“I’m such a perfectionist” is a phrase that gets bandied around all the time but we don’t talk enough about the negative impacts of perfectionism – particularly at the gym. Writer Megan Geall is one perfectionist trying to escape the trap of aiming too high.
We are a society obsessed with the idea of being at our best. As children, we’re praised for doing our work to the highest standard and achieving the best results possible, and as adults, we’re taught to constantly chase the ‘next big thing’, whether that’s a new job, promotion or step in life.
In this way, the idea of striving for perfection in the gym sounds like a great thing – better form, better workouts and more progress should all equal a healthier, fitter and stronger body.
But according to a new study by the University of Essex, the hunt for perfection and obsession over tiny mistakes can lead to burnout in athletes. The researchers concluded that “athletes should be wary that pursuing perfection and being overly self-critical is likely to be doing more harm than good.”
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I am definitely a perfectionist, and I find that my perfectionism negatively impacts my training. If I can’t perform a certain exercise perfectly or increase the weight the way I was hoping, I find it really difficult to stay motivated and keep my training on track, especially when it comes to the training day that I struggle the most with: pull workouts (pull-ups, rows, curls etc).
This isn’t limited to strength training either; if I’m aiming for a personal best time on a run, I often find I lack motivation to keep going if I’m not hitting my pace targets. The high expectations I have for myself and what I could achieve negatively impacts my workout as my motivation plummets when I fail to meet perfection.
I’m not alone in this cycle. Psychotherapist Somia Zaman tells Stylist: “(Perfectionism) is the belief that you must do everything absolutely perfectly, without making any mistakes, because otherwise there will be some consequences.”
Perfectionism can be hugely damaging to motivation and mental health
As Zaman suggests, perfectionism means striving to be your best, working hard at something until it is at a level that you deem ‘perfect’, and often, that means holding yourself to a high bar – which is why it’s often seen as a really positive, productive way to be. But perfectionism can be hugely damaging both to our motivation and mental health.
“Living with the feeling that there is never room for even the tiniest of errors can be incredibly stressful and exhausting for people,” Zaman continues. “The uphill struggle to maintain these high standards can ultimately lead to many other difficulties including low mood, anxiety and low self-esteem.”
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Plenty of research has found that perfectionism can be mentally damaging. One study by researchers from the University of Bath and York St John found that ‘socially prescribed’ perfectionism (ie when you believe that your social context like job, family or status makes excessive demands) led to anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation. Another piece of research found that 70% of young people who die by suicide were in the habit of creating ‘exceedingly high’ expectations of themselves.
Within the eating disorder community, perfectionism is rife. One study published in the journal PloS One found that people living with anorexia scored ‘significantly high’ on both self-report perfectionism measures and the Clinical Perfectionism Scale. These might be extreme examples but it’s important to understand how destructive perfectionism can be and that its an issue that seems to hit young people particularly hard.
And it’s in the gym that these side effects have been most obvious for me. While hard work and paying attention to details such as form and mobility can lead to high levels of success and personal satisfaction when you see results, slower progress can leave you feeling flat.
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If you’re constantly challenging yourself with unattainable goals and standards, you’re likely to give up. I’ve found that perfectionists like me have to learn to override that voice in our heads, stepping back and readjusting our expectations in order to maintain the motivation required to meet more moderate but equally impressive and sustainable goals.
Perfectionism can be difficult to spot, but if you recognise this idea of setting lofty goals and expectations within your fitness regime that, when left unmet, leave you feeling unmotivated and unhappy, then it’s time for a rethink. Here are some tips that may be useful in overcoming perfectionist thoughts and behaviours within fitness.
Five hacks for overcoming perfectionism in your training
Recognise an unhelpful level of perfectionism
When your motivation next dips in your training session, ask yourself whether your goals are too high or if you’re asking too much of your body.
“The first step is to recognise an unhelpful level of perfectionism within yourself,” Zaman says. “It is important to understand why you are trying so hard to be perfect and what you perceive the positive consequences will be of achieving perfection.”
Use thought challenging to tackle perfectionist urges
Perfectionist thoughts and behaviours can be overpowering so it is important to ask yourself why you feel like you must be perfect and what would actually go wrong if you weren’t perfect this time round. One way to do this is by using CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) techniques.
“In CBT we work to help people change their negative thought patterns through various techniques, including thought challenging,” Zaman explains. “So for instance, if you have the thought ‘I must get this absolutely right otherwise others might think badly of me’, you can ask yourself questions such as ‘How likely is this to happen?’ and ‘Have I not done something slightly imperfectly before and what was the outcome?’”
In the gym you might feel like failing a certain number of reps at a certain weight is embarrassing; however, training until failure shows your commitment and hard work in your training. Not every session must be perfect, you can attempt the weight again next session round.
Choose three things to complete at an ‘acceptable’ standard
“You need to reprogramme your brain to understand that some tasks just need to be completed, rather than perfected,” explains Jessica Redman, a qualified personal trainer and founder of Work That. “This will feed into other areas of your life and help you release the need for perfectionism.”
Try performing three exercises in each training session to an ‘acceptable’ standard and the rest can be ‘imperfect’. Having a balance of the two will challenge and remind you that sometimes perfection isn’t the goal, both in and out of training.
Set SMART goals
SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. “Having achievable goals is integral to your motivation – if you set goals that are too lofty and you constantly fall short, you’ll feel totally demotivated,” Redman says. “If you want to run a marathon, find out how long you’ll need to train and stick to it.”
With a realistic set plan, you won’t feel the need to overdo it and be perfect every time you train. You may have months to achieve your goal so progress can be realistic and slow until you build up your stamina.
Build habits and repetitions
“Typically, perfectionists don’t do well with habits as they are focused on getting to that perfect or ultimate place now,” Redman says. “This is not sustainable and can lead to frustration and even burnout. Focus on building your habits and hone in on repeating the smaller targets.”
For example, if you don’t like doing squats because you struggle with your form, try building a mobility routine into your workout split to improve your range of motion or spend time increasing rep range before increasing the weight, to ensure you nail the form.
For more first-person pieces, fitness features and workout ideas, visit the Strong Women Training Club.
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