Being a Perfectionist is Nothing to Joke About
Brene Brown lays down some truth about perfectionism in her newest book
Oftentimes when we talk about “being a perfectionist” it’s with a (secret) sense of pride. Like a badge of honor that we hold ourselves up to an impossible standard of achievement. Other mere mortals may be ok with “good enough,” but we are satisfied with nothing less than perfection.
Believe me, I get it. My perfectionism was so extreme that it lead me to quit music altogether. And the thing is, I didn’t even realize I was a perfectionist! I certainly didn’t understand how severe and damaging perfection can be to creatives bringing work into the world.
In Brene Brown’s newest book, Atlas of the Heart, she shines a light on what is really going on behind perfectionism and how it is a self-protective strategy we use against shame. In this article, I will break down some of her teaching and how it applies to classical musicians.
1. “Perfectionism is externally driven by a simple but potentially all-consuming question: What will people think?” - B. Brown
For musicians, “What will they think if I make a mistake?”
What does my teacher think of me?
The audition committee?
The man playing bass when he looked confused after my solo?
My pianist, who has played with dozens of other violinists?
My fellow colleagues when I play in studio class?
The famous musician leading the masterclass?
The guest conductor?
The critic writing about my recital?
I’m sure we all can answer that, right? They’ll think that we don’t belong there. That we aren’t good enough. That we’re deluding ourselves to think we have a career as a musician. That we really should be much better than we are. That we really aren’t that talented. That we’re dead weight in the ensemble.
While caring about what people think of you is a natural part of being human, perfectionists disproportionally find their identity in the perceptions of other people.
So, if the audition committee doesn’t pass you to the next round, it is a death blow to your career prospects. Or if you have an unkind conductor chew you out in rehearsal, the perfectionist believes that they are a failure who should just quit.
2. "Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance." -B. Brown
If you were anything like me, you were raised by being praised for achievements. Good grades? Check! Compliant, easygoing, and quiet? Check! Winning sports events and music competitions? Check!
Somewhere along the line, though, perfectionists adopt a dangerous belief system: My value and worth is tied to my accomplishments and achievements. When I get into the best summer festival, I am worthy; when I play out of tune in orchestra, I am a complete fraud.
For the perfectionist, the idea that all humans are inherently worthy of love and belonging regardless of whether they are superstars or supersloths is revolutionary. Like, the kid who spent high school playing video games is just as worthy a human as the kid who sacrificed everything to be the best pianist? Or the musician who had all the best training and quit is just as worthy as their classmate who plays principal in a huge orchestra?
You do not have to earn a damn thing. You do not have to achieve anything or win anything or meet any external requirement in order for you to be worthy - as a person OR as a musician. You have every right to bring your art into this world. No earning required.
3. “... one of the biggest barriers to working toward mastery is perfectionism… Perfectionism tells us that our mistakes and failures are personal defects, so we either try to avoid trying new things or we barely recover every time we inevitably fall short.” -B. Brown
This disordered thinking shows up in the practice room All. The. Time. Let’s do a quick inventory of the time you spend practicing. Do you spend a disproportionately large amount of time:
Playing all your scales and arpeggios and infinite variations of them,
Avoiding tough excerpts and leaning into ones you love,
Running full movements of concertos or solos,
Mindlessly drilling etudes with the metronome,
Executing the same practice routines for years?
Setting clear goals,
Identifying specific areas of weakness and thoughtfully approaching them,
Recording yourself AND LISTENING BACK multiple times per practice session,
Regularly receiving feedback from teachers, coaches, and colleagues,
Leaning into the discomfort of not being able to do something on your instrument?
When it feels like everything is on the line when you make a mistake or contend with something you can’t yet do, the perfectionist’s musical world gets really small. Eventually, it can close in around them completely.
4. "Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, work perfectly and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame." -B. Brown
Self-destructive: There is NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT. Especially not in music! Perfectionists hold themselves to a non-existent standard. Thus, you are always falling short and are never, ever good enough. It is a self-abusive cycle that keeps you in bondage and prevents you from making beautiful, free, abundant music.
Addictive: It’s like an addict chasing the next high. If you can just get to perfect - perfectly execute a 6 week audition prep, practice hundreds of hours so that you can’t possibly have a memory slip, or constantly have the tuner on you stand so you play perfectly in tune - you’ll be ok. Rather than accepting that perfect does not exist, the perfectionist is doggedly entrenched in controlling every aspect of their playing.
Here's the truth that the perfectionist is running from, the truth that you'll do anything to keep from experiencing...
It’s challenging in the practice room when your pp keeps splitting; it’s disappointing when you don’t nail your solo in rehearsal; and it is devastating when you don’t win the audition after months of preparation.
There is no way around it. Failing sucks.
But, you know what? You are stronger than you think. You are more resilient than you give yourself credit for. And you can handle failing. You can.
And if you feel like you need support with it, send me a message and we’ll talk. That’s what I’m here for.
Next Steps and Additional Resources
Here at The Musician's Mindset, we have some incredible resources for developing and implementing mindset practices that will transform how you perform on stage.
First, check out our Personalized Mindset Tools Quiz to discover the mindset strategies perfect for YOU!
Schedule your FREE 30 Minute Call with Katie. It’s free. It’s my pleasure. And it’s the first step to releasing stage fright once and for all.
Founder of The Musician's Mindset
Katie is dedicated to helping musicians overcome stage fright and believe in their own unique artistic voice. She believes live classical music is a powerful antidote for the division, pain, and loneliness pervasive in the culture and strives to support all artists to confidently share their work with the world. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, three kiddos, a dog, a snake, and a goldfish named Orca.