Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Perfectionism: don’t let it ruin your climbing career

Now here is a topic I really relate to: perfectionism. Do you know that I had a hard time writing this post because I wanted it to be perfect? I even perfectly researched it. It’s everywhere in my life so it’s no surprise that it creeps into my climbing too. Are you a perfectionist? Does it affect your climbing? If the first answer is yes, you may not think that perfectionism affects your climbing negatively, but it does.

Perfectionism can be both bad and good depending on the traits you’re talking about. On the good side, perfectionists strive for excellence, have a strong drive to achieve, pay attention to details, commit to projects fully and follow through. These are great traits to have as a climber. We set goals, work projects, strength train, pay attention to getting the technique right, and keep working that project until we finally get it. There is a part of us as perfectionists that was probably drawn to climbing in the first place when we recognized the potential for climbing to satisfy our some of our perfectionist needs.

But there is a dark side to perfectionism that is rarely looked at. Unhealthy perfectionists may have all of the good traits listed above but they also measure their self worth entirely on their accomplishments. Not only that, they won’t let themselves feel good about that project they just finished because they never seem to do things well enough to warrant the feeling of satisfaction. They engage in perpetual self-evaluation that is chronically negative. They are quite literally their own worst critic.

Additional unhealthy qualities of perfectionists include: procrastination, self-deprecation, fear of failure, all or nothing thinking, paralyzed performance, rigid behavior and it lowers you ability to take risks. Unhealthy perfectionists worry more about avoiding mistakes than worry about doing something perfectly right. Instead of striving for excellence, they are striving to avoid getting something wrong and hence looking bad or losing approval. Ultimately these negative traits can lead to the kind of poor performance that the perfectionist is trying to avoid in the first place; setting off a vicious cycle of then setting even higher standards for the next go around that can’t be met.

Here’s what these unhealthy traits look like in climbing:

Fear of Falling: there are a lot of reasons we have a fear of falling and perfectionism can be an underlying reason. If we are afraid to make mistakes, afraid to look bad or afraid to take risks then it could show up as a fear of falling.
Plateaus in growth: for the same reasons listed above, perfectionism will stunt our growth as climbers. We have to be willing to take risks and make (safe) mistakes in order to grow. Otherwise we literally paralyze our performance and growth will stop.
Quit climbing altogether: (gasp!) This is the ultimate consequence of perfectionism. Perfectionists will often try to hide their mistakes in order to preserve their perfect image. It’s pretty difficult to hide your mistakes in climbing so the next step is to avoid the activity that you can’t be perfect at which means quitting climbing altogether. For me, this is sacrilegious. There is no offense worse than quitting climbing because you can’t be perfect at it.

So what’s a perfectionist to do?

Be perfectly imperfect. When you are able to decrease your perfectionism you will actually increase your accomplishments. Coincidentally (or not…) this is the same logic I applied to my post on Control Freaks: let go of control and end up controlling more. See the pattern? There are a few keys to letting go of your perfectionist ways:

1. Notice the pleasure and enjoyment of climbing – not just the feeling of accomplishment. Enjoy the whole process of working a project or climbing a route. Don’t just feel good at the top of the route.
2. Make mistakes on purpose. Mistakes = learning. Fall on purpose (be safe and smart about it though!).
3. Be aware of the negative self talk that runs like a repeating tape in your head and replace them with more neutral or positive comments. Just because you can’t do something now doesn’t mean you won’t ever be able to do it. Appreciate the grey areas and the possibility for growth.

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