What came first: the perfectionist or the dancer? With body ideals at the forefront of the industry, dancers are especially vulnerable to perfectionistic behaviors surrounding both food and body. High expectations and striving to perfect the imperfect creates an environment prone to obsessive tendencies and comparative behaviors. And while this seemingly harmless trait can be motivating, those who strive for the unattainable often feel inferior and therefore, limited.
If your perfectionism is limiting your progress, then consider these 5 steps to begin the process of building a more sustainable path.
#1: Identify The Roots of Perfectionistic Thoughts
Ask yourself if any of these sound familiar:
- The harder I work, the better I will do.
- Restricting my food intake will put me ahead.
- Giving up any outside distraction from dance will allow me to succeed.
- The more I rehearse, the better I will be when compared to my peers.
- I’ll never be happy unless I succeed.
Now, examine where those thoughts come about. Where does your perfectionism reside? Here are a few common sources:
- Performance at school and/or at work
- In the dance studio
- Relationships, friendships, and family life
- Relationships with food and eating habits
- Fun and recreation
- Neatness and aesthetics
- Organization and ordering
- Writing or speaking
- Physical Appearance
For dancers, perfectionism often stems in the studio and further develops with the reinforcement of such behaviors from teachers. Let’s say, for example, you observe another dancer being rewarded for weight loss. Perhaps they’re cast as the lead role or they’re receiving special attention in class. You might believe that a low body weight is the standard of which you must uphold. Such instances, however, are not only fictitious, but also likely to be impractical for you. Here are a few additional examples:
- If I break my perfect diet, I’m a failure.
- If I eat one cookie, I may as well eat ten cookies.
- I always need to look perfect in front of others.
- If I don’t get the lead role, I don’t deserve to be in this school.
- My pirouettes are never good enough.
#2: Unravel Personal Triggers
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often used in practice to identify common triggers that exacerbate perfectionism. For now, assess whether these thoughts are related to appearance, performance, food, meal planning, etc. Explore your emotions and prompt yourself with the following questions:
- “What was going through my mind just before I started feeling this way?”
- “What does this say about me?”
- “What was I saying to myself at that moment?”
- “What did I think would happen in this situation?”
#3: Examine The Evidence!
Are your current behaviors evidence for your perfectionism? Examples include:
- Avoiding situations that might test your performance (practicing in front of others).
- Procrastination (waiting until you are the last dancer in line to do turns across the studio)
- Goal achievement behaviors (over-preparing for turns)
- Reassurance seeking (seeking reassurance and specific feedback from the teacher)
Check the facts by asking yourself:
- “What facts and experiences support what I am believing to be true?”
- “Have I been through this in a way that proves it to be true?”
- “If my best friend was thinking the same thing, what would I say to them?”
- “Five years from now, will I think about it any differently?”
#4: Acknowledge Flexibility
We know that dancers are physically flexible. But what flexibility with your thinking? Challenge your thoughts and how you interpret them. If there is a fear related to food, try to expose yourself to those scary situations. A few examples include: larger plates, eating after a specific window of time, ordering take-out, and eating foods with sauces.
#5: Welcome Discomfort
Perfectionism helps to create safety behaviors (e.g. measuring ingredients in a meal). In this situation, give yourself permission to not have the correct measuring tools. Can you challenge yourself to bake or cook a specific recipe without the specific measurements?
Other ways to overcoming perfectionistic behavior:
- Take a workout class that you have never tried before.
- Work out in the company of other people.
- Say something incorrect when asked.
- Spill a drink.
- Prepare a new lunch using different ingredients.
- Ditch your measuring utensils.
- With permission from your school or company, change up your hair style or choose another leotard.
Guest post contributed by Amy Pope-Latham. Amy is a mental health professional for Coastal Beaches Therapy and former classically-trained dancer who work closely with populations struggling to find balance while striving for unattainable perfection. Fun Fact: Amy and Rachel met in dance at the age of 9 and have been extremely close friends since! If you’re looking for creative ways to manage your perfectionism, reach out to Amy: firstname.lastname@example.org.