The Perfectionism Paradox: Managing the Double-Edged Sword of Drive

March 9, 2021

Crystal Nicholls had been dancing in the same musical on London’s West End for four years. In the show’s most challenging number, she says, there was a turn that led directly into a jump. One night, Nicholls made a minor mistake, falling out of the turn. Though she quickly salvaged things and still made the jump, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“I had succeeded more than I had failed. But that one failure was just stuck in my mind. It was almost as though a switch went off in my brain, and I just felt like I couldn’t do it,” she says. Intrusive thoughts about the mistake came up constantly—they distracted her in performance and kept her awake at night. “It got to the point where, before the show started, I had sweaty palms and stomachaches, serious anxiety just thinking about this two-second maneuver. I felt like a failure. I thought, If I can’t do this one simple turn, then I can’t call myself a professional.”

This obsessive rehashing of a simple mistake will sound all too familiar to most dancers. Intense drive and attention to detail are vital to success in dance, but taken too far, these same perfectionistic tendencies can negatively affect a dancer’s well-being and career. For example, the aspiration for a “perfect” body can lead to disordered eating. The desire to be “the best” or to land a prestigious job can lead to anxiety and depression. Is it possible to harness qualities like ambition and discipline without letting them run wild?

Confront Unrealistic Expectations

Most dancers likely go into the field with a natural tendency toward perfectionism, says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, PhD, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine and psychologist for Atlanta Ballet. “Unless you have a lot of drive, you’re not going to make it to a point where you’re called a dancer,” she says. “For most kids who take dance at the neighborhood studio, when the rules get too rigid, the demands are too high or they lose time with friends, they stop. Not everybody who takes dance class is ambitious and driven. But the ones who hang in are.”

The dance world takes these traits and reinforces them “to a really unhealthy degree,” says Kaslow. Dancers are often pressured to conform to unrealistic body standards, told that they should leave behind all other interests, and taught to crave correction and criticism. Kaslow points out that some dancers’ parents add to the problem by putting extra pressure on them at a young age.

Letting go of this is a matter of learning the difference between perfection and excellence. “If we try to be perfect, we always fail. But if we shift our mindset to striving for excellence, we can make progress toward our goal. No one can be perfect. But we can excel,” says Kaslow.

Social media can also intensify the pressure. “It used to be that you might scrutinize your appearance, but there was a certain distance between you and an audience. With social media, everything is amplified. It raises the stakes,” says Carol Teitelbaum, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and faculty chair of the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio from 1998 to 2011. Kaslow suggests setting limits on the time you spend on social media, and reminding yourself that what you see there is highly curated.

Tune In to Tune Out Negativity

In class or rehearsal, if you tend to be distracted by big-picture anxieties, try to narrow your attention to one specific goal or aspect of your technique. “I can remember after I first came to New York, taking class meant being pummeled by a self-critical voice. So I began creating a tiny agenda for myself: Today I’m going to think just of my plié. Tomorrow I might think about the position and the movement of my pelvis,” says Teitelbaum. Creating a more manageable goal for class will help you feel more accomplished, and crowd out negativity.

On the other hand, if you find yourself obsessing over technique, it may help to cultivate a more diffuse attention. Teitelbaum, who is also a Feldenkrais practitioner, recommends that dancers work on their sensory awareness to help tune in to their own bodies and tune out self-critical thoughts. This might sound obvious—who could be more deeply embodied than a dancer? But thinking about your body isn’t the same as feeling what’s really going on.

“Dancers often aren’t so happy to be still and just sense themselves,” says Teitelbaum. “They often end up bored and kind of itchy. I would suggest focusing on one area of interest and then really inviting all your sensations. Create a question for yourself: ‘What is my turnout, really? Where does it start from? How do the sensations in my foot affect my hip, that conversation between my hip joint and my foot?’ That takes me away from questions like, ‘Am I doing better or worse than yesterday? How am I doing in relation to other people?’ ”

Ask for Help

For Nicholls, hypnotherapy was the key to overcoming her anxiety. Simply booking the appointment made a difference. “I immediately felt better just because I had reached out for help,” she says.

A similar sentiment led Leal Zielinska, an artistic associate with the Gibney Company, to create Okay, Let’s Unpack This, an initiative to normalize discussions of mental health within the dance community and connect dancers with mental health resources.

“The more I started opening up and speaking about my own experiences, the more I realized just how common this is. It’s the stigma and shame around these conversations that lead us to believe it’s some kind of fault,” she says. Through therapy, says Zielinska, she learned to identify her own warning signs and build a strong support network.

She also works consciously to keep her tendency toward overworking in check. “I’ve been learning how to use ambition more sustainably. It needs to be harnessed. Take advantage of it, but don’t let it take advantage of you. For example, I try to think about this month, not just the next 24 hours. What is the most sustainable way I can work? Maybe I need to take Sunday off, or turn a project down. It’s a negotiation that takes time to develop,” says Zielinska.

Nicholls suggests cultivating another interest that is not dance. “If dance is your only thing, you have no choice but to become obsessed,” she says. Kaslow agrees: “Sometimes you need to push the pause button. If you allow too much negativity, there’s no space for positivity. Take a break and recharge.”