The perfectionism storm

I know what it feels like to be swept up in perfectionism. As I’m writing this post, a category 5 hurricane is making landfall in Louisiana. The feeling of collective breath holding is palpable. However, the image for this card could be sunlight breaking through clouds after a storm has subsided. The meaning could be a sigh that occurs when an emotionally trying time has been worked through and completed. The relief after the devastation of Ida may be farther in the future than anyone is willing to accept.

Paradoxically, the menacing clouds could foreshadow a tempest, representing perfectionism as killer of joy, spontaneity and creativity. While in its grips, you may be fully aware of your perfectionism but feel incapable of letting go of it. Classical musicians are particularly at risk due to the physicality of our instruments and the intricacy of our music. In addition, there are performance practices that have been cultivated over centuries. Furthermore, there is the hoity-toity marketing of our skills to audiences as if they are part of a MENSA-esque cabal of classical music purists. I assure you they are not. Our audiences are intelligent music lovers who are there for a nice evening out, appreciative of the talented musicians who are sharing their art.

Trying to answer the question of whether the source of your perfectionism is musical or a response to criticism may be a good starting point. Tracing perfectionism back to a musical source can be fulfilling. You will still need to be on the look out for over-practicing but it may feel right to sacrifice your energies to what you believe to be the composer’s intent. Unfortunately, my guess is that most perfectionism results more from criticism or comparing oneself to other musicians. Having thoughts about the need to be perfect may trigger reactions that range from butterflies to performance anxiety to full blown panic attacks. Definitely not fertile ground for creativity and a healthy relationship to music.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the role of worrying in my own life the genesis of which is in part based on criticism from a famous violin teacher during my music school years. I will not name this individual but he was held in very high regard in the classical music world at that time. After thinking through my time with him, I now realize that his criticisms came from a dearth of musical inspiration in his own violin playing. If you think about it, people who love what they do are usually pretty generous in sharing the wealth of their talent rather than using precious energy to put down younger, less experienced musicians. I was hoodwinked by an individual who most likely was dissatisfied and uninspired by his own career.

If you are trapped in a cycle of perfectionism, consider seeking professional help from a counselor who is familiar with psychological issues common for classical musicians. Learn what you can about what happens in your brain, nervous system and body when your fight, flight, freeze mechanisms are triggered. I highly recommend The Worry Trick by David A. Carbonell. Perfectionistic worrying thoughts can trigger a fight or flight reaction. The amygdala interprets these thoughts as danger which then signals the fight or flight response. One of the “tricks” is to remind yourself that just because you are having worrying thoughts doesn’t mean you are in physical danger. This book is a quick read with many other helpful suggestions. The fight, flight, freeze mechanisms are generated in an old part of the brain that evolved for our survival when humans were not at the top of the food chain (e.g. Surviving an encounter with a saber-toothed tiger).1

1. David A. Carbonell, The Worry Trick, Oakland, CA, New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2016, 65-73.

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