Perfectionism is a widely used term, and it’s often thought of as a positive thing. In fact, for many, it's even thought of as a necessary character trait for someone to be successful. You might even have heard people offer "perfectionism" as a humble-brag answer in response to "What is your greatest weakness?". The reality is quite different and might fly in the face of this common wisdom.
What is perfectionism, really?
A basic definition of perfectionism describes it as "excessively high standards" and "striving for flawlessness". While the process of striving for greatness isn't necessarily a bad thing, being overly concerned with perfection can be a heavy burden. This can actually have the opposite impact on our progress – making us more likely to burn out or struggle emotionally.
Perfectionism can show up for people in different ways – sometimes it's a pattern of behaviour, other times it's a way of thinking that might pop up in the mind automatically. This can involve focusing on being perfect within ourselves, demanding perfection from others, or feeling like perfection is somehow being imposed on us by others.
Either way, it's likely that a perfectionist will worry a lot over mistakes, doubt themselves, be highly critical of themselves and feel a burden of pressure or expectation from others (real or imagined). Unfortunately, perfectionists can also experience an uncomfortable gap between their expectations of themselves and what they actually achieve. On top of this, they might also crave validation from others and be sensitive to criticism. Looking at these things together paints a pretty challenging picture of what it actually means to be a perfectionist: it’s likely to be a burden rather than a desirable trait, and fairly exhausting to live with.
How can we turn this around?
If this is sounding all a bit too uncomfortably familiar, don't worry – there are things we can do to help. For some people, perfectionism may be quite ingrained and problematic, in which case working with a therapist might be appropriate. For others, a simple and small shift in mindset could help a lot. For example, by gently challenging our definitions of success we can open ourselves up to new ways of being, free of those perfectionistic shackles.
1. Don’t just focus on your weaknesses and what went wrong, also focus on what went well.
Perfectionist tendencies include focussing on what isn’t right (or perfect) with our work. While it's good to reflect on our weaknesses, doing so too often can just leave us feeling beaten down and dejected. We need a balanced focus that also recognises our successes and what's actually going well. This can help combat our negativity bias (remembering the bad things more easily than the good) and our perfectionistic thoughts. This can feel challenging at first, as many of us (especially perfectionists) are much more used to self-criticism. An easy first step is to write down or record your wins after each session. This could be moments where you feel strong, move well, surprise yourself, unlock some beta… whatever is most meaningful to you. Documenting your 'wins' in this way can help you notice progress, personal growth, skills development, and counteract the view that you are falling short all the time. Once we have a few entries and begin to recognise our progress, it’s easier to combat that spiral of negative thoughts and appreciate that we’re getting closer to where we want to be.
2. Look to build confidence rather than flawlessness
Thinking back to what it takes to be successful, it's clear that confidence is key. We've known for a long time about the strong relationship between confidence and performance , understanding that the more confident we feel, the better we tend to perform. Documenting your wins (as described above) will help build confidence. You could start by asking yourself the following questions:
How would you define success if you paid less attention to other people's activity, topping climbs, or podiums? What would this look like for you personally?
This can be difficult at first, and the answer might take a minute to come to the surface. After thinking on those questions, you can then look at a climber you're inspired by and list the key attributes you feel they have, particularly attributes you admire. This list would ideally be split between physical, technical and psychological skills (rather than their tick list or trophy cabinets). This isn’t to say you should try to be like another climber, it’s just an activity to help identify what’s important to you. What you admire in another might help you see what you could one day admire in yourself. From this, you can then establish what evidence you’d need to feel confident and think how you could move closer to this.
3. Create mastery and learning goals rather than focusing too much on outcome goals
When our goals are unattainable, or at a really high standard, it can be a long time before we notice any progress. For example, if our only metric for success is topping a project, but it takes us 6 months to do so... that's a long time without any positive feedback. In turn, this can leave us feeling unmotivated or burnt out as we don't get much, or any, validation during our attempts. It's okay to have big goals and high standards for ourselves, but it's important that we also give ourselves ways to win along the way. Without this, we can fail to notice our progress and get frustrated because of it.
In sport there are many ways to succeed other than hitting a PB, a podium, or topping a climb. Looking to achievement goal theory, these things are all examples of performance (or ego focused) goals. Instead, if we focus on mastery (or task focused) goals, we look to developing skills to the best of our abilities. In climbing this might be seeking to climb something more efficiently, gracefully, or skillfully than before. It could also involve working on certain hold types or movement styles. This approach is more within our control than comparing ourselves with others, or against our progress on a project. This approach can in turn help create a solid foundation for building confidence, as we aren't dependent on 'beating others' or achieving particular outcomes to feel good about ourselves.
To implement this you could set yourself a goal for each session, either to do with your process, how you approach things, or how you develop skills. For example, you could aim to climb gracefully, to approach a challenge with an open mind, or to refine your footwork. Just be sure to make this a positive intention towards what you do want (rather than focused on what you don’t). Also make sure it's measurable in some way, and realistically achievable. For example, if your goal was to never feel afraid, you might be setting yourself up to fail.
4. Self-kindness practices and not getting all your self-worth from climbing
Self-kindness can be misinterpreted by perfectionists; it can be assumed that by embracing self-kindness our motivation and goal process will be thwarted. Research actually suggests that the opposite is true – the positive cycle of self compassion can actually boost our motivation. Another study showed that while self compassion and unhealthy perfectionism were negatively related (i.e. someone who isn’t very self compassionate will score highly as a perfectionist), there was no relationship between self compassion and ‘high personal standards and achievement goals’. This suggests that it’s unlikely that being kind to ourselves will negatively impact our ability to strive, or our chances of success.
If the thought of engaging with self-compassion feels daunting, exploring fears like this is a good place to start, and is often done best with a therapist or coach to help you. If you are curious to learn more about how you could adopt self-compassion practices, Dr Kristen Neff, an expert in the field, has produced an excellent list of resources for free on her website.
Emma Wood is a trainee Sport Psychologist and qualified hypnotherapist, and recently started a PhD exploring fear and performance anxiety in risky sports. She is also a keen climber and has experienced her fair share of performance challenges due to fear of falling and failure. She works with people from all over the world via Zoom or in person in Sheffield.