A valid quest or altogether a trap?
What is perfectionism?
Being "perfectly ourselves"
Beauty, meaning and gratitude
Competitions, praises and prizes
Can there be astonishing art created without a good amount of suffering or sacrifices? Does the artist have to create a detrimental obsession about his work in order to give the world something truly memorable? Does the artist always have to make important life sacrifices, and live eternal dissatisfaction in order to be truly successful (picture here a self-loathing poor artist dying before getting any recognition whatsoever) ?
Those are example of questions I have stumbled upon as I navigated through life being an artist - a Lindy Hop dancer - and that lead me to think a lot about the subject of perfectionism.
WHAT IS PERFECTIONISM?
According to Wikipedia, perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations. I believe perfectionism is a state of mind we are in while working towards an unattainable goal of perfection whilst at the same time putting our self-worth in the line of judgement. It is a mode in which we can only loose (since perfection is out of human reach), and in which all too often external factors such as other people's opinion will decide our faith and our level of success. Sounds depressing? Because it can be very much so, like a real motivation vacuum and a source of eternal anxiety. While being 'perfectionists', we work relentlessly towards an ideal, and try to please an audience that knows apparently better than we do what perfection really is and how far we still are from it. Power is out of our hands, and success is pretty much out of reach.
As miserable as this might sounds though, it can also be a defensive move as one of my favorite motivation speaker of the moment Brene Brown writes: "Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the PAINFUL FEELINGS OF BLAME, JUDGEMENT, AND SHAME." So that means that one might (subconsciously) think that by developing an ability to a point of being extremely good at it and being admired for it by a lot of people, one also develops in parallel a protection against something even more painful : harsh criticism of one’s own vulnerable self. Logics dictates that the further away I can be on the real version of myself, the most protection I can get! So I believe that there is a correlation between how far from being « enough » we might think we are, and the power of attraction of the idea of perfectionism. On the other hand, the thicker the armour of perfectionism, the further one can be to making authentic and nourishing connection to other people, as it seems to simply be the mirror effect of the lack of connection to our own vulnerable self.
Being perfectly ourselves
That being said, this article is not intended to discourage any efforts in growth or quest towards excellence! Quite the opposite actually : this is exactly why I am writing this! I want dancers to find a healthy way to grow while feeling like they can be themselves, unique and flavourful artists, imperfect but on a path to become better, while feeling part of an inclusive community who’s love will guide and energize towards larger awareness, abilities, knowledge and skills. Perfectionism can be a dawning trap because while trying to be too perfect, most often times we forget to be « PERFECTLY OURSELVES »…. which is so important in Lindy Hop in my humble opinion. Compared to other dances, the dancing icons of the past and present are very various in their styles and the essence of Lindy Hop allows for a pleiad of interpretation, because authenticity and true connection to partners and to music is encouraged far more than perfect lines , shapes or figures.
The important questions become, as we travel down the road towards being better dancers :
Do we feel energized by the possibility of getting more and more excellent and by the work required to get there?
Do we have feelings of anxiety, suffocating amount of pressure and recurring thoughts of not being good enough as we are trying to improve?
Obviously, the former will lead to healthy growth in which the artist’s SOUL will have room to express some precious ideas from time to time. The latter might not only freeze the person’s capacities to perform to his or her best, but might also crush motivation altogether over time.
I also wanted to write this article to encourage dancers to find MOTIVATION WITHIN themselves and to see other people's opinion, competition judges, teachers, peers and experts as GUIDES in an ever-evolving practice rather than authorities putting semi-permanent labels on you. No dance you have ever danced define you as a person. They don't say much about who you are as it is just something that you have done at a certain point in time. What you are is a deep philosophical question, and it is also not the sum of everything you have done as there is so much more to take into account to understand a human being.
In Alfie Kohn "Punished by Rewards", he writes: "Intrinsic motivation (loving what you do) is also the best predictor of high-quality achievement, which is why — brace yourself for another counterintuitive discovery — people promised a reward for doing something often end up doing it more poorly than people who weren’t." Which is also extremely interesting because while you think you are getting closer to creating memorable dancing trying to please a specific group of people, fitting in a certain way of doing things that might not be the most natural way for your body and/or your personality, you are actually getting further away from that same goal. Finding a way to let your soul speak might be what you need to have the impact you are looking for, but letting go of the approval of people for it might also ironically be the pre-requisite to attain that. Feeling FREE in the process is also key… If we feel free to try new things out, leave the work for a few days, come back to it with a fresh perspective, explore knowing that there will be multiple iterations before we feel satisfied, then innovation can happen.
So if perfection is unattainable and can be anxiety-inducing, should we even try to get closer to it?
I believe that in essence, if our quest for some relative kind of perfection through art is one that is connected to a spiritual quest of BEAUTY and harmony, one that induces peace and JOY in the creator and the spectators, then it is a healthy way to channel our efforts in the work we do or the hobby we cherish. If, on the contrary, our quest for that « perfection » creates anxiety, derogative self-speech or has a destructive influence over our life choices, then I do believe that it inevitably becomes a barrier to our full creative potential!
When looking for a way to find deeper MEANING or divine beauty in practicing art, I believe also that the work becomes bigger than ourselves and then we could have a tendency to dissociate the end result from our egos a little easier, perhaps by being connected to our gratitude for the inspiration we have received, or the help we have been provided, the ressources we have at our disposition to create etc. Going back to the scenario where outside approval is what drives our efforts, the emotions emerging when getting other people's positive feedback can only be a temporary relief (as there is always more approval to be sought for), so there is always another trophy to win, another prize to be won, another title to be pursued... it becomes endless fuel for that infamous fear of not being enough. Truly believing that we are enough might be one of the most difficult things us humans can do, and paradoxically, when or if we achieve this state of mind, I think we could much more rapidly attain a level of artistry that we seek!
A little PERSONAL parenthesis here. As many of you might already know, I was an intense competitor myself. At the age of 5 I was already competing in figure skating. Age 9 or 10 I was competing as a gymnast, so as soon as I started swing dancing I was looking for outlet to perform and then compete. My mindset as an athlete and an artist was to train towards excellence through the regular goal of getting out there in front of the best of my field and getting compared to the other people wanting to play the same game. In Lindy Hop, it soon became a way to be known as I wanted to be a professional and then to keep getting work as a travelling teacher. But every year, I also noticed how stimulating it was for me to have this opportunity to take in the motivation from dancing on the big competitions stages and create a piece that would hopefully be memorable. I felt connected to the community, and I was grateful to have a chance to get out there again, feel the crowd excited to see me and my partners dance again. After winning a few times, the anxiety can creep on you like weeds on your property grass as the pressure to do at least as good as the last time comes in the competition equation. The shiny novelty and the surprise effects go away and not only to you have to always bring something refreshing and new to keep winning but you also have to beat the best you did in the past. Anyhow, I somehow sincerely thought every time I was getting ready for a new showcase that I would give my all and that if another couple out there brings a better piece and performs it better, then I will be very happy for them to get the 1st place. The process can be very formative I find, as it really creates a boiling environment for our emotions wanting to come alive. In can also be like a maze and bring you to dead ends in inspiration or in motivation, but in can also help you blossom if you find the way that works for you and brings you joy on a regular basis (at least more than the suffering it can sometimes inflict). I have to say that sometimes, the pressure felt made me take questionable decisions. It didn’t always bring the best out of me as I was beating myself up regularly and I mostly lacked serious self-care but in the end, perspective allows me to see that it was a very important learning process applicable for my life as a whole and I am grateful for all of it.
So looking for a motivation boost, an adrenaline kick, a unique way to interact with the community through COMPETITION? Why not?! But, let’s keep our awareness antennas ready to sense if egos are trying to tie self-worth to our dancing… Lets try to simply appreciate WHAT WE DO for what it is without extrapolating into what it could mean about WHO WE ARE. Keeping the two dissociated will become the formula allowing joy to emerge in various and sometimes unexpected parts of the process and will also fuel the exploration hence encouraging creative and innovative process. Taking risks requires courage and without the strength provided by the confidence that self-worth is not on the line, it would be understandable that the risk-taking be too discouraging. Sometimes I think that rather than thinking of ourselves as dancers, using the words human beings practicing dance might be a more sensitive and less judgmental way of describing what is being observed. This distinction might seem insignificant, but I do believe it matters.
Let’s find a way to let the mystic, the beauty, the spiritual - whatever that means for you - guide us in finding meaning in our dancing. Let’s replace pleasing or getting approval by connecting to the community, looking for deeper meaning and inspiring others. All positions on the learning curve are good places to be at. There is always something you can say you actually did (whether it is that you went out to take your first-ever lesson) and something you can say you can still learn. Wishing to be further up on that curve is natural, it is human nature. What also seems entrenched in human nature is beating ourselves up for it and often thinking we are not enough! This is the part that led me to write this article. Our energies can, undoubtedly, be more wisely allocated, not only for our sanity and mental well-being, but also for the benefit of the dancing, the art, which will be so much more liberated and soul-filled as a consequence.
I suggest the word Perfectionism be changed for Meaningism when addressing our strong willingness to get better…. working towards beauty and meaning through the art, through dancing, through Lindy Hop. With a more realistic goal in mind, we might avoid the trap of the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. Perfection is unattainable by definition, and doesn’t even have a clear definition in the artistic fields! I call for more Meaningism, as there is truth to be discovered as we look, work, explore, and it can be enriched through exchanges with others and the community.
There are no unique answer to the meaning and beauty questions : only a multitude of perspectives that can complement and inspire each other.
I am alive. I am a work in progress. I am enough.
I am human. I love dance. I want to grow.
I crave for more meaning. I want to create beauty. I want to connect.
No need to add perfection to the list.
Photo credit : Alain Wong