Recalibrating the Perfectionist Mind

In my work, I see talented athletes, performers, and students alike who convey the hallmark qualities of a perfectionist, which unfortunately can be the most dominant factor in sabotaging their potential.

It is important to be aware that this trait can become a strength, with an understanding of how to shape and adapt this trait in your daily habits. Achieving great heights without the stress and anxiety is possible!

In this article, I will highlight case examples that demonstrate the complexities of perfectionism and share strategies to re-calibrate the perfectionist mindset.

An emphasis on avoiding mistakes is a classic sign in perfectionistic achievement striving.

Connecting the Dots Between Performance Anxiety and Perfectionism

A law school student visited my office experiencing test anxiety, which affected her ability to think clearly during the exam. The student described a feeling of paralysis in the mind and the inability to solve cases she had worked through with ease and confidence in the past. Despite studying hard, she never felt satisfied with her preparation and without positive self-feedback, the motivation to continue her studies was at an all time low.

Many people do not realize that perfectionism and performance anxiety go hand-in-hand. For this student, rising expectations over the course of her studies and a focus on avoiding mistakes are at the heart of the issue.

Whether it is in the context of sport, performing arts or academics, an emphasis on avoiding mistakes is a classic sign in perfectionistic achievement striving. It might sound harmless at first, similar to conscientiousness in fact, but over time it leads to doubts about action and one’s ability as there is a tendency to focus on preventing negative possibilities, like placing a microscope over your deficiencies and weaknesses. As a consequence, no matter how much you prepare, your brain does not connect with the right information and feedback that helps you to feel confident and in control.

Individuals who fit this profile perceive a great deal of external pressure to achieve high standards. For the perfectionist, personal bests are defined as error-free performances, often leading to fear of failure with extreme self-doubt and concern over mistakes.

Signs you are Stuck in the Perfectionist Trap

  • Going through the “what ifs” in your mind before a performance (e.g., “What if I mess this up?”, “What if I fail?”).
  • Relying on superstitious rituals and routines that you believe are connected to performing well.
  • Poor coping with unexpected events and circumstances (e.g., a time delay) before a performance.
  • Predicting poor results before the exam or performance has started when you do not feel everything is in place.

Switching Focus to Recalibrate your Perfectionism

Re-calibrating this form of perfectionism starts with exercises that draws one’s focus away from a concern over mistakes toward positive possibilities with an emphasis on one’s strengths.

In order to reduce anxiety and increase confidence in the perfectionist mind prior to an important event, it is crucial to connect with one’s strengths within the context of the performance.

Play to Your Strengths

In accordance with Positive Psychology traditions, the strengths-based philosophy is about looking for ‘what is strong’ (strengths spotting) as opposed to ‘what is wrong’ (identifying problems). Research has shown that we are happier, more confident, and are six times more likely to be engaged with our work when using our strengths (Linley, 2008).

In order to reduce anxiety and increase confidence in the perfectionist mind prior to an important event, it is crucial to connect with one’s strengths within the context of the performance. Developing a list of the things you are good at as a student or writing specific affirmations and reading them to yourself before a performance can be simple yet powerful ways to re-direct focus toward personal resources and shape a feeling of control and commitment to the task at hand.

Develop a Positive Pre-Performance Routine

A Pre-Performance Routine (PPR) is a planned series of thoughts and actions an individual performs directly before an exam or event. For instance, reading a set of positive affirmations whilst listening to a carefully crafted playlist (that helps you to feel upbeat or relaxed) before an exam is a great way to initiate the design of a personalized PPR.

Dr. Mesagno and colleagues at the University of Victoria in Australia found that applying a personalized PPR effectively reduced anxiety and choking under pressure in “choking susceptible” athletes. The researchers concluded that a PPR can provide a method of maintaining task-relevant cues, essentially enhancing focus on the task at hand, prevent the individual from entertaining self-doubts and worrying about the future.

The Link between Work Ethic and Great Expectations

Musicians are no stranger to the pursuit of perfection and are often advised to “practice more” if they are feeling anxious or unconfident before an upcoming performance. The problem with this approach for perfectionists is that they are usually overly self-critical in this process; they have trouble recognizing what they’ve done as good enough and seek an error-free performance each time they rehearse. For the perfectionist, this form of training typically leads to over-preparation and being consumed by rehearsal. When it comes time to perform on the big stage, even the most hard-working musician can look tense and unnatural as the smallest of errors can lead to a dramatic loss in energy and focus.

These behaviors and reactions are similar to that of the “over-achiever” persona. In this form, perfectionism is characterized by extremely high personal standards for performance, persistence toward goals, and a propensity for neatness and precision. Individuals who fit this profile are typically hard working and intense. This trait can have positive consequences as it energizes action toward goals. However, the aim of producing unrealistic errors free performances rings true, often leading to extreme and obsessive behavior that is all-consuming.

What Does Achievement Striving Look Like?

  • You tend to adopt intricate routines before exams or performances that require a lot of energy to execute and can cause over-thinking.
  • Switching off is difficult and you feel the need to work all the time or be thinking about your performance.
  • Celebrating your achievements does not come naturally and you rarely acknowledge your intense efforts.

Finding Balance when Striving for Excellence: Focusing on Recovery from Errors Not Avoiding Errors

I encourage performers to design AND practice a “recovery ritual” as a deliberate method for moving on quickly following an error and maintaining focus in the present.

The goal of rehearsing to shape an error-free performance creates immense pressure going into any performance, simply because it is almost impossible to achieve under the scrutiny of a panel of judges waiting to catch the slightest of mistakes.

The best approach for perfectionists in the rehearsal process is to emphasize “recovery from errors” as a key element not just in the performance but also the rehearsal process.

I encourage performers to design AND practice a “recovery ritual” as a deliberate method for moving on quickly following an error and maintaining focus in the present. For example, a deep breath, connecting with a focal point in the back of the room, or a cue word that reminds you to move on and finish strong. Through this process, there is an acceptance that errors occur even in great performances and the awareness that, “no matter what happens, you know how to pick yourself up and finish strong.” It is a very empowering feeling that releases the perfectionist from trying to control every element of their performance and instead allows them to experience the natural flow they want to achieve.

The process of re-calibrating the perfectionist mind takes time and persistence; however, the techniques highlighted here provide a starting point for shifting one’s focus in a way that supports achievement striving and can slowly tune your perfectionism into a “perfectly positive disposition.”

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Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Judy **

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