The Tipping Point of Perfectionism

By Emma Baird

Reblog, originally posted on RAM Page News

Do you ever find yourself writing elaborate to-do lists for the next day, while thinking ‘I’ll start fresh with the new me tomorrow, and it will be amazing’? Or perhaps you feel the urge to completely re-organise your bedroom furniture and buy a new stationery set before you can begin that pesky task that you know you need to do. These habits of procrastination are just a few of the numerous counterproductive behaviour patterns which fall into the category of perfectionism. In what may appear to be laziness to an outsider, there lies a deeply ingrained fear of failure and criticism. By procrastinating, we can avoid, or at least delay, the possibility of making a mistake. The issue is not carelessness, it is caring too much.

As Eat Pray Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert, stylishly summarises, ‘perfectionism is just fear in high heels and a mink coat’. Even the word ‘perfectionist’ sounds impressive, and has connotations of conscientiousness and high standards. However, it is in fact a barrier which hinders progress and prevents us from expressing our true selves. Perfectionism disguises our fears of not being good enough, with people-pleasing as its central aim. For musicians, who are expected to express themselves with openness and authenticity, the presence of this fake mask poses a problem. Healthy striving, on the other hand, can lead to excellence and the fulfilment of goals.

What is the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism?

Healthy striving involves a sense of achievement and satisfaction after meeting high but realistic standards that have been set. Another key theme of this positive mindset is the genuine enjoyment and enthusiasm for the learning process. It is fuelled by curiosity, and motivation is generated in abundance. The perfectionist, however, is driven by feelings of shame and the fear of failure. They feel the need to comply to a rigid and uncompromising set of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, rarely experiencing contentment or allowing themselves to relax during the relentless pursuit of their goals.

The healthy striver will calculate their self-worth through a variety of aspects including their relationships, family and hobbies. Therefore, making a mistake at work does not pose a serious threat: they have the mental foundation to be able to learn from it and move forward. On the other hand, the perfectionist will evaluate themselves only by looking at achievement and success. Encountering failure can consequently become a much more serious and emotionally costing experience.

How do I spot perfectionism in my life?

Perfectionism can be split into two categories: thoughts and behaviours.

Here are some examples of unhealthy thinking styles:

  • All or nothing: ‘If I don’t prepare every bar of this piece to the highest standard, there is no point in playing it at all.’
  • Tunnel vision: focusing on one mistake that was made and ignoring that the rest of the performance was flawless.
  • Analysis Paralysis: indecisiveness and confusion caused by overthinking.
  • Mind-reading: jumping to conclusions about what people think of you.

Here are some examples of counterproductive behaviours:

  • ‘Doing’ behaviours: excessive organisation and list-writing, over-checking your work and redoing tasks several times.
  • Avoidance behaviours: Giving up easily and leaving work until the last minute.

These thought and behaviour patterns can lead to several negative consequences including the loss of confidence, social isolation, tiredness and a heightened sensitivity to criticism. As Conservatoire students, who are in everyday contact with high expectations, competitive situations and the criticism of mistakes, it is essential that we experience this type of environment with caution and find an internal balance between control and freedom; seriousness and fun; criticism and encouragement; head and heart.

Furthermore, the ability to communicate a truthful and meaningful message to an audience through music simply cannot be found within a self-critical mindset which prioritises precision over contribution.

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