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Your Perfectionism is Holding You Back

If you’re anything like me, you dwell on your mistakes. When someone compliments you, you shrug it off because you’re too busy thinking about all of the things you could have done better. You’re constantly comparing your playing to others and constantly feeling like you could ‘be better’ or ‘do better.’ If the performance wasn’t perfect, you aren’t happy.

Well, guess what sugar plum

there’s no such thing as perfection

especially in music

Not sure if you’re a perfectionist? Check out this Bulletproof Musician Blog Post

What’s the standard of perfection anyways? Some of the world’s best musicians say that there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ performance. Even Yo-yo Ma and Lang Lang have critics.

Now, you’re probably thinking, who is this chick and why is she writing about this? WELL, you see, I’ve been on a journey to figure out how to better my mental health in order to better my performing and the other night I reached a stark realization.

My perfectionism is holding me back in a major way and I really need to do something about it.

I’m too busy thinking about my articulation, my tuning or even who is in the room listening to me that I don’t allow myself to experience the music that I’m trying so desperately to create.

People don’t listen to music to hear your clean articulation or your swirling vibrato, they listen because it elicits an emotional response. It calms us, it makes us happy, it makes us sad, it reminds us of someone we love. But perfectionism causes us to dwell on the small details and less on the larger picture. Music isn’t about the performer at all, it’s about the music.

Often our perfectionism is coupled with thoughts that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t smart enough or we aren’t musical enough. Not only are these thoughts extremely detrimental to our mental health, but they also put us into a continuous cycle of fear and failure.

I used to cringe when people would compliment me. I didn’t like to hear them and I sure didn’t believe them. My therapist once said to me, “Jess, you need to accept the compliment, say thank you and move on with your day. Eventually, if you let yourself, you will start to believe these compliments, but you first have to trust that not everyone gives false compliments.”

Unfortunately, we can’t just will away our perfectionist tendencies. Boy have I tried. It’s similar to feeling nervous before a performance, the more you think “don’t be nervous” the more nervous you will inevitably feel. It’s not about lowering our standards or getting rid of our perfectionism all together, it’s about minimizing the negative aspects of perfectionism (i.e. the negative self-talk and the fear of failure) and embracing the qualities that will help us to succeed.

So, what should we do about it? These are ideas that I started implementing that have improved my mindset and my outlook on my career choices.

1. First things first, stop with the negative self-talk.

Every time you say something negative to yourself, make yourself re-phrase it in a kinder, more constructive way. Would you say the words you just told yourself to a friend after a performance? No? Well then, don’t say it to yourself. Once you re-phrase your criticism, make sure to tell yourself what you did well too. This is the most important thing of all. Give credit where it is deserved!

2. Set reasonable goals.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Michael Phelps didn’t wake up one day and become an Olympic swimmer, he worked for years at it first. Oprah was demoted from her first co-anchor news position before later becoming the Oprah we know today. When J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter, it was rejected by 12 publishers before becoming one of the most successful books of our time. You get the point, right?

Set small goals that you are able to reach. One day at a time. They should be goals that are just outside of your grasp, not lightyears away and they shouldn’t take too long to achieve (say a week with diligent practice, tops, and then set another goal). When we set unreasonably challenging goals, we are more likely to get discouraged and give up before we even get close to reaching our goal.

3. Stop comparing yourself to others

If this means that you delete Facebook off of your phone or you unfollow someone on Instagram that makes you feel like you aren’t worthy, DO IT.

Make a list of your strengths. What makes you unique? Embrace it. There’s something that you aren’t so great at? Head back to tip number 2 and be patient with yourself. The process determines your progress. Let's go ahead and read that last sentence again--- the process determines your progress. Maybe you make a habit of saying one thing you liked about your playing before you say one thing you didn’t like. This is something I have done and I've noticed it was very hard at first, but eventually I was able to do it more naturally and my self-esteem has gotten noticeably better from it.

4. Re-evaluate your definition of success

If our idea of success is to be like Yo-Yo Ma, I’m sorry to dull your ambition, but that’s not possible. No one can be like Yo-Yo Ma because no one else IS Yo-Yo Ma.

Is there even a direct path of even achieving that success? I don’t think so. This goes hand-in-hand with setting reasonable goals. The success you are defining should have a plausible route to get there. Also, it’s important to remember that setbacks are a way of life. They happen to EVERYONE. How many orchestral musicians won their jobs after losing countless auditions? I hate to break it to you, it’s a lot. (Want to read more about it? Check out Rob Knopper’s blog on audition rejection)

For my fellow book-lovers, here are some that I’ve read through the pandemic that have helped me thus far:

  • Atomic Habits by James Clear

  • The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

  • 6 Weeks to Finals by Sharon Sparrow

  • Audition Success by Don Greene

  • You are a Badass by Jen Sincero

Now, I am not an expert or psychologist and this is really just skimming the surface of the problems that come along with perfectionism. What I do know is that no one can make these changes for you. You have to want it badly enough to do the dirty work. I hope that by sharing my struggles, others realize that they aren't alone in this crazy world.

To those of you still reading, I wish you the best on your journey.

I'm rooting for you!

Jessica Schury, flutist

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” - C.G. Jung

Have you found anything that has helped you with your perfectionism and self esteem?

We'd love to hear about it in the comment section below!

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