7 tips for making the most of perfectionism.
In a previous article, the Perfectionism Paradox, I explained that perfectionism is a double-edged sword that can either help or harm performance, depending on the extent to which perfectionistic striving (setting high personal standards and relentlessly pursuing excellence) is accompanied by perfectionistic concerns (preoccupation with mistakes and extreme negative reactions to imperfection).
If I am allowed to drastically oversimplify the complicated and somewhat contentious research on the topic, the takeaway lesson seems to be:
Perfectionistic strivings are good.
Perfectionistic concerns are bad.
In this article, I explain how to determine whether perfectionism is sabotaging your performance goals and offer 7 strategies for controlling the downsides of perfectionism while allowing you to keep the upsides.
What’s your type?
Contemporary research distinguishes between adaptive (normal, healthy) perfectionists, who have high levels of perfectionistic strivings with low levels of perfectionistic concerns, and maladaptive (neurotic, unhealthy) perfectionists, who have high levels of both perfectionistic strivings and concerns. Those with low levels of perfectionistic strivings are considered non-perfectionists. This 2 dimensional model is represented in the diagram below:
Image source: Stoeber & Otto, 2006
How do you know which type you are?
Here are some clues that you might be a perfectionist of the maladaptive variety:
- You consciously analyze your technique/mechanics during competitions or performances.
- You play tentatively to avoid making mistakes. Coaches often tell you to play more loosely or aggressively.
- You have difficulty moving on from mistakes and your performance continues to suffer a result.
- You beat yourself up over mistakes and focus on your failures rather than your successes.
- You find it difficult to accept compliments or congratulations without pointing out your flaws.
- You rarely feel a sense of joy or satisfaction when practicing or competing.
If you found yourself nodding to many of the items in this list, your perfectionism is probably hampering your performance rather than helping.
Controlling the Negatives
Although it is likely not possible (or wise) to eradicate your perfectionism altogether, you can take the following steps to minimize the negative effects:
Leave it at Practice
Training and competition involve two fundamentally different mindsets. I call them Preparation Mindset and Performance Mindset.
Preparation mindset refers to your mental approach when the goal is improving your skills (i.e. during practice or training). This is the time to be hyper-focused on analyzing and correcting errors in technique, because you have virtually unlimited opportunity for revision and repetition.
Performance mindset refers to your mental approach when it is finally “go time” – when your goal is performing optimally now, and there are no do-overs. This is the time to forget about analyzing your technique and trust yourself to do what you have trained yourself to do, unconsciously, through countless repetitions.
In short, leave the perfectionism at practice and “trust your training” when it is time to deliver.
I hate to be the one to have to break this to you, but you are bound to make some mistakes – sometimes in critical situations. I am not saying you have to like it. I’m just saying that it’s going to happen. And the sooner you wrap your mind around that fact, the better off you will be.
Another bit of bad news: You are bound to get unlucky sometimes. The universe doesn’t care about your goals. There will inevitably be some bounces, rolls, and close calls that don’t go your way. Your competition might just happen to have the performance of a lifetime against you.
Setting up an unrealistic expectation that everything should always go perfectly according to your plan will have you fighting a losing battle and leave you feeling depleted and broken.
Instead of expecting perfection, focus on consistently producing performances in the upper range of your ability.
Examine your favorite athlete or performer closely and you will see that they too make plenty of mistakes. Everyone misses sometimes. What sets the champions apart is their ability to maintain confidence, focus, and trust after making mistakes.
Once you accept that mistakes will be made, you can choose how you want to respond to them. Rather than magnifying errors by ruminating on them or beating yourself up, make a commitment to reducing the amount of time it takes you to recover your performance following a mistake.
You don’t have to wait until bad things happen to practice this. Use mental imagery and rehearsal. Role play making a major blunder or getting a bad call at a critical moment. Really try to feel into your experience and consider what an ideal response would look and feel like.
By visualizing yourself responding to adversity in adaptive ways, you can train yourself to bounce back more quickly from mistakes.
Hit the Reset Button
Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux was known for his perfectionistic approach to pitching. Early in his career, Maddux had a difficult time letting go of mistakes and would often implode after a bad call or an error in the field cost him a run.
With the help of a sport psychologist, Maddux developed an ability to mentally reset after each pitch and focus on trying to make only one perfect pitch at a time. The result… Maddux became one of the greatest pitchers of all time.
If perfectionism is simply part of your mental makeup, try to shorten the time frame over which you aim to be perfect. Recognize that each moment provides an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and try again. Just like the reset button on a game console or mobile device, develop a mental reset button that allows you to shift your focus back to the present.
As often as possible, preferably before each play, shot, or attempt, think to yourself: “I am going to try for perfection starting now.”
Many people pay lip service to the idea of learning from mistakes. Fail fast. Fail forward. On some level, we all recognize that learning actually requires mistakes. If you make no mistakes, then there is evidently nothing for you to learn.
But for maladaptive perfectionists, mistakes are often viewed as a sign of inadequacy and avoided like the plague. This can lead to tentative performance or ‘paralysis by analysis.’
Rather than interpreting mistakes as a sign of inadequacy, view them as good things – they provide you with important information regarding your weaknesses and therefore insight into how you can improve.
Similarly, be grateful to opponents who defeat you and expose your weaknesses. Identifying weaknesses is the only way to improve upon them, and doing so will only make you that much stronger.
Reframe mistakes and weaknesses as “growing edges” that provide invaluable information on where to focus your attention in training.
Once when I was lamenting the fact that I had lost in the finals of 4 consecutive pool tournaments, I was quickly snapped back to reality when my friend replied quite matter-of-factly “I wish I could finish second in 4 consecutive tournaments.”
Very often, we become so focused on our mistakes and shortcomings, we are unable to see or acknowledge our victories and achievements. Selectively attending to what has gone wrong or what you didn’t accomplish is a recipe for low confidence, pessimism, frustration, and burnout.
When people compliment or congratulate you on your performance, resist the temptation to deflect and instead take that as your cue that there might be something worth celebrating.
Make a point to celebrate your wins – big and small. This includes meeting short-term goals. Remember that each step up the mountain is just as important as the final step.
Diversify your Identity
Because many elite athletes and performers become so identified with their performance in a single domain, failures and setbacks in that isolated arena can represent a significant challenge to their sense of self.
By developing a wide range of interests and building strong friendships in which your relational or social status is not contingent upon your success as an athlete or performer, you can inoculate yourself against this sort of identity foreclosure.
You are not only an athlete or performer, and your value as a human being is not determined solely by your accomplishments. Feelings of self-worth can derive from a wide range of sources including but not limited to physical and mental health, spiritual beliefs and ethical values, and the quality of your interpersonal relationships.
Become a well-rounded, complete person for whom performing or competing is only one aspect of your multidimensional Self.
The quest for perfection is not always maladaptive, but an unhealthy preoccupation with mistakes and exaggerated negative response to imperfection can certainly take the joy out of both performance and life.
In this article, I presented 7 ways to minimize the hazards of perfectionism without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
Here they are in again in condensed form:
- Leave it at practice – Perfectionism is for practice, not performance.
- Accept reality – Mistakes and bad luck are inevitable. Learn to deal.
- Rehearse resilience – A healthy response to mistakes can be practiced.
- Hit the reset button – You can start over as often as you want.
- Reframe failure – Mistakes often illuminate areas for improvement.
- Maintain perspective – Selective attention can blind us to our victories.
- Diversify your identity – Well rounded performers are more resilient.
Remember that perfection, if it exists, is always a moving target. It is certainly worth moving in that general direction, but it is not worth sacrificing your ability to enjoy each and every step along the way.
With you in the pursuit,
References and Suggested Reading:
Positive Conceptions of Perfectionism: Approaches, Evidence, Challenges, by Stoeber & Otto, 2006
The Psychology of Perfectionism, by Joachim Stoeber, 2018