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Perfect vs. Progress

Perfect vs. Progress

 

Why confusing perfectionism with high standards holds you back in your dance

 

If I hear one more person brag “I’m such a perfectionist”, I’m going to scream.
 
 

Because I am a perfectionist.
And it’s not an accomplishment – it’s an affliction.

We use “perfectionism” to mean “high standards”, but they are two very different things.

And confusing the two can seriously hold back your dancing.

 

How are perfectionism and high standards different?

High standards is a commitment to improvement. It’s the belief that anything worth doing is worth doing better – because you love that thing. (In our case, the dance.)

Perfectionism is a moral judgment about the worth of yourself and your work. It’s the belief that anything that isn’t completely perfect is worthless.
 

Why is that a bad thing?

 

Perfectionism leads to inaction.

For a perfectionist, any mistake, flaw, or setback is devastating. It means that, despite all your hard work, your results are worthless, and YOU are worthless.

You’d think that that would motivate you to improve, but it does the opposite.

When you work out of fear (“if I don’t fix this, everyone will discover that I’m a total fraud”), you can’t do your best work. All that judgment is distracting!

And that’s if you manage to do any work at all.

Perfectionism can also make you hide out. After all, it’s not going to be perfect, why even try? And when you don’t try, you can’t make progress. (Or even lose the progress you’ve made.)

Perfectionism leads to fear, fear leads to inaction, inaction leads to bad dancing.

 

Imagine that in your best Yoda voice.

Imagine that in your best Yoda voice.


 

High standards, on the other hand, lead to action

When you have high standards, though, a mistake is just a sign that you have room for improvement.

No shame, no blame, just information.

When you have high standards, you work to improve out of love: “this is so cool, and I’m excited to do it as well as I can”.
 

That difference is really important, so let me summarize:

Perfectionism: fear -> inaction -> stagnation.
High standards: love -> action -> progress.
 

Case in point: Me

Perfectionism kept me from my favorite venue for six years.

I performed there regularly until my first dance injury. The healing process was long and slow, and when it was done, I was really uncertain about the state of my dance skills.

Because it was my favorite venue, I wanted to be at my best (i.e., perfect) when I went back.

It was a catch-22.

I didn’t want to go back there until my skills were “perfect” again. But what I really needed to refresh those skills was to step back onto that dance floor.

I did dance for parties, haflas, etc. But I missed out on six years with my favorite band and my favorite audience.

(I also had several injuries in that time, but at least half of it was just plain hiding out.)

What finally gave me the courage was love.

In May, I attended a show at that venue. At the end of an evening of great live music, wonderful dancing, and camaraderie, I remembered why I fell in love with performing, and performing there in particular.

I needed to be part of that again, even imperfectly.

I spoke to the owner that same night, and he agreed to put me back in the rotation when they make the next schedule.

 

So what do we do about it?

A great first step is to change our language. You’d be surprised at what a difference this can make.

If you’re a perfectionist
Remember that your language affects your attitude.

When you’re tempted to say that something is “bad”, “wrong”, etc., recast that in more productive wording. Say that it “has room for improvement”, or “is a training priority for me”.

Make sure that you’re assessing, not judging.

 

If you genuinely have high standards
Choose to fight that confusion, not reinforce it.

Your language has that power. So choose more accurate words.

Stop calling yourself a perfectionist. It makes actual perfectionism seem normal and desirable.

Don’t say that you want something to be “perfect”, when what you really mean is that you want to improve.

And if you teach, be especially careful about the wording that you use with your students.
 

Next Step

Try practicing the wording changes for a week, and see how that makes you feel.

See if your practice time starts to feel less like desperate catching up, and more like a labor of love.

You may also want to check out:

Everything Else is Gravy (my video article)

The 70% Principle by Sean D’Souza (this is what helped me come to terms with my own perfectionism)

 

Your Turn

Are you a perfectionist, or do you just have high standards?

How do you know?

How has perfectionism held you back?

What tips do you recommend for overcoming perfectionism?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

 
 

Yoda image courtesy of Ginacn.

  1. I hear you. I’m a recovering perfectionist. It really damaged my academic achievement a few years ago, and though I’m a lot better about it now, it still affects my dancing sometimes. It has got worse as I’ve started performing more, teaching, and doing pro gigs, because now I sometimes feel I have to be ‘perfect’ to justify being a ‘professional dancer’, which I didn’t really when I was just a student and not performing.

    When it gets too discouraging, I like to have a practise session where I just put on my favourite songs and bop around for a bit, to remind myself why I love dancing. Usually that works, unless I’m stuck in a really bad rut, in which case I have to just go listen to music.

    Interestingly, I’m not having these problems (so far) with my new project of learning to play oud, and I hope it stays that way. With that, it helps that I’m doing it purely for my own enjoyment, with no particular intention of ever performing, just a desire to learn about music. And I’m really enjoying doing something for myself with no pressure. The interesting thing is that when I took guitar lessons as a teenager, it wasn’t like this at all, and the perfectionism was totally a problem – I didn’t enjoy playing, felt like I was rubbish, and practised more out of fear of disappointing my teacher than enjoyment.

    I think the difference is both in mindset (“I want to learn more about music, and hopefully eventually play something that sounds nice” rather than “I want to be an amazing musician/rock star”), and that I’ve become a regular reader of the Bulletproof Musician blog (http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/blog/) in the last few years. It’s really brilliant and a lot of it is applicable to dance, too.

    • “now I sometimes feel I have to be ‘perfect’ to justify being a ‘professional dancer’”

      That has been a big trigger for me too. Perfectionism is only a problem for me once I get (publicly) good at something – when I still consider myself a student, it’s never an issue.

      (And I’m so jealous of your oud studies. I was planning to start studying it this summer, and was really disappointed when the class was rescheduled.)

  2. Wallace-Ruby says:

    Congratulations on talking to the owner! Good job!

    Looking at mistakes as room for improvement is a real challenge for me because they hurt. Not a great place to learn, but I’m trying to change that self talk.

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