Chelsea: Are you a perfectionist? Do you work with perfectionist dancers? Hi, it’s Dr. Chelsea, and I was a perfectionist dancer and a coach. Now, I’m a recovering perfectionist, maybe. I know better, but it’s still a regular battle for me, and it’s really common in our dance industry. Dancers are trained to focus on the most minute details. A pinky finger out of place could change the results of a competition. Sometimes literally, and sometimes it just feels that way, but in this episode of the Passion for Dance podcast, I’m gonna help you recognize your perfectionist dancers and learn how to support them so they can be the best possible dancer.
[Motivational Intro Music]
Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and dance team coach turned sport psychologist. This podcast focuses on four main pillars: motivation, resilience, mindset, and community. Each week, you’ll learn actionable strategies, mindsets, and tips to teach your dancers more than good technique. This is a podcast where we can all make a lasting impact and share our passion for dance. Let’s do this!
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Perfectionism is a Common Mindset Challenge – 2:27
Chelsea: In the field of sport psychology, perfectionism is well-researched because it’s such a common mindset challenge for elite athletes. Stoeber and Otto define perfectionism as: “Striving for flawlessness and setting excessively-high standards for performance alongside over-critical evaluation of behavior.” This striving for flawlessness and excessive high standards probably describes a few dancers in your life, maybe even you, and you’ve probably seen the negative impact it can have on a dancer’s life.
Perfectionism and Mental Health Disorders – 2:58
While perfectionism itself is not a mental disorder, high levels of perfectionism are correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And I want to point out the science here for a second and say that the fact that these things are correlated just means they are related. It’s not necessarily a causal relationship. We can't prove in research that being a perfectionist dancer causes mental health disorders. But we can demonstrate that people who are perfectionists are more likely to also have these other mental health disorders.
The flip side of that is that while they are related, not every one who is a perfectionist will also have a mental health disorder, and I think sometimes those things get conflated and we assume that if you are an extreme perfectionist, you would also have a mental health disorder, and that’s not always true. So, I say this in hopes that you can keep the two separate in your mind.
You can always be on the lookout for more serious mental illness, but being a perfectionist is not a mental health disorder. Even so, it can be devastating and make training as a dancer and performing exceptionally difficult. It can really suck the fun out of being a dancer. One goal as a dance teacher is to recognize the difference between a dancer who wants to do their best and continues to try and try again and the dancer who is consumed by thoughts of worry and stress to the point that it’s crippling. If it’s crippling and all-consuming, it could be a red flag of a more serious mental health disorder. If it's someone who wants to do their best, sets extremely high standards for themselves, and is never satisfied, that is more likely perfectionism.
As a coach, I’ve definitely had my share of perfectionists. One dancer in particular was very strong, but I know that even when she was the only one who would execute the routine or the only one who could do a certain trick, she was never satisfied with her own performance, and it just would break my heart as a coach to watch that dancer who you see so much growth and beauty in what they're doing on stage, and that dancer doesn't see it for themselves at all. I think there is a fine line between someone who sets high standards and works hard and someone who takes perfectionism to an unhealthy level.
A Continuum – 5:18
So, think of it more like a continuum. We want to help keep our perfectionist dancers on the side of healthy work ethic and away from crippling anxiety. So, I’m gonna give you some examples of how this continuum might look, and you can kind of see the difference here.
It’s healthy to define success through hard work; it’s unhealthy to define success as perfection. It’s healthy to set goals that are realistic and challenging; it’s unhealthy to set goals that are impossibly high. It’s healthy to learn from failure and mistakes and be more motivated because of it; it’s unhealthy to have a fear of failure and avoid it. It’s healthy to hold yourself accountable to hard workouts and goals; it’s unhealthy to be overly critical of your performance. It’s healthy to support your teammates that also work hard and use that as inspiration; it’s unhealthy to constantly compare yourself to your teammates and feel bad if they are better at something. It’s healthy to say nice things to yourself in your head, even when you weren't perfect; it’s unhealthy if you can't take a compliment or feel happy after a good performance.
I hope that distinction helps. It’s important that we help dancers understand this difference between mental toughness and resilience and then being a perfectionist that is held back by negative thoughts.
Where Perfectionism Comes From – 6:41
So, where does perfectionism come from? The root of perfectionism is usually someone who has tied their self-worth to their dance skills. That’s why we often see it in our most talented dancers. They learned early on that they receive praise and reward for performing well in dance. So, they attached their perfect performances to receiving affection. They can start to believe, “I am whatever I can accomplish.” It happens in school all the time, too, where a good student feels like they're only worthy if they get an A. Our dancers sometimes only feel worthy if they get a first or win the event.
Dr. Brené Brown, who’s one of my favorites, explains this well. She says, “Healthy striving is self-focused: how can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: what will they think?” Consider that for a minute. Healthy striving, healthy goal setting and challenging yourself is self-focused. It’s about, “How can I get better?” Perfectionism is all about what other people will think. As teachers, our goal is to help our dancers learn to be self-focused and base their value internally rather than being externally focused, always worried about what other people think and placing their worth in someone else’s approval.
What to Do if You Have a Perfectionist Dancer – 8:00
So, if you have a perfectionist dancer, what do you do? It’s a journey of helping your dancer go from what other people think to, “I am enough,” and it’s certainly not an overnight journey, and if you have a dancer for years in your studio or your school team, you may be battling this for years, but we can make a difference in helping them make this shift. Like many mental skills, it starts with acknowledging that it’s an issue and talking about it. Just helping dancers be aware of what’s going on and bringing it up can be powerful.
So, here are four ways you can help:
- Tell your dancer to trust their training. Again, perfectionists usually show up and give 100% effort all the time because their worth is tied to being perfect. So, when it’s time to perform, you can remind them that they can trust their training. They’ve been putting in the work, they know what to do, they can trust themselves, and, again, you're working to help them turn inward for validation and support. You want them to trust themselves, not look to coach to tell them they're ready. So, a perfectionist will often be so worried about what you are going to think or what the judges are going to think. We want to help them reflect inward and trust. “You’ve done the work. Trust your training.”
- Talk to them about goals for competition and goals for practice. Don't let them set the impossible expectation for themselves to make no mistakes. We don't want their goals to be perfect execution. Help them set challenging but achievable goals, and a flawless routine isn't what we’re striving for. We want it to be better than last time. We want it to have a connection with the audience or something that is self-referent, not about ranking, not about what the judges think, and not about perfection.
- Talk about mistakes: what to do when you make a mistake and what does a mistake mean. A perfectionist often believes that a mistake means you’re not worthy. They will take that mistake to heart and say, “I’m a terrible dancer. I’ll never be good enough.” They put an extreme meaning on it. So, for me, I always talk to my dancers about how making a mistake in practice is okay. That’s why we’re here. If you make a mistake, you own it. If it impacted other people, you apologize. If you messed up the combination or something and it doesn't impact anybody else, there’s no need to apologize. You’re focused on you. If you are late or you did something that impacts other dancers, you apologize. But ultimately, all you have to do is own it and work hard to make it better. As long as you are learning from mistakes, that mistake is helping you. With perfectionist dancers, it’s really hard but important to help them recalibrate what a mistake is. Mistake means growth and learning. Mistake never equates to being less than or unworthy.
- Broadly talk about it. Help your dancer learn to be more self-aware and see their perfectionism for what it is. They can truly only start letting go of it if they are aware of it and see how it’s hurting their ability to be the best dancer they can be, because clearly that’s what they want. They're trying to be the best, and if they can start to see that this perfectionism orientation is actually what’s holding them back, they may be more receptive to changing their mindset.
Helping Dancers Detach Self-Worth from Perfect Performance – 11:35
Remember, the perfectionist dancer is probably a very hard worker, likely a strong dancer, but we want to help them detach their self-worth from a perfect performance. A healthy mindset and mental resilience is only possible if they let go of worrying about what other people think and holding those impossibly high standards for themselves. As teachers and educators, as much as we love them, we can't change their core personality. To you listening as the teacher, if you’re a perfectionist, you probably have been your whole life. I am. Instead, we want to help our dancers move to healthy perfectionists. That’s been my life’s goal. I’m working on it. It’s getting a lot better. But healthy perfectionism is less rigid, more focused and flexible.
Dr. Gardner has done some research on this and explains it as setting goals, working to meet them, realizing that things aren't actually going to be perfect, but always striving to do better. That sense of healthy perfectionism is the idea of, “I want more. I want to be better. I want to grow. But I’m okay that it’s not ever actually going to be perfect.” Again, it’s about growth and not flawlessness. We can still strive for excellence without being a perfectionist. I think those two things get tied together and dancers feel like the only way to show they care and the only way to be their best is to be perfect. But striving for excellence when it’s based on realistic goals, learning from mistakes, and knowing you are enough without a flawless routine is how you truly excel in dance.
I hope this gives you a way to talk about this with your dancers or maybe even better understand your own perfectionism, and if you have more questions about perfectionism, if this is a topic you’d like me to talk more about, I’d love to hear from you! You can send me an email. You can submit your question for the podcast. I would love to talk more about this if you feel like it’s an important issue. So, the link to do that is in the show notes or you can always find it on my website www.chelseapierotti.com/podcast. Just leave a voice note of your question, and we can get it talked about on the show.
So, thank you for listening. I truly hope this was helpful, and keep sharing your passion for dance with the world!
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