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Perfectionism or High Standards? Five Symptoms and How to Overcome Them

dart board with bull's eye dart in center
Aim for High Standards, Not Perfection

Dressage Horse Training, Reward, and Perfectionism: A Revelation

In a recent riding lesson when I was attempting to guide my mare into a turn on the forehand, I heard my trainer say something that came back to haunt me. For the uninitiated, a turn of the forehand is an exercise wherein the rider asks the horse for a lateral movement that involves moving the hindquarters around the forelegs. It is a basic movement, but a great training tool, especially for rehabbing my mare with back problems.

As my mare (and I) struggled to execute the movement, my trainer, Ashley Kennedy of Kennedy Dressage, exclaimed that I should praise her. The exchange went something like this:

Trainer: “Pat her. Tell her she did good.”

Me: “What?” I asked for clarification. “She didn’t do it.”

Trainer: “But she tried. She took one step. We’re not looking for perfection here…”

Me: (Thinking) We’re not?

The discussion of our training strategy went on and it was only later that I understood something not so flattering about myself. I did not praise my mare for her efforts nearly enough. I was stingy with praise because I was looking for perfection (or what passed for it in my mind). I thought she had to do the movement, do it correctly, and complete the exercise. No, she had to try and take the first step. And she had to be rewarded for it.

Confession: I am a borderline perfectionist. I think dressage attracts a lot of my type, but it is a detriment to learning and making progress. 

view from on top a horse
Lucida deserves praise when she tries

Am I Really a Perfectionist or Do I Simply Have High Standards?

Being a perfectionist is detrimental to life, learning, and–dare I say–improving. Why? Because a perfectionist is someone hamstrung by anxiety over being an ideal or having an ideal experience. A perfectionist tortures oneself and often times every one else around her. I have found that my perfectionist ideals have caused writer’s block and other negative consequences to creativity. If I am unable to do something up to the standard of my imagined ideals, I become unable or unwilling to do anything at all. If a piece of writing does not come out in its first draft the way I imagined it, I am discouraged and reluctant to continue. Really? Who do I think I am? No one writes brilliant prose off the top of their head. The best writers re-work and edit and tweak endlessly. I know that intellectually, but self-critical voices in my head threatened to make me quit writing entirely.

I love writing. I love riding. But my self-critical nature caused to me almost to quit at times.

There is nothing wrong with high standards and always wanting to do better, but perfectionism is something else entirely. How do you know the difference? 

Five Indicators of Dangerous Perfectionism

  1. You put a dangerous level of stock in other people’s opinions.
  2. You focus on the mistakes rather than the joy of achievement
  3. You set unattainable goals for yourself
  4. You expect perfection from others and withhold approval/praise
  5. You never feel “good enough” leading to a fear of failure and eventual paralysis or quitting
chalkboard with words perfection is stagnation
Perfection works against us

So What Do I Do Now? BE FLAWSOME!

I am not a psychologist so I have no authority to give advice. I can only say that I have found these three simple steps to be helpful. Give them a try.

  1. Recognize it. Look over those five indicators above and think about the cost of perfectionism to your health and enjoyment in life. Analyze your “black and white” thinking that tells you all mistakes are failure and failure is bad. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn, change, grow. It is also not lowering your standards to accept being less than perfect. Examine how you talk to yourself. (Would you speak to anyone else that way? Probably not.)
  2. Take action. Procrastination, paralysis in making decisions, or quitting are symptoms of a perfectionist attitude. Take baby steps. Do something. You do not have to achieve the highest goal or complete the most challenging task, but taking that first step will help break the mental log jam.
  3. Reward yourself. Yup, this one is hard for perfectionists. Reward myself for getting third place? Yes, because you participated in the show or entered the contest. Enjoy the process. Reward yourself for trying your best, learning, and moving forward.

Here’s a last thought: We were never meant to be perfect. But we are pretty cool in our imperfections. Be FLAWSOME! 

It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. (Psalm 18:32) 



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