In this column I’d like to talk about an issue I feel passionate about, one that presents itself every day in my work right now with clients. It’s a topic I’ve addressed before, but right now we seem, at least in my skewed sample, to be in the middle of a raging pandemic. No, I’m not talking COVID 19, but rather, Perfectionism 101.
Nearly every client I work with, regardless of their discipline—hunter/jumper, dressage, or eventing— seems to be suffering from it. These riders expect themselves—and their horses—to be perfect, and when they’re not, the riders are gravely disappointed in themselves and sometimes in their horses too. I see plummeting self esteem, brutal self criticism, and completely unrealistic expectations from people who are hardworking, educated riders, many of whom have deep experience and knowledge in their sport.
Since when did we come to expect, and even demand, perfection? I realize that some of this intensity emanates from my riders and trainers who are at WEF and other similarly esteemed places where a tail swish or a head shake can be the demise of the round or test. If you compete under such conditions, you have to know the stakes and what you’re in for. Even so, we need to keep tabs on what we are expecting of ourselves and our horses.
I do think it’s hard for any rider who competes for long stretches of time without some downtime at home to regroup, focus on training, and ground oneself in perspective. At shows we all tend to rely too much on results for our self esteem, and we lose track of other values.
No such thing!
But it’s not just the shows that fuel the Perfection Pandemic. There seems to be a generalized belief that perfection is actually a thing. I feel puzzled by this. It’s like our weird obsession with “perfect beauty” (again, whatever that is) and how that disrupts our appreciation for our individual, unique appearances. Or the idea that we can have perfect grades, perfect test scores, a perfect body, etc. Our perfectionism is showing up lots of places in our lives; it’s not helping our self esteem or our performance in many areas. But I digress.
The other huge problem with perfectionism in horse sports is that it completely gets in our way of riding the (imperfect but beautiful) horse that we are on. Our obsession with our own perfection disrupts our communication with the animals. The more our focus is on self judgment rather than hearing what our horse is trying to say to us, the less we are present in our ride. As I remind many of my clients, horses don’t ask us to be perfect. They don’t need us to be perfect. They just want to know we’re there.
Growth is Good
In addition, I find that when we’re caught up in trying to be perfect, we devalue growth—ours and our horse’s. One of my professional rider clients said to me this week, “the young horses make you feel like an idiot.” My response was, “why don’t the young horses make you feel like a rockstar? After all, you can get that 4 year old in the ring and over the fences with reasonable smoothness and not get spun off! Not many of us—including myself—can do that.” I encouraged her to value her expertise and experience that allows her to train a baby so that someday an amateur like me can pilot him.
This pandemic of perfectionism has also created a huge fear of making a mistake. If mistakes aren’t allowed, how are we ever going to learn anything new? Are we supposed to know how to do it “perfectly” the first time out? That is an expectation I hear all the time. Remember, in the process of learning to walk, a child will fall a hundred times before she can take that first step. Are those falls imperfection? Of course not! Falling is part of the process of learning. So true with sport.
We also have forgotten that we all are on a trajectory and we have to begin somewhere. We all are beginners at something, and there is no jumping the line when we start something. I have another client who is starting a new business, and she feels timid and embarrassed about saying she’s just starting out. There is no shame in starting. In fact, we have to start in order to get anywhere. “We all begin somewhere, in whatever we’re doing,” I reminded her.
Let’s work on innoculating ourselves against this Perfection Pandemic, and help others do the same. We can start by valuing learning, praising effort, and giving all we’ve got to whatever it is we’re doing. That is all we can ask of ourselves.Let’s throw judgment and unreasonable self criticism into the can, keeping our focus on the process, not the outcome. Let’s be deliberate about what we expect and devote ourselves to shake this perfectionism habit.
And, if it helps, I can assure you that in my work, when can pry someone off of her perfectionism, even a little bit, she rides better and enjoys it too. I challenge you to give it a try.
Author Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians of all disciplines, and other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the saddle. For more information or to contact Dr. Bonomi, click here.