Perfectionism has historically assumed an insidious presence in the performing arts field. Treated with benign tolerance by those who work with performers, the time has come to acknowledge the pervasive, negative effects based on current research.
While some may see the negative consequences of perfectionism, most fail to recognize it as a true mental health problem. Coaches often regard it as facilitative or motivating of performance. Even researchers have written about “adaptive” or “positive” perfectionism. In our culture of celebrating winners and devaluing losers, perfectionism is still seen as a pathway to excellence. This article will highlight some of the findings of the new research which can guide how practitioners can address it with our clients.
Clinical findings have shown that over the longer term, perfectionism carries far more risks than benefits. These findings are alarming. Studies have found increased anxiety, depression, suicide risk, eating disorders, early mortality, job stress, burnout, health problems, substance abuse and feelings of personal distress. All have all been found to be linked to perfectionism. What does this say about the breadth of the problem?
Perfectionism is more than just a symptom and even more than a personality trait. Researchers now see it as a full-blown personality style in its own right. It may also be co-morbid with performance anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder although that link has yet to be confirmed. Personality styles impact multiple cognitive, affective and psychological systems in the brain which helps explain why perfectionism is so insidious. A timely book by Hewitt, Flett & Mikail (2017), Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment and Treatment is now available that summarizes thirty years of research and offers a new clinical approach for treating perfectionism.
Perfectionism presents a complex clinical picture that activates various psychological vulnerabilities that can compound over time. Perfectionists are especially vulnerable when facing setbacks, misfortunes and other life challenges. Obviously, with the Covid-19 pandemic, heightened anxiety combined with social isolation puts them at higher risk.
Perfectionists are motivated by false beliefs such as the idea that attaining perfection in their work will enhance their lives and make them happy. But when that doesn’t happen (even when they succeed), they can feel disappointed or cheated. They fail to adjust their expectations for themselves going forward or see that their critical judgments are unfair and hurtful. Instead, they drive themselves even harder to attain that elusive goal of perfection.
Patti Niemi, a percussionist with the San Francisco Opera knows all too well the painful aspects of perfectionism. She describes her type of self-oriented perfectionism as a “no win” situation in how it plays out. If she plays well, it means she must always perform at that level which creates added pressure. If she plays less well, she castigates herself for the mistakes which makes her unhappy. The pressure to consistently perform at a high level is endemic to the classical music field. She traces it back to her own psychological need for seeking perfection but has seen how common it is among colleagues and how it has been enabled by teachers.
Research suggests that perfectionists are actually less likely to play well. Striving for perfection can induce performance anxiety and lead to muscle tension that inhibits the fluid movements. This may result in technically accurate playing but will lack “soul”, the emotional engagement required for inspired performance. Perfectionists often report a sense of emptiness in personal accomplishments, turning positives into negatives and feeling devoid of any satisfaction or enjoyment. Even moderate levels of perfectionism can make life uncomfortable for high striving, achievement-oriented performers.
Historically, early clinicians such as Alfred Adler, Karen Horney and Erik Erikson have written that perfectionism is a compensatory mechanism designed to mitigate a defective sense of self and to cover up aspects of themselves that they deem inferior and shameful. Feelings of being defective may be tied to early childhood abuse, anxious attachment to caretakers or critical parenting. To address this understanding in clinical practice, Hewitt and Flett (2017) advise a deeper, personality-based treatment rather than one focused solely on symptom relief.
Perfectionism is less toxic when it is focused solely on the task itself, untethered to the person’s self-worth. When the performer is dedicated to doing their best but can accept (without judgement) that failure is possible, the risk factors are mitigated. The personal self is protected from the negative judgements. If and when they do fall short, it is experienced as a reminder that more effort and training is necessary. This is a key distinction for teachers and coaches to learn who believe in the facilitative aspects of perfectionism.
At the beginning of their research almost thirty years ago, Hewitt and Flett (1992) first described perfectionism as a multidimensional personality trait that includes three elements: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism. This tri-partite conceptualization is helpful in assessing perfectionism in clinical practice. However, these sub-types are not usually discrete and often overlap. For example, in clinical practice, we often see the self-oriented type combined with the socially-prescribed sub-type.
Self-oriented perfectionism, the most common sub-type of perfectionism, is seen in high striving individuals who hold unrealistically high expectations for how they perform and will harshly judge themselves when they fall short. Essentially, they have fused their performing self with their personal self so that every performance becomes a test of their self-worth. Performers in classical music, dance and acting are especially vulnerable to this type of perfectionism because of how they were trained. The age-old pedagogy in arts training, handed down over generations and emanating from European teaching studios, has implicitly–if not explicitly–reinforced perfectionism.
Research has shown that self-oriented perfectionists tend to perceive “a high frequency of failures and a low frequency of successes” according to Hewitt, Flett and Mikail. Negative perceptions of self can trigger negative affective states such as fear, anxiety and shame according to Donald Nathanson, the author of Shame and Pride (1992). Negative perceptions, attitudes and beliefs can become cornerstones in the person’s emotional life and self-concept. These deeper personality vulnerabilities (many of which represent early attachment wounds) are usually not consciously perceived. But they create “shadow dynamics” that undermine their best efforts. Perfectionists obsessively focus on the performance itself and are less inclined to look inward at how they are treating themselves.
Socially-oriented perfectionism is also commonly seen among classical musicians, actors and public speakers. It involves perceiving others as demanding perfection from them and is present whenever they step on stage. These negative expectations of judgement are projected onto teachers, colleagues, the audience–even onto their instruments in some cases!
The third category is other-oriented perfectionists which is a different animal in how it manifests in social situations. This type often gets overlooked or misdiagnosed in clinical practice. Other-oriented perfectionists demand perfection from others and is often a sign of underlying narcissism and psychopathy. Unlike the self-oriented type, these perfectionists do not typically experience depression, emotional distress or suicidal ideation. But they do cause distress in others.
Their high expectations for others and a sense of entitlement to drive others to meet their high expectations is a hallmark of this type. Their verbal directives and behaviors toward others can take on authoritarian tones. They are likely to respond with anger and contempt when those around them fall short. Failure by others whom they direct to take action can reflect poorly on them. When others do better than them, they may then feel shame.
Other-oriented perfectionists often assume positions of power and authority in the lives of performers. Music teachers, athletic coaches and demanding parents may adopt this style of perfectionism. These people are often successful in pushing others to perform at a high level, but they are likely to trigger resentments over time.
Today, more and more stories are emerging from Olympic level gymnasts, skaters and music students about their mistreatment by teachers and coaches. Recently, a female gymnastics coach was suspended for eight years for emotionally abusing a young athlete. Music teachers are not excluded from this subtype. Although fictional, movies such as Whiplash (2014) depict an out of control music teacher who tries to browbeat superior performance into his student. We may not have thought of these personalities as perfectionists but this type of perfectionism captures their behavior spot on. This is the dark side of teaching and coaching and should not be tolerated by performers. These teaching methods cause anxiety in the performers which inhibits motor learning. Performers need to speak up to administrators and describe how their methods are interfering with their learning.
An immediate goal for those who work with performers is to reframe perfectionistic goals into the more helpful process goal of “striving for excellence, but tempered with acceptance”. In the sports world, the best coaches espouse the idea that getting better every day—a simple goal–is a process that serves the outcome goal of winning games. The athlete is encouraged to try their best but accepts that effort leading to improvement, not perfection, is the goal. The performing arts field needs to pivot from the old school view of perfectionism to this more enlightened goal of striving for excellence combined with humility, self-compassion and self-respect.
Hewitt, P.L., Flett, G.L. & Mikail, S.F. (2017). Perfectionism: A relational approach to conceptualization, assessment, and treatment. Guilford: New York & London.
Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex and the Birth of the Self. Norton. New York