Is Perfectionism Taking the JOY out of Your Activities?

Is Perfectionism Taking the JOY out of Your Activities?

  • By Susannah Steers
  • March 11, 2014

Are you a perfectionist? I am. Not in everything, and many who know me might be surprised by that assertion; but in “training” physical activities, I most certainly am.  When I’m “training” for something; gaining new skills, working toward a movement goal, I can get obsessed with “doing it right,” on my way to “doing it well.”  Sometimes though, my perfectionism gets in the way of simply enjoying the activity. It seems to be a lesson I keep having to learn… again and again, and again.

In my defense, I come by it honestly! Most of the physical activities that I’ve been seriously involved in over the years are activities that require “good form.” For the last 20 odd years, I’ve taught Pilates and functional movement, which by their very nature are all about creating strategies to produce the most efficient movement possible. I’ve spent many years studying and practicing just how to do that, and how to promote that in my clients.  In my teens, I was part of a synchronized swim team. In competition, just like in skating, synchro swimmers presented their “forms,” which are individual movement skills they perform for evaluation by the judges. I spent a lot of time practicing those forms. At one point, I had a pretty darned good vertical, and a great walkover, and my dolphin was unbeatable.

For most of my life, I was  involved in dance. I spent countless hours perfecting technique, working on ways to create the nuances of movement choregraphers were seeking. I dissected my body in a thousand ways in an attempt to create not only the perfect instrument, but a perfect aesthetic.  I was blessed/cursed with an “athletic body” that I struggled to accept for years. Because in dance… the term “athletic body” is often said with lips turned down in distaste, and a pitying look in the eyes. As a dancer with muscular legs and broad shoulders, my physique was always a bit of  “problem.”

As young dancer, even at 118 lbs, my size was always a chronic issue. I was no sylph! To compensate, I worked hard to be really good. I set my sights HIGH!  I had a laundry list of qualities that I figured I needed to possess to succeed.   I watched Peggy Baker teaching class and in performance, and I decided that to be “good enough” I needed the amazing expansiveness she was able to create in her upper body and arms. It didn’t matter that she is several inches taller than I am with arms and legs that go forever… I felt I had to have the extension in her legs too.  But my list didn’t end there… I wanted to be able to spin on a horizontal axis and tumble like Louise LeCavalier.  I wanted feet like Gelsey Kirkland.I wanted to jump like Baryshikov.  I wanted Mark Morris’ musicality and humour. I wanted choreographic creativity like Pina Bausch.  It didn’t matter that these qualities didn’t exist, as a group,  in even one of the dancers I admired.  I needed to find a way to create them in myself. Yeah… right.

I loved to dance, I was passionate about it, I LIVED for it. But it took a lot to stay positive when I was always falling short of my own expectations. Luckily, one of my mentors during those years called me on it, and helped me re-frame my ridiculous perspective. 

It’s easy to fall back into old habits. But I have recently had an epiphany. After years of an “on and off” approach to running, I have committed to running my first road race. ( I am NOT a pretty runner. I’m slow and plodding. I plonk around the trails, watching more experienced runners blow by me with elegance and grace.) But for some reason, there’s a difference this time. For the first time in years – I have absolutely no attachment to the outcome! I am running because it’s fascinating to run right now. I am enjoying myself and having a blast on the journey. I’m not trying to be like anyone else. I’m not trying to be the best. I’m not trying to “win.” Sure, I get frustrated when my running group jams out on the time or distance we’re supposed to be covering that day, but I can be easy with myself in training; and forgive myself if it doesn’t go as planned. And for the first time EVER… I find I am actually, really, truly enjoying running. It’s not a chore. It’s not something I’m doing because I feel I “should” be doing more cardio. I am happily going out and running because I’m LOVING it!   Yes, I have set goals for what I want to achieve, but those goals are not the be all and end all. Letting go of that desire to be perfect, to be the best at something, has freed me to simply enjoy the activity without reserve. There are no conditions. No unrealistic expectations. And I’m having a gas! 

Is there some way that perfectionism is holding you back from really enjoying your physical activities? Have the “shoulds” overtaken the “woohoo!” in your movement? Are you trying to create or maintain an ideal physique, no matter what the cost? Do you keep putting off learning a new skill or participating in physical activity because you’re not sure you’ll be “good enough?” Are you so consumed by perfecting your technique that you’ve lost any sense of play or joy? If you’re not totally loving your physical activities, you’re less likely to stick with them.  Imagine what it would feel like to lighten up and simply play for the sheer joy of doing it? Instead of another thing on your to-do list, you would have access to something that brings vitality and energy into your life! 

Why don’t you join me? Try something new, something you think might be fun, something you’ve always wanted to do. Allow yourself to SUCK at whatever it is. And have a gas! If nothing else, you’ll be having fun, and getting active too! And what could possibly be wrong with that? I’d love to hear your story. Are you a perfectionist too? If you’re inspired, leave a comment below and let me know how you move beyond your perfectionism to have FUN!



Lilia Lee - March 14, 2014

Great article, quite informative. Thank you for posting.

Cena Block from - March 19, 2014

this is a great reminder… I use the analogy A LOT with coaching… ‘Pretend you don’t know the answer… what would your questions be?” or ‘let yourself be a beginner again… you didn’t ridicule yourself when you fell while learning to walk did you?” – allowing yourself to ‘suck’ is a great way to think about it.

    Susannah Steers - March 23, 2014

    Thanks Cena. Getting back into our “beginner’s mind” can bring us so much joy!

Catherine - March 27, 2014

This reminds me of my new journey to learn Tai Cho. I have been reticent to take a class because when I took a beginner’s yoga class it went too fast, there was little instruction and I ended up injured. I have been doing a Tai Chi tape at home but I know I need a class to take it to the next level

    Susannah Steers - March 31, 2014

    Catherine, it’s always a little scary to go back after you’ve been injured! My best advice is to allow yourself to progress slowly, listen to your instructors, but listen to your body even more. Don’t be afraid to work your body more slowly than the pace of the class seems to indicate. If the instructor questions you – you can just let them know you’re looking after yourself by going more slowly or maybe not as deeply, until things feel more familiar to you. A good instructor will respect your choice and adjust their guidance for you accordingly. Most of all – enjoy the process! Best of luck as you take things to the next level!

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