The Costs of Perfectionism

Duparc at 84. © Lebrecht Music & Arts 2012

Perhaps the saddest statement to read in any biography is that the person fell short or didn’t really accomplish what he or she might have. Well, that’s exactly what I read recently in a brief account of the life of late 19th century French composer, Henri Duparc,

“An examination of the life of Henri Duparc often leads one not to explore what he actually accomplished, but to speculate on what he might have accomplished.”

If what?… That sentence leaves us hanging: “…to speculate on what he might have accomplished, if what?” In Duparc’s case the “if what?” could point to several things—if he hadn’t been so concerned with or intimidated by the high expectations of his parents and mentors, if his poor health later in life which was due to a type of nervous condition called neurasthenia had been better, but primarily, if he hadn’t succombed to an affliction that many other composers and performers are susceptible to—self-doubt and perfectionism.

Duparc produced a very small, but choice number of works that are gems (19 songs, 3 orchestral works, 1 motet, and 1 chamber piece). Although admired by contemporaries Debussy and Faure, he endlessly revised compositions and like Brahms, destroyed those that didn’t measure up. When doing a search of composers and perfectionism a long list of names appears: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Liszt, Walton, and Ives just to name a few. To these composers, perfectionism was not necessarily about being perfect, it was about the relentless striving for extremely, and in some circumstances, unreasonably high standards. Like these composers, perfectionists base their self-concept or judge themselves on their ability to strive for and achieve unrelenting standards, and experience the negative consequences of making these judgments and setting such demanding standards.

Sound familiar? If it does, you may be a perfectionist. I think we would all agree that it is a good idea to have high standards. Having goals and aspirations helps us achieve what we want in life, but when these goals or aspirations are unreasonable, unachievable, or only achievable at great cost, they can make it very difficult to feel good about ourselves and our performances. This is when we must take a good look at our expectations, our standards, and ask ourselves if we are dealing with perfectionism.

Sometimes the drive to do well can actually hinder your performing. This is the paradox of perfectionism. When performers strive to meet exceptionally high or unreasonable standards they put great pressure on themselves to succeed that can powerfully influence the way they think about themselves and the way they perform. This kind of pressure creates tension, stress, and anxiety—not the kind of feelings conducive to enjoyable or successful performances.

There is a vast difference between the healthy pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy striving for perfection.

When performers constantly judge themselves based on their ability to achieve, it makes them extremely vulnerable and often leads to feelings of failure. If achievement wasn’t so important to how you judge yourself, then maybe making a mistake or having a memory slip—which will happen from time to time—would be acceptable and recognized as another opportunity to learn rather than another nail in the failure coffin.

Performers with perfectionist tendencies find themselves:

  • needing constant reassurance
  • giving up too soon because it won’t be good enough or perfect anyway
  • procrastinating for fear of not completing something well enough
  • practicing past the point of skill acquisition

Let’s see if perfectionism might be an issue for you. Have you ever caught yourself thinking or saying any of the following:

  • Nothing good comes from making mistakes.
  • I must do things right the first time.
  • I must do everything well, not just the things I know I’m good at.
  • If I can’t do something perfectly, then there is no point even trying.
  • I rarely give myself credit when I do well because there’s always something more I could have done.
  • Sometimes I am so concerned about getting one task done perfectly that I don’t have time to complete the rest of my work.

If most of the above statements resonate with you, then perfectionism might be something you want to work on.

We can’t turn back the clock to help Duparc.  His life was lived as he chose to live it and although he imposed upon himself such high and, at times, unreasonable standards, he produced music that is and will continue to be played and sung throughout the world.  However, that nagging “what if?” still hangs in the air.

As a 21st century performer, you have the examples of these composers and the examples of scores of other performers to lead the way. You have at your disposal, hundreds of books written about the mental strategies that can help you grapple with performance issues that hinder your performing. If you think perfectionism is standing in your way and between you and the enjoyable, great performances you want, then admit it today and find a way to deal with it. Don’t let a “what if he…” or “what if she…” creep into any description of you or your performing.

Let me know if you would like to talk with someone about your perfectionist tendencies. Would love to hear from you!

If you haven’t already, please download the free MP3, Mental Strategies for Peak Performance in Music, to sign up for monthly tips to enhance your performance.

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  1. I am not sure I am naive enough to believe that anyone will read my post. But perhaps writing it will be therapeutic.

    I am a mechanical engineer by education and profession. I wanted, with every fiber of my being, to go to college for music. But my family, also engineers, would not have it. I had a chance to visit the college of my dreams one time. I put dirt in my pocket from the sidewalk, then went in to a bathroom and cried so my wife would not see it. I sat and listened to some recitals, it was spiritual and cool. It was Berklee.

    A few years later, and despite being told that I played well, I quit my instrument for over 9 years. I recently picked it up again and find myself running people over with my drive to practice and perfect my craft. The truth is most musicians annoy me with their easy come easy go attitude. The folks I play with, mostly teachers, are able to lay back and get by with the skill they have. For me, nothing comes easy. I have to practice days more than they do just to keep up with them. Especially after being away for so long. I wonder how good they would be if they kept trying?

    All my fellow musicians, friends, family and teachers tell me to slow down and enjoy the process of learning. Truth is, I find nothing enjoyable about the process of learning or performing. I know of no adult who works as hard through painful, purposeful practice as I do. This said, I am completely incapable of performing quality solos in front of an audience. In a practice room, alone, I am amazing. Very good. The moment I get on the band stand (I play in a swing band), I am a casserole of disaster. My rhythm playing, quite good, my line playing, not good at all.

    Yes, I get it, I have played out 20 to 25 times in the last 10 years. This includes rehearsals. Despite working my but off (18-20 hours a week plus my full time job) my solo failures are epic. What do I really expect?

    I read your site because I can not afford one on one help. I recognize that this is your business and I am not looking for a hand out. I try prayer (no help), employing the things I read on your site (no appreciable help) and whatever else I can find. I am perfectionist, I have not doubt. And if I don’t drive a wedge between myself and my band mates with my relentless pursuit, I will drive myself in to the ground.


    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Mark, thank you for sharing your story. It is clear that you love music and have mourned the decision not to pursue it as your life’s work. I applaud you for picking your instrument up again and for joining a band. That took a lot of guts.

      Many musicians are driven and work hard to be the best they can be. Like you have already discovered, this drive can lead to an attempt for perfection that can suck the enjoyment out of our performing and can adversely affect our performances. For you to confront your perfectionist tendencies, it is necessary for you to answer your own question: “What do I really expect?” If you are like most perfectionists, I am pretty sure your expectations are very high, strict, and probably unrealistic. Expectations are like demands we place on ourselves. Who can have fun and enjoy the process in that atmosphere?

      I disagree that you are “completely incapable of performing quality solos in front of an audience.” It may be true that you are struggling now, but you are capable, just not yet—you CAN learn to perform as well as you practice. It may take adjusting your practice habits—not more, but better practice—and to learn to get unstuck from the practice mindset and perform with the performance mindset.

      I am sending you something that I hope you find interesting. Please keep me posted and feel free to email me directly.

      All my best, Diana

    • Danilo Siqueira says:

      Hey Mark,

      I’ve been like you for quite some time. I also couldn’t perform, and for me, playing guitar was just practice. Nothing at all. I felt like i was doing the aerobics, but i still haven’t found my musicality yet. I was pretending to learn things, and play them. But i couldn’t understand a thing that I was doing. I went into that perfectionism path, in a hope that if I could play it perfectly, I could be “passable” as a musician. I was so wrong that i just quit.
      I thought “if i can’t be perfect with that instrument, whats the point?”.

      It was a very sad “era” of my life. Kind of like it happened to you, I didn’t have the support/courage/self-determination to go to a Music college. I studied Biology instead. I love it, it was beautiful. Some time have passed and i realized i was tired/bored of it. I decided to buy a new guitar (LOL), and the first thing i decided was “first of all, I’m going to play this instrument for myself. My first motivation was my own pleasure with the instrument. That brought me to so many different understandings… about music, about my instrument, about myself, about emotions, about who we are… And we all, humans, are imperfect by nature. I decided to embrace that, not only in music, but in life, in general. I began to see that in many other Arts’ fields, like Painting, for instance, imperfection is not really viewed as imperfection. Its seen as the expression of the artist. If you take a masterpiece from any artist and take a very good look (zoom in with some device) you’ll notice a lot of “imperfections”. A little splash of ink escaping here, a line not perfectly traced, etc. Those artists carved their style through constant improvement, but not exactly technical perfection. But for perfect expression. I believe in this and this is a strong inspirational message to everyone who wants to create art.

      Today i’m working with music production, and I’m the forever learner, and I’m proud of it. Its like i’m carving myself from a block of stone. Its not perfect and it will never be, but the more it looks me, i feel rewarded about myself. I’ve identified myself with your story, after reading this beautiful text (just recently someone gave me a bad review for something I’m doing – i have a need for some balsam myself sometimes).

      And i really loved a sentence from Dr. Diana’s reply, “learn to get unstuck from the practice mindset and perform with the performance mindset”. That’s beautiful. Thank you for that gem. Gonna keep it in my own mindset :)

  2. Dr. Diana Allan says:

    Thanks Danilo for taking time to respond! You are so right about painting or other works of art. There isn’t “right” or “wrong”–it’s ART–it’s expressing! We musicians often forget this because we are held to an exacting standard. First and foremost, we must follow your lead: play for the LOVE of it and be forever learners! You reminded us that we ALL are works in progress and need to let go of the need to be perfect! Thanks again Danilo! Take care, Diana

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