WOULD it surprise you to know that trying to be perfect can prevent you from reaching your potential? Or that perfectionism can put you at risk of depression, eating disorders,
obsessive-compulsive disorder and performance anxiety?
Many successful professional dancers would consider themselves perfectionists. Dancers aim for perfection in performance – perfect line of body, arms and legs; perfect technical execution; perfect musicality; perfect artistic interpretation.
Other high achievers – such as those in sport, business and academia, are often perfectionists.
So if many successful people are perfectionists, is perfectionism a good or a bad thing?
There are two schools of thought among psychologists. One school believes there is nothing positive about perfectionism. American psychiatrist David Burns has called perfectionism a “script for self-defeat”. The other school views perfectionism as having both negative and positive aspects.
There is now a large body of research showing evidence for two types of perfectionism – a negative or “neurotic” form and a positive, healthy form. Each is characterised by a different set of thoughts, emotions and behaviours.
In my experience, dancers often display high levels of both types of perfectionism and can switch between the two almost instantly. Sometimes “self-talk” (our constant internal dialogue) reflects the mindset of positive perfectionism but then something happens to trigger a change into negative perfectionism.
For example, a dancer may be clearly focused on correctly executing a pirouette, his mind and body connected as one into the correct aesthetic, alignment and coordination. The result is a beautiful triple pirouette. The teacher praises the dancer and asks him to demonstrate the pirouette for his peers. If the dancer stays in the same task-focused state of mind, he is likely to repeat the triple pirouette.
However, if he switches into a state of mind which reflects avoidance of mistakes and disapproval – “I can’t make a mistake now that everyone is watching” – his body is likely to tighten up, his coordination to go astray and his performance to be poor.
The key to harnessing perfectionism so that it helps performance is to maintain the thoughts, emotions and behaviours linked to the positive form.
Positive versus negative perfectionism
When perfectionists are in a positive state of mind they are motivated by a desire to succeed. They strive to achieve the exceptionally high standards that perfectionists typically set for themselves.
If you ask them what they are aiming for, they are likely to talk about wanting to be exceptional, wanting to improve and be the best they can and wanting to perform perfectly. This type of thinking produces positive emotions, particularly a sense of excitement and enthusiasm. It also encourages the dancer to step outside their comfort zone and take on new challenges.
Perfectionists in a negative mindset don’t use the word “want”. Instead their language reflects an underlying motivation to avoid failure, mistakes and disapproval. Their speech is littered with the words “must”, “should”, “have to” and “can’t”. For example, they have to be exceptional, should be in control (particularly of emotions), can’t make mistakes, have to dance perfectly, have to succeed and must improve.
The emotional state engendered by this harsh language is in stark contrast to that experienced in the positive form of perfectionism. Negative perfectionism is related to feelings such as anxiety, confusion and anger. In addition, the “need” to be perfect means that personal standards become unrealistically high. The fear of failing to achieve this unreal standard makes the dancer retreat into their comfort zone when faced with new challenges.
• Motivation: desire for success
• Focus: how to do things correctly
• Personal standards: high, but realistic
• Personal effort and own progress are recognised and acknowledged
• Self-talk: “I want to get this right”
• Emotions: excited, energised, emotionally charged
• Motivation: fear of failure and avoidance of disapproval
• Focus: avoidance of mistakes
• Personal standards: impossibly high
• Personal effort is never good enough and progress not acknowledged
• Self-talk: “I have to get it right”
• Emotions: anxious, confused, angry, emotionally drained
IF YOU want to improve and succeed as a dancer it’s important, as part of the learning process, to step outside your comfort zone. For the vast majority of dancers this usually results in mistakes.
In the negative perfectionist state, mistakes are extremely difficult to tolerate. I’ve seen many dancers who, although putting in enormous personal effort, don’t step outside their comfort zone because they are too scared they will make a mistake. They are worried they will embarrass themselves because they’re not perfect. They may disapprove of themselves or fear the disapproval of their teacher and peers: “I have to dance perfectly or else they’ll think I’m no good”. This is David Burns’s “script for self-defeat”.
Even positive perfectionists don’t like making mistakes but they are more likely to be able to tolerate them. Some perfectionist dancers even come to the realisation that mistakes are valuable stepping stones in the learning process.
How to think positive
A simple strategy for perfectionist dancers is positive self-talk. Language such as “don’t tuck, don’t look down, don’t bend my knee” may reflect a need to avoid mistakes and can be confusing for your body. Instead, try to connect your mind and body kinaesthetically by using language, images or physical feelings that reflect correct execution: ”Lengthen spine, lift eye line, stretch knee”.
For example, imagine you are performing an arabesque. Better still, stand up and perform an arabesque (make sure it’s a low arabesque if you haven’t warmed up). First, try feeling the stretch in both legs and lengthening the lifted leg behind your shoulder; then continue the line with your arms and eyes. How did that feel? Now try the negative approach – this time check that your knees aren’t bent, that your lifted leg isn’t stuck out to the side, that your front arm isn’t imitating a teapot spout. Which way felt better to you?
Positive language is not only beneficial for dancers. Teachers can encourage a positive state of mind in their pupils by taking care with the language they use in the studio. How often do you hear teachers say to dancers that they ”must/should/have do it like this”?
Dancers shouldn’t have to do anything in a particular way – the ideal mindset is to want to do it in a particular way.
Perfectionism can help or hinder your performance depending on whether your underlying motivation is the avoidance of failure or the desire for success.
Perfectionist dancers in the positive mindset are task-focused (kinaesthetically and emotionally connected to their dancing). They set high personal standards but are able to face challenges because of their higher tolerance for mistakes. Perfectionist dancers in a negative mindset are outcome-focused and so their kinaesthetic awareness is poor. They concentrate on avoiding mistakes and find it almost impossible to step outside their comfort zone and therefore impede their own progress.
It is not the striving for perfectionism in performance that is the problem, it is how one strives.
This article was first published in the April/May 2008 issue of Dance Australia