Have you ever heard the saying “mind over matter”? As mental health is beginning to receive increasing awareness, the power of the mind is now being recognised as a primary factor within athletic performance, with sports psychology being factored in as a crucial part of training for successful athletes.

Whilst many of us may not be Olympians, we still work hard, push and strive to improve our performance in sports and the gym, but for some of us what started out as bettering ourselves turns to underlying pressures to prove ourselves and achieve physical goals. Over a long period of time this behaviour can unknowingly wear us down both physically and mentally and without psychological self-support can become detrimental factors to our physical performance as well as affecting overall mental health & well being.

But why is it that we create non existing pressures to impress and exceed expectations and what is it about the mind that allows us to stay determined and push through the mental and physical limits to achieve success?

Are You a Perfectionist? Perfectionism and Perfectionist Traits.

Throughout my childhood I’ve always been seen somewhat as an overachiever and someone who seems to achieve it all. From straight A’s at school, to coming top of my masters and job promotions to running race times – I work hard and get results. What people don’t see is the negative perfectionism that dominates my mind, allowing me to achieve many goals, whilst also causing continuous pressure and anxiety to keep achieving and out performing.

Perfectionism is a character trait that many people adopt from childhood upbringing – in simple terms; perfectionism is seen as the uncompromising quest for excellence and striving for unrealistic, non-achievable and un-maintainable goals.[1]

In psychology there are two types of perfectionism – positive and negative perfectionism. Positive perfectionism is thought of as normal or healthy thinking that carries positive benefits for the individual to drive success, also known as “personal standards perfectionism”, including being on time, organised and driven by the desire to achieve goals.[2]

Negative perfectionism is what I would call the dark side of success, driven by a fear of failure and the avoidance to perform due to imagining and predicting negative outcomes, mistakes, doubts about actions, and mind reading what others might think… sound familiar?.[3]

The Dark Side of Success

Perfectionism is what I see as the dark side of success and makes the ability for a perfectionist to be happy with success very rare – even top athletes and accomplished performers have been found to suffer from high levels of perfectionism with low levels of satisfaction despite being highly accomplished individuals with athletic reputations.[4]

Do you ever set yourself what could be thought of an un-achievable goal – reached that goal and yet still feel constantly dissatisfied, setting yourself new higher targets that you forced to achieve?

Whilst suffering from perfectionism can have its many advantages – from exceeding all expectations, winning competitions & races, to being determined and able to push yourself further, negative perfectionism and the fear of failure also represents a hidden lack of self-esteem, low confidence, depression and greater life stress. The dissatisfaction of success combined with a fear of failure creates a never ending cycle in a person’s mind resulting in compulsive and impulsive behaviour, neuroticism, dissatisfaction, anxiety, stress & depression.

Negative Perfectionists usually fall into the 4 below categories:

failure avoider – you act to avoid failing

failure acceptor – you don’t act with the acceptance you are a failure

success-oriented student

– or overstrivers – you have continuously increasing expectations to achieve.

Are You an Overstrider?

Overstriders tend to set goals, achieve goals and set new higher targets. Their focus and continuous drive to succeed is fuelled by a relief of having not failed and the positive sources of pride, validation and appreciation that come with reaching a set goal.

The relief that comes from avoiding failure and the positive feelings from being recognised as successful are painfully addictive to an overstriding perfectionist; whereby the momentary relief of an achievement is shortly replaced with a higher level of expectation to meet and prove themselves further.

Perfectionists also have a cognitive restraint whereby the unrealistic goal they tend to set themselves become inflexible and cannot be reduced or reconsidered – any less than perfect is simply not good enough, regardless of external factors.[5] Although for me this type of behaviour began at school with never settling for less than an A, the behavioural it has continued throughout my life whereby even now at 24 there is a continuous anxiety to meet high expectations and requirements I set myself – whether that is in running or at work. For example, when I hit my 20’s and got into running I would start with a goal to run 6 miles every day in an hour, as I got faster and my fitness improved this turned from 6 to 7 to 9 and more. I then added multiple classes and weight session until I was spending the best of 4 + hours a day at the gym also working 9 – 6pm. The life of a 23 year old consisted of the gym and work and a maximum of 5 hours sleep a night – Crazy right?

Yet because I had the mentality “the more the better” and held a cognitive restraint to this belief I couldn’t seem to stop. Suffering from perfectionism causes us to experience approach-avoidance within working towards our goals – we have a strong direction towards reaching success but ultimately driven by a fear and the avoidance of failure. On days where I was so exhausted I would still force myself to endure hours at the gym – as skipping the gym would be a clear failure towards reaching my goal to be fitter. Forcing through the exhaustion, my pace or strength would drop, hunger increase and ultimately I would see myself as forever unfit and a failure – as I became more and more tired and drained the inability to get better and beat myself was damaging my self-confidence more and more over time.

For me being an overstriver and negative perfectionist has caused me to achieve many goals throughout my life – including my own personal goal, an 85 minute half marathon. In reality though, the striving and determination may be seen as a survival strategy that has been adopted to avoid failure – by constantly succeeding. I remember even now while running in half marathons the anxiety of making sure I was on track of a time less than 1hour 30 with thoughts of “everyone will think I’m unfit” “I won’t be good at running” “people will laugh”. However, the feeling of happiness, pride and confidence at the end when I achieved my desired time was always enough to make me forget everything and all the negativity I was inflicting on myself. A few hours later looking at the race times I saw I was 11th out of all women, including elites, it wasn’t long before the momentary boost in confidence was followed by dissatisfaction of not getting in the top ten and a voice “you should and could of have done better”. Does this sound familiar?

Overcoming Perfectionism & Achieving Goals

If you recognise yourself in the above then you need to make changes and actions if you want to eliminate anxiety and ultimately achieve realistic goals and happiness. I hit an all-time low where the mental and physical exhaustion began to make me resent the gym and be scared to run – even on my own without a Garmin I would tell myself “I cant”, because I predicted I wouldn’t be fast or good enough.

I then decided enough was enough and it was time to stop forcing myself and setting unrealistic goals. If you want to lift the pressure and anxiety that follows you its time to face some facts and ask yourself some key questions:

  • Is your goal actually achievable… by YOU?

Are your goals unrealistic? Have you compared yourself to someone else? Set realistic and achievable goals.

  • Stop comparing yourself to other people and get off Instagram!

I love Instagram and check it daily but in reality for a perfectionist, looking at pictures of others only causes our imagination to run wild. Dreaming of the life others appear to have and looking at what we don’t have. So what you might never be a tall thin model, and you might never get an Olympic medal but you are YOU. You are unique in so many ways and you have so many qualities that are recognised by everyone around you – don’t forget them and don’t forget pictures can be deceiving. Don’t be fooled, from knowing bloggers with many followers on Instagram I know that often the online personality does not match the real life person and the Instagram account is only a mechanism to cope with the real life insecurities and low self-esteem these girls suffer with.

  • You can’t always beat yourself

Some days you will naturally be tired or weak, yes it’s great to be determined and mentally tough but try and accept bad days and take them as they come.

  • Failure makes us stronger

It sucks to fail, but if we don’t destroy and punish ourselves, we can see reasons why we failed and work on ourselves positively to improve.

  • Ask yourself – will it matter in a week, a month or a years’ time?

If you think you have failed or see yourself being a negative perfectionist ask yourself, will this so called failure matter in a week? Or a month? Or a year? Whether it’s a daily gym session or a race – there will be so many more races to enter, gym sessions to complete that a one off won’t even cross your mind in the future – so why dwell on it today? LET IT GO.

  • Be Kinder to yourself – Positivity and positive reinforcement is key.

You can’t catch bees without honey right? If you sprayed these bees with repellent you’d never get what you want! So why do we insist on telling ourselves negative things. Be positive and give yourself some credit, I’m not saying make excuses but look for reasoning and for every negative thought you have – recognise the negativity and replace it with a positive thoughts. You might feel like there are two people in your mind after a while – a negative self-critic with no room for failure and a positive guru looking for reasoning and love. Eventually the positive voice will become louder and louder and the negative voice less frequent. Imagine the negative comments like a ping pong ball – just let them hit and deflect off you.

Give yourself credit when you reach your goals – I mean really take time to realise what you have achieved and how you are good enough regardless of reaching goals.

  • Realise you are good enough no matter what

There is nothing in life to prove. Your life is your own, don’t let parents or people around you dictate what you do and how you feel. You yourself are always good enough, stop acting to please other people and get that “well done”, when we work towards impressing others or pleasing people we ignore our own thoughts, own goals and own feelings. Listen to yourself and what you want.

  • List the good things about yourself

After years of telling yourself you are worthless and not good enough, it’s not surprising that it’s what you  now consistently believe. Not only that, but you’ll also look for any evidence to support this belief, whilst ignoring all of the positive things around you. For example, let’s say you hold the belief “people don’t like me” – you will look for evidence that this is true, from dirty looks to people not holding the door open for you. But in reality – what if that person who gave you a funny look is having a bad day? What if they were in their own world thinking about something that happened to them? What you will ignore is the positive comments you get, any compliments and you will forget about all the friends and family members who love you for being you.

Stop looking for negative evidence and write down every positive piece of evidence that acts against your belief.

  • Control your anxiety

Anxiety comes from years of pressure and a buildup of negative thoughts – it won’t go away overnight but you can work each day to control it. Try and find some time to relax and engage in mindfulness – this doesn’t mean humming and sitting cross legged by a tree!

Sit or lie down, close your eyes and just focus on your breathing – count 4 breaths in and out and start to focus on the rising and falling off your chest. Then from the top of the head start to try and relax each body part with every breath you exhale – your eyes, your lips, your shoulders, your arms, your fingertips, your thighs… all the way down to your toes.

Then just take some time to breathe. Did you notice any unwanted thoughts? There is a great app – headspace. The free trial will help you see if mindfulness can help you relax.

Another method I find good to relax is to journal and write my worries down. Writing can be hard – especially when you’re tired and all you want to do is be depressed or sleep. Put pen to paper and prompt yourself with questions like “what’s keeping me awake at night?” What is it you have found yourselves thinking about in bed that’s keeping you awake at night? Write it down. What caused the thought? How did the situation happen and how did it make you feel? What are your anxious thoughts as a result?

Now – look at it from a rational point of view. Have you over reacted? Are your being realistic? Are your thoughts actually true? How much have you mind read (predicted what people think)?

By writing your worries down and looking at them rationally you can see why you reacted the way you did to certain events and look for the truth – it often turns out things really aren’t that bad and it’s our own mind that blows things out of proportion.

  • Focus on the here and now

Stop predicting the future. You can’t predict what will happen, so instead of predicting a failure – focus on here and now and the very moment you are in. People who fixate on the past are those who feel depressed, and those who focus on the future seem to be more anxious people – personally I am both, longing for the past that I didn’t appreciate and panicking about the future. By constantly doing this you are robbing yourself of life and feeling and enjoying living now.

Embrace Your Perfectionism

I hope by sharing a bit of myself I have helped you towards either recognising the way you are or started your process to helping yourself. There are tons of people who feel the same struggles and suffer from perfectionism – but rest assured perfectionism is NOT an illness. It’s a personality trait and it makes us who we are. Perfectionism can make us successful, but at the same time it’s not letting your perfectionism spiral out of control and rule your mind and life.

[1] (Thompson, 1995) [2] (Flett & Hewitt, 2006) [3] (Slade and Owens 1998) [4] (Mor, Day, Flett, & Hewitt, 1995) [5] (Flett & Hewitt, 2006).