If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being an Olympic athlete, it’s that being "perfect" isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It sounds silly now, but the majority of my childhood was spent pursuing perfection. I was so enamored with the idea of success and feeling "good enough" that I was like a drug addict. Good results and praise fed a part of my brain that filled me with a sense of validation.
Good results in school or sports earned me the praise and attention I desired. I became obsessed with achieving this feeling over and over again. Success became the norm. Neutral performances shook my identity to the core. Without success in skating I couldn’t define myself.
Whether others thought so or not, I was convinced that there was an expectation for me to continue to perform. I pushed myself harder every day in an attempt to be perfect. I floated from relationship to relationship searching for feelings of acceptance and validation that I had come to confuse with love.
Eventually, reality sunk in. I had two Olympic medals, but no life-long friends, limited closeness with my family, and no transferable skills that would allow me to live a happy and successful life. What I did have was a deep aching in my belly, rod-like tension through my neck and shoulders, and self-talk that had been trained by my athlete self to accept nothing less than success. I had all the things, but none of the happiness, confidence, or ease that I longed for.
For a while I continued my journey on the road to perfection, convinced that I was just in a slump and that all my problems would go away if I kept trying harder … and harder… and harder. No matter how hard I pushed, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t push past my deep-seated need for perfection.
Day-to-day experiences felt boring and useless. Even on the days that the external world was going well my internal world couldn’t let me enjoy it. I had been judging and criticizing myself for so long that it had become second nature. Success felt expected and anything less than success felt unbearable.
I pushed through late nights, early mornings and any sense of self or freedom that I had. I worked all the time, or at least it felt like it. My brain wouldn’t turn off and, eventually, there was no escape from the toxic voice I created inside my head. "Get up you lazy bum. I can’t believe you’re eating that. You messed up again? What is wrong with you? How could you let that happen?!"
The zoomed-out version of my life still looked better than most; I had food, shelter, family, and clean water. But the zoomed-in version that lived in my head was too depressed and self-absorbed to even think about feeling grateful. My harsh self-talk and critical judgements distracted me from my relationships and depleted me of any sense of pride, self-worth and happiness.
If you’re still reading, then my story has struck a chord. If I’ve struck a chord, it’s because my story reminds you of yourself or someone you know who is struggling with an intense, and potentially unhealthy, case of perfectionism. Fortunately, there are strategies to help you Fix Your Mindset so you can step away from the fantasy of achieving perfection.
Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by the need for flawlessness, accompanied by harsh criticism of yourself and others. It can be experienced as Self-Oriented Perfectionism – the personal belief that you must be perfect, Other-Oriented Perfectionism – an unrealistic expectation of others to be perfect, or Socially Prescribed Perfectionism – the perceived expectation from others to be perfect. It’s a double-sided coin that, when applied under the right conditions, can spark motivation to try or spark a fear of failure that causes us to ruminate over every mistake.
The positive side of the "Coin of Perfection" is motivated by self-improvement. Imperfection provides an opportunity to learn, grow and be better every day. This way of thinking, also called a Growth Mindset, can lead to a tremendous sense of purpose in life. Along that journey we act out of curiosity, intention, compassion, and love.
The other side of the coin is motivated by a fear of failure. This fear triggers the brain’s fight/flight/freeze response and causes imperfection to feel like a threat to our survival or, at the very least, an attack on our character. This way of thinking, also known as a Fixed Mindset, can create negative emotions, limiting beliefs, harsh/critical self-talk, rumination, social anxiety and a deep-seated sense of worthlessness.
In the same way that a coin has two sides, perfectionism can be expressed to the extreme in both ways. The ideal combination is achieved, not by perfecting perfection, but by finding balance. Balance cannot be achieved in a day; it requires you to change your thinking and to Fix Your Mindset.
I challenge you to set a new goal, with a new intention, that will require a new and mindful way of thinking. Take time daily to self-reflect and ask if your actions and responses to stressors through out the day were consistent with your values and beliefs. Some days the answer will be yes (way to go!), other days the answer will be no and you will have to make a choice: keep running on the hamster wheel of perfection, or step off the treadmill, embrace the opportunity to learn and try again tomorrow.