Psychologists define perfectionism as striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards. This mindset comes with critical self-evaluations and concerns about how other people are judging you. Sound familiar? Most perfectionists say they are only performing at less than their best, but that’s just the perfectionist talking. They are probably doing okay. Sadly, once high standards are met, it’s often not enough, so new benchmarks are set—to be thinner, to be faster. The beat goes on. Simply put, perfectionism is an insatiable task-master fueled by a lot of anxiety about never being quite good enough. It’s like the brain gets hijacked, and your not at the controls anymore.
The F Word
An example caught my eye in the NY Times the other day. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you are not a failure’!” was US Olympic high jumper Chaunté Lowe’s comment recently upon hearing that athletes placing ahead of her in Beijing failed retroactive drug tests, thus giving her the bronze. As a former elite trackster whose childhood dreams got pushed around, I am incredibly disheartened that Chaunté got her podium invite nine years after the crowds left the stadium. But, a failure? My sister, only 1 in about 9,000 people make the US Olympic track team. You never were a failure. Never will be. Podium or not. I totally get why Chaunté would feel that way, and I hope she reads this like a love letter to her soul.
Madison Holleran, the young University of Pennsylvania track runner who committed suicide in the winter of 2014, left behind a note saying: "I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in." It’s possible that both of these athletes were trapped in this as if role to be somebody for others that they weren’t for themselves. This fixed way of being gives us little room to separate our identity from what happened.
Where do these fixed roles come from? Roles can emanate from childhood, where hidden social messages first were interpreted in ways those providing them may not have ever intended. It's like the parent saying, "good boy" or "good girl" if you make your bed. It implies that if you don’t, then you're a bad person. The bottom line is that you’re just a person--neither good nor bad--developing through experience. Unfortunately, the perfectionist experiences falling short as some judgement against their value. And sadly, the easiest person to take it out on is yourself.
So how do you shift your mindset to be a hardy learner instead of an anxious and self-critical performer? Consider taking on what Stanford researcher Carol Dweck calls having a Growth Mindset. Dweck’s studies show that when individuals are wisely acknowledged for their effort, strategies, process, and focus, they develop resilience and persistence. Outcomes–getting an A, winning a race–are NOT equated with self-worth, challenge is embraced, and mistakes are OK.
This work reshapes your brain, too. Research also shows that people who take on a growth mindset form new and stronger neuron connections that, over time, allow them to develop resilient mindsets primed for learning.
How you talk to yourself–staying curious, asking questions like: "what went well," "what can I learn from this," "what feels difficult," and "who can help me," invites new data and support. Tossing out statements with always, never, and should, creates space for new self-expression.
Take the Growth Mindset Challenge
Be specific in your praise, acknowledging…
AND, not attaching results to self-worth
What does this look like?
A parent to their youth athlete:
Instead of: “You’re the best player out there,” you can say, “You had 6 great passes today.” (Acknowledging effort)
Coach to athlete:
Instead of, “You’re not as good as you said you were,” say, “There’s no doubt you have speed and strength. College is a big transition. Let’s ease up on your workouts so you have something left for racing.” (Focus on strategy)
Instead of, “I suck at the triathlon,” you can say, “I didn’t do what I’d hoped, but I nailed the transitions.” (Focusing on process)
I always tell the athletes that I work with that poor performances are not bad news about you, just more information. You have to depersonalize the experience to come up with solutions. You can do this by asking these three simple questions after a not great performance: 1) What went well? 2) What didn’t go well? 3) What can I do differently next time? Out of these questions come solutions, and they don’t have to be perfect—they just need to work for you.