Perfectionism and Performance: The Double Edged Sword

Written by: Abigail Saneholtz, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist

What is Perfectionism?

Do you push yourself to be the best? The best athlete, dancer, singer or musician? Do you get upset with yourself when you’re anything less than perfect? While we all strive towards excellence, some individuals have great difficulty accepting being less than number one. Many athletes and performers can develop perfectionism. To these individuals, obtaining anything less than perfect or even an average performance is considered a failure or not good enough.

Perfectionism is Not Always Healthy

According to psychologist Dr. David Burns, “Perfectionism is not the healthy pursuit of excellence, as most people tend to believe, but rather it is the compulsive striving toward unrealistic goals”. “Setting high personal standards and goals, and working hard to attain them is appropriate,” he says. “However, perfectionists set excessively unrealistic goals and strive compulsively to achieve them, punishing themselves for mistakes and lowering their self-confidence because they can’t reach these impossibly high goals.” When athletes and performers seek perfection, they place a high degree of pressure on themselves that increases their anxiety, which almost certainly affects their overall performance.

How Perfectionism Can Affect Your Mental Health

Perfectionism can cause body issue - younge womanPerfectionists believe compulsive striving is necessary for success. Perfectionists also often focus on only one area of their life to the exclusion of others. They typically strive for their goals out of anxiety, fear and worry. Aiming to be the best all the time virtually guarantees some feelings of failure. Once goals are attained they often minimize their accomplishments and quickly move on to the next pursuit without recognizing the efforts it took to reach their initial goal. As a result, such individuals rarely gain satisfaction from their achievements.
Studies suggest that perfectionists are often depressed, suffer from body image/eating disorders, are less productive and successful, as well as experience more stress and anxiety than those who are high achieving. Such individuals who exhibit these traits often measure their worth in terms of productivity and accomplishments, which can create a self-defeating cycle. Such a cycle ultimately can lead to having low self-worth since they base their beliefs about themselves and their abilities on external factors solely.

Can Perfectionism Ever be Beneficial?

Are there any ways that perfectionism can be beneficial? Yes – This is why perfectionism is often called the “double edged sword” or “the perfectionism paradox”. Studies (Stoeber, J., 2011) show that perfectionism can have beneficial effects on enhancing motivation. However, such research also makes distinctions between different forms of perfectionism that include: Perfectionistic concerns (concern over mistakes), perfectionistic strivings (striving for perfection) and other-oriented perfectionism (expecting others to be perfect). “Perfectionistic striving increases stress on individuals, but can contain aspects that are positive and beneficial when striving towards goals”. “Perfectionistic athletes will be protected, to some degree, from the perils of perfectionism if they experience success and if they have developed a proactive, task-oriented approach to coping with difficulties and setbacks”. “A key aspect of the coping process for these athletes is to develop a sense of flexibility, so that they adjust their goals in accordance with situational demands and current levels of personal functioning”. (Stober, J., 2011).

Dealing with Perfectionism in Healthier Ways

How can individuals struggling with perfectionism learn to strive in healthier ways? First, be aware of the differences between being a high achiever and perfectionist. Secondly, learn to focus on your successes and strengths rather than perceived failures. It is important to recognize the efforts and progress that occurs along the way as goals are being worked toward – Not just the outcome! Thirdly, work on reframing your thoughts to see “failures” as growth edges and opportunities for learning! No one is perfect! Everyone has a struggle, flaw or battle that they are coping with in life!
And finally, individuals can learn valuable lessons by finding and making meaning through times of adversity to learn important lessons. Your worth as a person and an athlete is not determined solely by your accomplishments. Feelings of self-worth are also affected by such factors as interpersonal relationships, physical health, spiritual beliefs, and emotional well-being. Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shared it best when he said “Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.” Recognizing that there is something beautiful and beneficial in being able to overcome life’s challenges helps individuals develop an ability to be resilient that will help them cope better throughout life’s ups and downs.

FPA Performance Can Help With Many Performance Related Issues

FPA Performance is a subsidiary of Family Psychology Associates. Our psychologists use evidence-based treatments to deal with a wide variety of sport and performance-related issues including stress management, self-confidence, performance anxiety, team building, body image issues and more. Individual and group consultation services for athletes and performers of all ages are available. We have two offices in Trinity (727) 203-3770 and Safety Harbor (727) 725-8820 that can provide assistance in your area. Call us today to talk to our caring and compassionate staff to schedule an appointment.

When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism (2009) by Martin M. Antony, Ph.D. and Richard Swinson, M.D.
Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead (2012) by Brene Brown.
Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself (2011) by Kristen Neff.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are (2010) by Brene Brown.
Resilience: Hard-won wisdom for living a better life (2015) by Eric Greitens.
Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (1990) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Adapted by materials from USF’s Counseling Center’s Self-Help Library.
Burns, D. (1980). Feeling Good: The new mood therapy handbook. Williams Morrow and Company.
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