The Trouble with Perfectionism (me included)


(The irony is not lost on me that as I am working on this blog post I am frustrated that it is not good enough and am angry with myself that I lack the discipline to finish what I have started.   You see, I have perfectionist tendencies that often get in my way of getting work done and often make me feel bad that my best efforts leave much to be desired.

This is how the post was supposed to start:)

Gymnastics is a sport that involves the constant pursuit of perfection.  After all, the ultimate goal of any competition is to score as close to a perfect “10” as possible.  Not surprisingly then, the sport tends to attract and develop athletes who have tendencies to thrive on being perfect.

(At this point I began to wonder if gymnastics causes perfectionism or kids prone to perfectionism are drawn to gymnastics.  I decide that this nature vs. nurture argument is one that can go on and on and the likelihood is that both probably contribute to some extent.  So I decide to leave that paragraph out and continue.)

Yet, left unchecked, the pursuit of perfection can develop into a need to be perfect.  The line is a fine one but crossing it has a steep downside for the athlete’s performance as well as her emotional well being.

Furthermore, parents and coaches inadvertently reinforce perfectionist behaviors because they initially appear as positive traits: hard working, high motivation, diligent and detail-oriented.  Some might be skeptical that I am suggesting that their child not shoot for the stars and rather she aim right for the middle.  To be average.  To be unremarkable.

That is not what I am suggesting, to be clear.  (I really want to underscore this point: the pursuit of perfect is a worthy one.  The obsession with it is the problem.)

Yet, it is the motivation behind these wonderful qualities that leads to problems: the fear of failure.   The problem becomes compounded when the perfectionist links her self-worth with her performance.

The train of events inside the head of the perfectionist gymnast sounds something like this:  “I must not fall.   In order to assure I do not fail, I will work like a maniac to be perfect.  If I am perfect, I cannot fail.  If I fall, I am a failure.  I will have wasted my time, my coaches’ time and my parents’ money.  I will have disappointed everyone.  If I fail, I am unworthy of love.”   Trust me.   It’s a tape that plays often in my own head and only after lots and lot of therapy can I turn it down and occasionally off.

And, if a high sense of self-criticism accompanied by a low sense of self-worth isn’t enough to convince you that perfectionism is it’s own special little hell, consider some of the other problems pathological perfectionism can lead to according to author Hillary Rettig who wrote the self-help book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block:

  • Grandiosity – The deluded idea that things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you.
  • Focus on Product over Process – Neglecting the journey of work while fixating on the outcome.
  • Focus on External Rewards over Internal Ones
  • Deprecation of the True Processes of Creativity and Career-Building
  • Labeling – Harshly branding oneself with terms like stupid, lazy, wimpy, etc.
  • Hyperbole – Overstating the negative.
  • Shortsightedness – Over-focusing on the current project, moment, or work session.

(Five of seven for me!)

So how do you tease out the perfectionist athlete from the highly motivated, hard working athlete who is pursing perfection but is not overwhelmed by it?

Dr. Patrick Cohen, a sports psychologist, offers the following useful list of traits to look for in identifying perfectionists:

  1. Generally perform better in practice than game situations.
  2. Want to excel badly, which makes them anxious and afraid of failing.
  3. Are afraid of making mistakes.
  4. Worry too much about what other people think about them.
  5. Try too hard to ensure their performance is “perfect.”
  6. View performance as either good or bad, with no middle ground.
  7. Harbor unrealistic or very strict expectations about their performance.
  8. Are fearful of letting others down if they make mistakes.

So how do you balance that fine line, encouraging your child to work to her potential without helping her over into perfectionism?  And, if she is already there, how do you bring her back?  Here are my suggestions:

  1. Deemphasize the importance of competitions as measures of her progress in the sport.  Focus less on scores and more on areas where she has improved and her ideas on how she can work on her areas that were weaker.  Placing first or reaching a certain all-around score is less important than her continual improvement in skill.
  2. Make it clear that it is not only normal but also necessary to fail.  Fail has become an “F” word.  Mistakes should be welcomed as a normal part of the learning process and poor results as opportunities to learn.  Talk about your own failures and frustrations frequently.
  3. Help your athlete set many micro goals for each competition so it is not an all or nothing success or failure.
  4. Reassure your athlete that you are just as pleased if she comes in 1st or 50th place so long as she tried her best, was a good teammate and showed good character.  Refrain from the temptation to tie rewards like a new leotard or ice cream to high placement or score.  Instead celebrate successes like her demonstrating resiliency after a fall or being kind to a teammate who was struggling.
  5. When reflecting on her performance, discourage labeling a meet as a “good” or “bad” one.  Rather help her focus on the aspects that went well as those where she can improve upon.  The reflection should be hers (not yours!) and can be accomplished with open ended questions like “What were you most surprised about today?”  “What were you most pleased with today?”
  6. Remind her constantly that perfection is a worthy goal but one that is impossible to obtain because there is always more to learn and improve upon and that is entirely normal.
  7. (And if all else fails, show her this blog post.)