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The Perfectionism Paradox

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

“We will be perfect in every aspect of the game. You drop a pass, you run a mile. You miss a blocking assignment, you run a mile. You fumble the football, and I will break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts...and then you will run a mile. Perfection!”
– Coach Herman Boone from Remember the Titans



Sport has long espoused the virtue of perfectionism, as Coach Boone from Remember the Titans did in one of his opening speeches to his team. On the surface this seems like a fairly noble thing to strive for – why would working to be perfect be a bad thing?


Researchers have identified that perfectionism is indeed complex and is often referred to as the “perfectionist paradox” (Ellis, 1958); it can be beneficial in some ways and detrimental in others. To understand this paradox better, much of the research breaks perfectionism up into two categories: perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns (Gotwals, et al. 2012).


Perfectionist strivings relate to the self-directed motivation to have extremely high-performance standards. A 2018 review of perfectionism found that perfectionist strivings were associated with a mix of beneficial outcomes, such as improved performance, higher confidence, and high levels of motivation, and detrimental outcomes, such as cognitive anxiety (Hill et al. 2018).


Perfectionist concerns relate to the inner concerns and fears that can come from striving for perfectionism, such as fear of failure, judgment, and/or of making mistakes. Perfectionist concerns were almost entirely detrimental to the athlete and had no impact on performance. Additionally, a more recent 2020 review found that those who had high levels of perfectionist strivings and low levels of perfectionist concerns were more likely to report positive outcomes such as positive affect, higher intrinsic motivation, self-worth, and improved performance (Hill, et al., 2020).

While the research indicates that there may be some positive effects of perfectionism, Hill et al. (2020) concluded that “all dimensions and subtypes of perfectionism carry at least some potential for motivation, wellbeing, and (therefore) performance difficulties.” (p. 29)



Pitfalls of Perfectionism


Perfectionism is often used [subconsciously] as a protective mechanism to avoid feelings of inadequacy or judgment – if we can just be perfect then we won’t face any harsh criticism or upset anyone.

Thus, an irrational belief forms in which “one should be thoroughly competent, adequate, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects” (Ellis, 1958, p. 41). If we can do that, especially in endeavors in which we are being judged by others, then we can keep everyone happy and content. By being overly hard on ourselves, we may be able to avoid other people being hard on us. Or, we may be able to avoid disappointing others. The impact of perfectionism can show up in several different ways including:

  • Procrastination (can’t do it unless it’s perfect)

  • Playing it safe, not taking risks

  • Quitting when it becomes too difficult

  • Putting others first (people pleasing)

  • Overtraining

  • Comparing ourselves to others

  • Inability to perform under pressure

  • Perpetual lack of confidence

A significant number of clients who I work with struggle with perfectionism in one way or another, and it can be a difficult pattern to escape. But, with that escape comes liberation. Liberation to fail, to make mistakes, and to be human. With that new sense of freedom comes not only improved performance but also enjoyment and fulfillment. Here are some things you can do to overcome perfectionism:


Overcoming Perfectionism



1. Recognize your negativity bias

Negativity bias: This is a cognitive distortion (of which there are many) that causes you to always recognize the mistakes you make and things you did wrong while overlooking the things you do well. Because you have such high expectations for yourself when you succeed you think nothing of it because that is what you were supposed to do. Celebrate your wins and the things you do well, even the small ones. Share these wins with others and be proud of them!


2. Tap into a growth mindset

When we are in perfectionist mode, we are trying to prove to others how good we are. This just causes undo pressure and a fear of failure. To get out of that mindset, remind yourself to embrace the possibility that you will make mistakes and you may fail along the way, but that you are capable of handling it. Those mistakes and failures do not represent who you are as a person, they are evidence of someone courageous enough to seek improvement.


3. Remind Yourself of Your Why

Perform for yourself and no one else. Remind yourself of why you got into your sport or performance in the first place. Hopefully, part of the reason you got into it was because it is fun, you like the challenge of it, or it feels good to accomplish your goals. This is your life, do things for the reasons you want to rather than trying to please others.


If you want to learn more about how you can overcome perfectionism with individual mental coaching, sign up for a free 30-minute consultation using the link below.



References

Ellis, A. (1958). Rational psychotherapy. The Journal of General Psychology, 59(1), 35-49


Gotwals, J.K., Stoeber, J., Dunn, J.G.H, & Stoll, O. (2012). Are perfectionist strivings in sport adaptive? A systematic review of confirmatory, contradictory, and mixed evidence. Canadian Psychology, 53(4) 263-279.


Hill, A. P., Mallinson-Howard, S. H., & Jowett, G. E. (2018). Multidimensional perfectionism in sport: A meta-analytical review. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 7(3), 235.


Hill, A. P., Mallinson‐Howard, S. H., Madigan, D. J., & Jowett, G. E. (2020). Perfectionism in sport, dance, and exercise: An extended review and reanalysis. Handbook of sport psychology, 121-157.

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