I recently read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly (it’s terrific!). She has a lot to say about the perils of perfectionism, but this one passage (from pgs. 128-130) especially hits home for musicians. It’s what Brené’s research showed in terms of:
Perfectionism: what it is and isn’t
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is not healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move. It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing preventing us from being seen.
What does this mean for musicians? Perfectionism keeps us running scared and focused on damage control — on “lock down.” Instead of daring ourselves creatively, when we operate from a perfectionistic mindset we short-circuit our imagination and spontaneity, limiting our creative potential, both onstage and off.
Brené goes on:
Perfectionism is a hustle
Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.’ Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle.
Of course we start out trying to please our parents and our teachers. Then we try to please audiences, critics, and colleagues. Often without ever learning to own our own artistic voice. And this seeking approval and validation can prevent us from growing into who we most need to become.
But wait, there’s more . . .
Perfectionism is a form of shame
Perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement. Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.
Last, perfectionism is not a way to avoid shame. Perfectionism is a form of shame. Where we struggle with perfectionism, we struggle with shame.
It’s hardwired into most musicians’ s early training. We listen to recordings we seek to emulate, and we try to model ourselves on our musical heroes. We work hard to present our best: long hours of practice to improve and refine our skills. But if the baseline is a fixed or scarcity mindset (‘I’m not good enough’), then any mistake in a performance — though we’re only human — may be yet another excuse to beat ourselves up.
Beware of Scarcity Mindset at work
Worse, we don’t distinguish between the nit-picking work of the practice room and being in performance mode — when we need to trust our skills and be fully present and engaged in the music. It’s impossible to find the flow state when we’re busy monitoring and trying to control every micro-movement.
On top of this, some of us are borderline OCD (ahem, I’m speaking for myself here). I remember bursting into tears in 3rd grade because I’d gotten a F-ing A- on a test. I was inconsolable and the poor teacher was there trying to reassure me that everything was OK.
I’ve seen many musicians have the same kind of reaction (minus the tears) after performances. Yep, I did this, too.
What’s the answer?
You can build self-compassion, a growth mindset, and gratitude into your daily practice and self-care routines. Don’t let perfectionism prevent you from taking the creative risks that will most help you grow into your best self.
So this week, can we all please agree to ease up on the perfectionism? Can we dare ourselves to get out of our comfort zones, and take some risks in and out of the practice room?
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