Many a horsewoman experiences the frustration caused by a never ending, and never satisfied, expectation of perfection. It is common for performance horse riders to have high standards and expect nothing less than perfection from themselves and their horses.
In theory, that sounds like a good thing. Striving for perfection can help performance by being dedicated, by having a commitment to practice, by being focused and paying attention to the little details.
More commonly, however, perfectionism is perilous to performance. When a rider has placed so much pressure on themselves to perform perfectly, they become outcome focused. This leads to anxiety, and anxiety leads to not performing their best. When a perfectionist does not perform well, they tend to become extremely self-critical, leading to becoming overwhelmed and discouraged. This can lead to the rider wanting to quit, and not even try since they feel that they will not be able to perform at the perfect level they expect of themselves.
This may show up as the rider that rides very well in practice, but chokes in the competition. Or a rider that really wants to compete, but avoids it, coming up with excuses for not competing, like “We’re just not ready.”
What then, is the difference between a rider with high standards, that is able to use perfectionist tendencies in a positive way, and the rider who is negatively affected by perfectionism?
The difference is their view of making mistakes.
A rider that can channel their perfectionism positively (an adaptive perfectionist) allows themselves to make mistakes. They view mistakes as a part of the learning process. They are open to challenges, even if they might fail or not perform at their best. An adaptive perfectionist is focused on doing their best and learning along the way, and they embrace that learning involves making mistakes. They are task oriented and view their successes based on the effort they have put forth and how they have improved their ability to perform a particular task. When an adaptive perfectionist competes, their skills and abilities are on the line, so when they fail, they focus on what they can do better next time to improve. They dare greatly.
A rider that is negatively affected by their perfectionist tendencies (a maladaptive perfectionist) views mistakes as unacceptable. When they make mistakes, they are extremely self-critical, and they tend to ruminate about the mistake, rethinking it over and over. This tendency causes them to feel anxiety anytime that they think they might make a mistake. This leads to further poor performance and mistakes, and the cycle repeats itself. A maladaptive perfectionist’s focus is to avoid mistakes and failure at all costs. They are ego oriented, and compare their performance to others’ performance, attach their self-worth and self-esteem to how well they perform compared to their peers. When a maladaptive perfectionist competes, their self-worth is on the line, so when they fail, they believe that they are failures. They play it safe, never taking chances.
Stephen Guise, in his book How to be an Imperfectionist, says, “Perfectionism makes you stay home, not take chances, and procrastinate on projects; it makes you think your life is worse than it is; it keeps you from being yourself; it stresses you out; it tells you that good is bad; it ignores the natural way in which things work.”
So how can you overcome negative perfectionist tendencies and become more task oriented to be able to perform at your best?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” -Theodore Roosevelt
Commit to daring greatly, to being the one in the arena, who strives valiantly, who errs.
Allow yourself to make mistakes. Mistakes are a necessary part of the learning process. Understanding, accepting, and embracing this fact is difficult for perfectionists who have spent a lifetime avoiding mistakes, but it is essential to becoming task oriented and improving. If you are not making mistakes, you are not improving! Allow yourself to make mistakes, and when you do make a mistake, be gentle with yourself and show yourself some compassion.
Check your comparisons - what is your measuring stick? Are you being the critic? If you are measuring your success based on how well your place in the competition, or based on comparisons of your performance to others, then you will never be satisfied by your performance. Instead, try having your measuring stick be your own self-improvement.
Good enough is good enough. Perfectionism isn’t the same as trying your best, so when I say good enough is good enough, I do not mean that you should have low standards of yourself and your performance. What I am saying is that at some point, you need to recognize that your skills and abilities and performance is good enough and that doing your best is good enough.
Doing all of the above is daring greatly.
Here is the thing - you need to commit to daring greatly NOW. Today! Not when you feel that everything is perfect because you will never be 100% ready. Your horsemanship journey is a worthy cause, and it deserves your every effort. So get out there and dare greatly, for the credit belongs to those who are actually in the arena, getting gritty!
Siobhan “Chevy" Allen The Social Stockwoman
Learn more about performance coaching at www.socialstockwoman.com