Perfectionism is getting a bad rap nowadays, and in this section of Perfectionism, Acceptance, and Self-Compassion in the Performing Arts, I’d like to challenge that a bit. Maybe even a lot.
One sentiment that I have been hearing for a while now that just doesn’t add up with the idea of seeking excellence in performance, is the idea of “not being so worried about being perfect.”
I’d like to talk about when the pursuit of perfection is helpful, and when it’s debilitating. If I wrinkle you in the process, then please bear with me, because in the next installments (Acceptance and Self-Compassion), I’ll address what I think many people seek to address when they instead talk about perfectionism.
I don’t know how to say this politely, so I’ll just cut to it: As a performer who has spent hours honing finger smoothness, accuracy, sound, pitch, and musical phrasing, the idea of not worrying about it being perfect sounds like…. BUNK! Junk. Garbage. Untrue. I can’t relate to it. I don’t want to hear/see bad performances, I don’t want to give them, and I –certainly- don’t want to prepare (imperfectly!) for them thinking that’s it’s okay to suck!
That said, I’m not famous…
… so in case you’ll relate to this better if it comes from a famous person, Evelyn Hart, Canada’s icon of excellence in ballet, said to me recently,
“I think often vision is mislabeled “perfectionism” by those without the talent to see or instinctively feel that there is more (to great artistry) than meets the eye or ear; without this there is no originality.
Unfortunately being an original is a lonely road and the drive to realize those inner visions needs to be nurtured and understood as such. If one understands this unique perspective of the individual’s art, one can know how much courage it takes to follow those whisperings of the soul. Alas few do but that is because originals are just that one of a kind!”
It’s hard to refute that, especially coming from such a true artist who made such a lasting impact on the field of ballet. Let me distill that beautiful quote of Evelyn’s:
Let’s stop pretending that seeking excellence is a bad thing. Let’s not say that we don’t go into the practice room or rehearsal with the vision to hone our craft to perfection, or that we don’t hope to bring the same to the stage. Excellence in preparation and in performance. Perfexcellence, if you will. We seek it.
No; but in a balanced, healthy way, a great artist will always be –aiming for– perfection. (In the Self-Compassion section, we’ll talk about what to do when the perfexcellence doesn’t happen. Prepare for it, aim for it, but accept it when it doesn’t happen… then aim for it again.)
Now for the Psych-Speak. What is un/balanced? What is un/healthy? What is un/productive?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) is a thick behemoth of a publication which psychologists and psychiatrists use for diagnosing personality disorders. Sometimes, nuggets can be pulled from this and wielded about out of context in damaging ways. I’d like to clear up a thing or two about perfectionism. (I welcome all comments and corrections, if I speak out of turn. Please feel free to contact me if I am in error.)
The first thing to understand is that we all have personality or character traits that exist in balance (or sometimes out of balance). Each personality trait can exist in many different shades of intensity, and simply displaying a shade of one trait does not make for a black-and-white label.
Perfectionism does play heavily in certain personality disorders (for example, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, or OCPD); however, displaying an isolated character trait is –NEVER- enough to paint one’s whole being with the brush of a disorder.
When enough specific traits are combined in one person, and when those traits result in distress for the individual or when they impair that person’s social functioning, then a trained professional can make a diagnosis; but guess what? Perfectionism is not a disorder. There’s no pill for it. And if you don’t mind my saying, perfectionism in the performing arts is not necessarily a bad thing.
The trait of perfectionism, if it causes you distress or if it impairs your social functioning, is called maladaptive perfectionism. Alas, what if there is no distress involved, other than a healthy dose of caring about one’s craft? What if you derive immense artistic satisfaction from spending two hours in a practice room gently perfecting your Bolero snare, your Shakespeare ‘r’, your Brahms bow-arm co-ordination, or your Bach articulation? I am going to call this productive perfectionism, and I am going to say that it is not only an acceptable trait in performing artists, but a necessary one.
Ben Kamins (former principal bassoonist with the Houston Symphony and professor of bassoon at Rice University) said very succinctly in John Beder’s film, Composed: A Documentary, something like, “(what we do as musicians is) …extraordinary. There is nothing ordinary about it.”
Back to the DSM, here is a section which addresses perfectionism in relation to OCPD. Note that it is only one section of a much bigger context:
“Rigid perfectionism: Rigid insistence on everything being flawless, perfect, without errors or faults, including one’s own and others’ performance; sacrificing of timeliness to ensure correctness in every detail; believing that there is only one right way to do things; difficulty changing ideas and/or viewpoint; preoccupation with details, organization, and order.”
Now, I am not saying that performing artists are exempt from all issues surrounding maladaptive perfectionism, nor am I saying that no performing artist is afflicted with OCD; but what I am saying is that the excerpt above is a very far cry, in my opinion, from prioritizing practice time over popcorn time, and does not reflect the standard attention to detail that is a part of achieving excellence in performance.
Why am I making such a big deal about this? It is because I am observing many performing artists being confused by the non-performing-artist universe pleading them not to be so driven, not be such “perfectionists” – and it is puzzling them! It’s causing them distress and dissonance and confusion, questioning themselves on whether they are out of their minds to want to hone their skills and perform to their top level, rather than say “stuff it, let’s just eat popcorn and not bother getting to the next level on my craft.”
Alright, so where do we draw the line between maladaptive perfectionism and productive perfectionism? This is crucial. Crucial.
Here are some examples:
The most crucial part of this is to realize that NOBODY can solve this for you in an article. You are the world expert on You, and you will know best whether your perfectionism is helping you to thrive (productive perfectionism) or whether it’s hampering you (maladaptive perfectionism). Remember, too, that there is more coming later on self-compassion, which a key part of this equation. If you think you need help letting go of some maladaptive perfectionism, don’t hesitate to consult a qualified coach, counsellor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. If you think you have a simple case of productive perfectionism, then welcome to being an artist!!!
The truth is, performing artists need to seek the highest level of excellence at all times, and it is not easy. Go back to Evelyn Hart’s quote.
In a nutshell, any performing artist wishing to attain excellence will need to train for perfection; the pursuit of perfection doesn’t necessarily mean always attaining it; and for those times that we don’t attain it, that’s where acceptance and self-compassion come in.
Stay tuned! The section on Acceptance is coming soon! (You can re-visit this page on your own time, or you can click here to subscribe.)
Coming up in Boston, 7-11 August: Optimal Artist 5-day intensive program. Scholarships available.