For high-achieving people, perfectionism may seem like it could be a good thing. But the personality trait, which combines a striving to be perfect with harsh self-criticism, is actually associated with a bevy of psychological problems, including anxiety and depression. It’s even a risk factor for suicide.
The potential harms are physical as well as emotional: Among athletes, in particular, a ceaseless quest for perfection can be linked with overtraining, injury, and impaired recovery from injury. It can also, ironically, make athletes less competitive. Perfectionism makes athletes less able to learn from their mistakes, as they’re too busy beating themselves up for making them in the first place. It’s also linked to negative emotions while preparing for competition, which are distracting and harm performance.
Sari Fine Shepphird, a sports and performance psychologist based in Los Angeles, sees this in her own high-achieving clients. She often asks those with perfectionistic tendencies to describe their best and worst performances. She says it’s common for them to report that, in their worst performances, they were psyching themselves out even before they started competing. Meanwhile, in their best performances, they were “more in the moment, thinking less about the consequences of their performance, judging themselves less harshly, and instead giving themselves constructive criticism.”
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Problems related to perfectionism are especially worrying in young athletes, who are at a key developmental stage and more prone to burnout. Perfectionism makes this more likely to happen. Stella Metsovas is a testament to that fact: At the age of nine, she took up swimming and rapidly moved up the ranks. By her teens, she was working with Olympic-level swimming coaches. She loved the praise she earned from her coaches and her parents when she won a meet. But the flip side was the intense self-criticism when she lost.
“Having this high bar that was placed because of my athleticism, my natural ability as a swimmer," she says, "didn’t match up with the mental capacity, especially at a young age.” As an elite athlete, Metsovas worked with a sports psychologist who spotted her perfectionist streak and tried to build up her emotional strength. But it was tough to put into practice: Things got to the point where it was hard to look at herself in the mirror, she says, “because I felt like such a failure for not being able to succeed”—even when “failure” meant losing a race by 8/100 of a second.
So Metsovas did what many young athletes with strong perfectionistic tendencies do: She quit. “The reason I quit was nothing to do with physical performance," she says. "It was mental. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
This is part of a pattern of behavior often seen in junior athletes with strong perfectionistic tendencies. One researcher who specializes in this area is Andrew Hill, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at York St. John University in the UK. Hill explains that athletes like these are “much more likely to withdraw their effort [and are] more likely to engage in avoidance behaviors so they can protect their sense of self-esteem. You end up with a certain pattern of thoughts and emotions.” These emotions are worry, anxiety, and rumination—or, as Hill puts it, the “intrusive thoughts that sometimes people can experience in and around the consequences of messing up.”
But Hill stresses that perfectionism isn’t an either/or proposition: “There’s really no such thing as a perfectionist. Everyone has it to some degree.”
That's why Hill calls for unpacking the many different kinds and levels of perfectionism. One key distinction is between what's known as socially prescribed and self-oriented perfectionism—in other words, the pressure created by other people versus the setting of your own goals. Hill's recent research has shown that perfectionism is rising among American, Canadian, and British college students, especially the socially prescribed kind, which has the strongest link with mental health issues including anxiety and depression.
It can be hard to spot any kind of perfectionism in athletes, though. “Sometimes perfectionism often looks like conscientiousness," Hill says. "People who are conscientious and people who score high in perfectionism can exhibit the same behaviors. However, the key to distinguishing factors is how people respond when things don’t go well.” One unhelpful response is that inescapable inner voice experienced by Metsovas and others who have struggled with perfectionism.
The good news is that changing this mindset is simpler than it may seem. Shepphird explains, from her clinical experience, that the first step is helping her clients to identify whether their perfectionism is helpful or counterproductive. Then, “people can make changes very, very quickly. And part of that depends on their openness to making these changes,” she says. The key in performance psychology is deliberate practice—like practicing moving on quickly after a setback.
It took Metsovas a couple of decades to go from avoiding mistakes at all costs to a mindset where she now thinks, “The mistakes are truly what gives you success.” As a food writer in her early 30s, as she was dealing with stress from writing a cookbook, a friend recommended that she try equine therapy for stress reduction. She realized that what improved her riding was learning from her errors—and that this also applied to her career and her personal relationships. The gentle horses she was working with, she says, "were unintentionally helping me to understand these voices in my head.”
Metsovas still swims once or twice a week, and has dabbled in CrossFit. But she now sees her fitness goals, like her life goals, different from the way she did as a teenage athlete swimming three hours a day. “Once I let go of trying to please people," she says, "the healthy side of my perfectionism began to surface."
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