a series of posts digging into 4 things that get in the way of a dancer’s healthy mindset: negative self-talk, fear, stress, and perfectionism. When Covid-19 hit, and everything started closing, I switched gears to more relevant topics and never touched on perfectionism. While we are definitely not out of the pandemic yet, many of us are slowly heading back to school and/or the studio. During this time, I have seen in both my clients, and myself, an increase in perfectionist tendencies as we get back in front of mirrors, dance in front of others again, and navigate all these new normals after so much time spent distanced from each other and our old way of training.
The word “perfect” is thrown around a lot in the dance industry. Practice perfect. Perfect performance. Hit those turns perfectly. Perfect body.
But isn't that misleading to us and our students? Perfection does not exist. And perfection is not the same thing as healthy striving for excellence.
There are differing opinions on the definition of perfectionism, but it is often thought to comprise of several elements and characteristics. Researcher and PhD Sanna Nordin-Bates explains that perfectionism can be identified within two categories of traits. The first includes: “setting particularly high standards or goals (including the goal of perfection), being highly driven and determined, and for some, a desire for structure, planning, and organization." The other category, which Nordin-Bates describes as the “darker side” of perfectionism includes: “a sense that what one does is never good enough, worry about making, or having made, mistakes, rumination, guilt, and doubts, and high levels of criticism from self and/or important others”.
There’s also some debate about whether perfectionism can ever be helpful. In an article for Psychology Today, neuropsychologist, speaker, and author Theo Tsaousides explains two different types of perfectionism: adaptive or positive perfectionism, and maladaptive or negative perfectionism. He explains, “positive perfectionists are achievement oriented. Negative perfectionists are failure oriented. While winning is really important to positive and negative perfectionists alike, their reasons for wanting to win differ substantially. Positive perfectionists want to win the race. Negative perfectionists don’t want to lose the race.”
Tsaousides goes on to describe how these differences can have an impact on our mental health. He says, “Research shows that positive perfectionists are well protected from emotional distress. They tend to be healthier psychologically and more emotionally stable. In contrast, negative perfectionism is linked to low self-esteem, more anxiety, and higher levels of depression.”
Other researchers and experts disagree and argue that there is no good side to perfectionist tendencies. In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Paul Hewitt, PhD, says, "In the literature right now--this astounds me--people have said that self-oriented perfectionism is adaptive. People will make that claim, and they'll just ignore the fairly large literature that says that it's a vulnerability factor for unipolar depression, anorexia and suicide."
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfections, researcher and author, Brené Brown says, "Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame."
She goes on to say, "Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused - How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused - What will they think?"
In her research, Nordin-Bates examines the links between perfectionism and disordered eating, anxiety, and burn out. She says, “research clearly demonstrates relationships between perfectionism and low self-confidence (belief in one’s abilities) and/or self-esteem (perceptions of one’s worth as a person)”. Check out this research for more about the connection between perfectionism and these psychological struggles.
While exploring perfectionist tendencies, it’s important to note the common characteristics of perfectionism so we can better identify them in ourselves and students. According to Elizabeth Scott, MS, these are traits often associated with perfectionists:
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Highly critical
- Pushed by fear
- Unrealistic standards
- Focused on results
- Depressed by unmet goals
- Fear of failure
- Low self-esteem
Scott also notes that if these characteristics look familiar...don’t worry! We can look at it as an opportunity to shift our mindset to create more inner peace and a healthier environment.
To combat our perfectionist tendencies, we need to look at two areas: our thoughts and our behaviors.
Ways to cope with perfectionist thoughts:
Practice self-compassion. Be aware of when you are highly critical and practice, moment to moment, coming back to self-compassion. Especially right now after months of training virtually, your skills, body, and movement may be different. This is when we need self-compassion the most. Just like in dance, think of this as a muscle that has to be practiced to perform well, so try to give yourself a lot of grace if your practice isn’t, well, perfect. Check out self-compassion researcher and expert Dr. Kristin Neff’s free resources for some ideas on how to get started.
Challenge all-or-nothing thinking. Is your class a complete failure if you struggle picking up the combo or don’t get called to demonstrate? Can you find the middle gray area where you are working hard and also accepting what is happening without judgement?
Quiet your inner critic. The inner critic has a LOT to say about being perfect. And it probably isn’t going to like the time off or virtual learning you’ve had for the past several months. For more on the inner critic and tools to quiet it, check out my previous post. You can also go to my Instagram bio, click on the link for extra free resources from me.
Explore your fears related to failure or not being (or not being perceived) as perfect. Take a look at my previous post to get some great tools to move past your fears.
Ways to cope with perfectionist behaviors:
Stop procrastinating. Check out this great article from MindTools to see how to recognize your procrastination and steps to stop.
Take more risks in class. While using a lot of self-compassion, set small “risky” goals each class. This could mean getting in the front row, volunteering to demonstrate a step when asked, or not obsessing over each step. To help, practice some deep breathing techniques (check out my fav here) before class to get you in a healthy mindset.
Set goals that are also focused on the process, not just the result. In this article for Sports Psychology Today, Matt Neason explains how vital it is to break down outcome goals (getting into a particular company or getting a particular audition for example) into smaller goals that are geared towards the process. He also notes how important it is to keep a written list of your progress goals to celebrate your hard work and success along the way. When we are focused on the process, we can keep a healthier perspective and challenge the all-or-nothing mentality of perfectionism.
Take a look at who you’re following on social media. Go through who you’re following on social media and ask yourself if seeing their posts is bringing up your perfectionist tendencies. Do you see someone post an amazing video and spiral into comparison and shame? Does seeing other people’s highlight reels make you feel inadequate? If so, clean it up! Unfollow (or mute if needed) any accounts that bring up feelings of unworthiness. Try to remember, doing this isn’t a personal criticism towards them. It’s taking charge of your mental health and wellbeing.
If you’d like support while you go through this process, or if you’re interested in my work, head to my website to learn more and see how we can work together to build your healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.
Ashley Mowrey is a Performance Mindset Coach and Educator located in Fayetteville, AR. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is a Certified Professional Coach through Coach Training World, as well as a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women. Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools for a healthy mindset in the dance community. Now, as a Performance Mindset Coach, she is also a dance specialist with Dancers for Doctors. Ashley has also recently been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and will be on an upcoming episode of Dance Boss Podcast.