I work with a lot of musicians, so it goes without saying that I work with a lot of people who would describe themselves as perfectionists. Now, I’m not knocking standards in this post – of course we should strive to be the best we can be at what we do. But I am going to attack the particular stream of perfectionism that causes some of us to delay finishing things, or to delay even starting, for fear that we might create something that falls short of impossibly high standards.
Perfectionism as procrastination
For some of us, perfectionism becomes a means of not starting something we’ve said we intend to do. Many writers will tell you about the curse of the empty screen and the tyranny of the blinking cursor. Artists will talk about the fear of the empty paper or canvas. I can vividly remember, as a teenager, being faced with a blank piece of very nice and very expensive art paper in my high school Art class, and being frankly terrified to mark it because I felt in my bones that any mark I made would be terrible.
This fear of being terrible is a key component in the dark side of perfectionism – we want to be perfect, but are inwardly convinced that we are doomed to fail. So we don’t even begin. Note that it is our belief that holds us back, not any actual clear evidence.
Perfectionism as fixed mindset
But how did we end up this way? Toddlers will fall over many times while learning to walk, but we don’t see them not bothering to get up and try again. What happens to change the way we think so dramatically that we begin to fear even the prospect of making mistakes?
This has been a subject of study for a number of psychologists, including Aaron Beck, Carol Dweck, and Angela Duckworth. Beck’s contribution was the foundational insight that the same objective event can be perceived in different ways, depending on the interpretation – the self-talk – of the person involved. In other words, two children can make a mistake on a maths quiz, but one might have a very different interpretation of that mistake to the other. The first might see the error as proof they are ‘no good’ at maths. The second might see the mistake as a cue to try harder in order to succeed next time. Dweck demonstrated in one of her early studies that telling a group of children to ‘try harder next time’ when in a group solving maths problems was far more successful than simply praising them – the praise group were more likely to give up on harder problems, whereas the ‘try harder’ group did exactly that!
Whether we are aware of it or not, our self-talk around whether it is okay to make mistakes, or whether we need to be right (perfect) all the time is a belief that is rooted in the examples given to us by parents, school teachers, music teachers, sports coaches, and pretty much any other adult we were around as kids. Children soak up knowledge, but they also soak up beliefs and attitudes. Some of them will be good and useful, and some will be rather more unhelpful.
Alexander’s take on perfectionism
FM Alexander was clear, in his chapter called Incorrect Conception, that a student’s fixed ideas were the cause of most of the student’s difficulties. All those little ideas and beliefs that each one of us has picked up over the years and added into our own little private universe of what is Right and True – these are the things that trip us up.
it is probable that all his former teachers will have instilled into him from his earliest days the idea that when something is wrong, he must do something to try and get it right. Beyond this, he will have been told that, if he is conscientious, he will always try to be right, not wrong, so that this desire to “be right” will have become an obsession in which, as in so many other matters, his conscience must be satisfied.
If our overriding belief is that it is bad to make mistakes, then we’ll do whatever it takes to avoid them. And if we can clothe our fear with the seeming virtue of perfectionism, so much the better. But whether our perfectionism stems from fear of mistakes or a genuine desire to be perfect, what good does it serve us? It stops us from finishing projects, from trying new things. I know of a French exchange student who barely spoke to his English host family, for fear of getting his English wrong. He effectively threw away a tremendous learning experience through fear! Do we really want to make that mistake?
Listen to the new means; make mistakes
The only way out of the perfectionism trap is to start being prepared to make mistakes. It’s a decision, and as a recovering perfectionist myself, I can testify that it isn’t easy. But it’s the way of progress. Allow things to be ‘good enough’ occasionally. And if you’re having lessons in a skill, whether music or sport or something creative, make the experience of listening to what your teacher is telling you and trying it out, no matter how silly you may feel. You may be on the road to great things.
 Duckworth, A., Grit, London, Vermilion, 2016, p.175f.
 ibid., p.179.
 Alexander, F.M., Concstructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat 1997, p.295.
 ibid., p.298.