Is Perfectionism Holding Your Training Back?

If your standards are improperly high, you may never see the progress you’re looking for.

In today’s world, perfectionism is a popular term. It’s dropped by apologetic neat freaks as they adjust skewed picture frames, not-so-apologetic brides at meetings with their florists, and far too many job seekers at office interviews.

I have had a lifelong struggle with trying to be perfect. Now, I believe the concept to be at best harsh and at worst, dangerous. It isn’t something I strive for in my training. And it shouldn’t be something you target, either.

Learn to adapt and grow from failure.

Perfect Versus Pretty Good

I’m writing this article for all the perfectionists out there. You know who you are. You like your slate clean. You’re the lifter who begins an exciting new training programme but quits a third of the way in because you got stomach flu and missed a week.

You’re the person who starts their new clean nutrition regime every Monday, falls off the wagon on Thursday, and rides out the weekend on a wave of takeaways before starting over “afresh” the next Monday.

You’re the athlete who stopped going to CrossFit because you can’t do pull ups and you hate the idea of doing the workout less than Rx. You are the person obsessed with doing things “properly.”

I’ve got news for you. Your standards for properly are improperly high, and your perfectionism will trip you up every chance it gets. Perfect some of the time gets in the way of pretty good all of the time. Your need for perfection inhibits true lifestyle change.

So let me give you some advice.

Stop Starting Over

Everyone loves the idea of hitting the ground running with a health goal and sticking with it for the rest of their lives. It just doesn’t happen like that in real life. As a perfectionist, you have the highest of standards, but you need to stop starting over the second you face a barrier. Let go of the idea that everything must be perfect in order to progress.

“Acknowledge your successes and learn from your failures, instead of obsessing over them.”

If your baby kept you up all night and you need to catch up on your sleep – skip your AM session and smash it tomorrow. If you caved at the sales meeting and had a couple of biscuits with your tea – get over it, and eat your prepped chicken casserole at lunch. Accommodate failures as well as successes into your programmes and meal plans. Good plans are built for sustainability anyway.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

Let me use myself as an example with this one.

My weight has fluctuated by as much as 15kg over the course of my adult life. I weigh 69kg now, but that number has been as high as 84kg. I have tried most diets, including not eating at all (the most ill-advised), followed closely by a juice fast, and concluding with a miserable six weeks on the Dukan Diet. On every occasion, something slipped. Usually an entire Cadbury selection pack into my mouth. Every slip-up was a cue to go to town on all of the food I had previously stopped eating. Because if I was going to do something, I had to do it properly.

What learning points and experiences did I miss out on by repeatedly throwing the baby out with the bath water? I have a feeling I would have reached my current nutritional equilibrium much quicker otherwise, and that, as they say here in Norfolk, really butters my bread.

Be Kinder to Yourself

If you have a hiccup, congratulations. You are human. Learn to adapt and grow from failure.

My initial months of lifting and trying to eat right were marked by speaking to myself like a piece of shit, berating myself constantly about my commitment to my training, and frequently not feeling good enough. Only when I negotiated my expectations, shot for consistency, dieted more flexibly, and – most importantly – spoke to myself more positively, did I make the most significant progress of my life.

Your inner dialogue is critical to success in training. As a rule, if you wouldn’t talk to your friends the way you talk to yourself, change the conversation. Acknowledge your successes and learn from your failures, instead of obsessing over them.

The Expedition of a Lifetime

Moving away from perfectionism has been transformative for me. Over the last year, I’ve added 15kg to each of my Olympic lifts, moved down two weight classes (from 75+ kg to -69kg), and dropped 11 percent body fat.

How much is keeping your slate clean costing you?

But this journey has been far from perfect. I blew my assigned macros three days into my programme and had a feast to rival a Tudor court’s on my birthday. I missed training for six weeks with tendonitis in my shoulder. At first, I let these incongruities get to me. Over time, as the scale dropped and my lifts went up – basically, as the world didn’t end – it mattered less and less.

These examples may or may not resonate with you. Perhaps you are the smaller kid in class who just can’t eat enough for significant mass gain. Maybe you are trying to limit your alcohol intake. Or you could just be trying to train more sustainably, because hitting the gym nine times a week for three weeks is making less and less sense to you, and you’re finally starting to consider a less extreme approach.

Regardless of your goal, remember you have to enjoy what you’re doing day in and day out. Success is the expedition of a lifetime, literally, and you will never progress doing something you hate every day.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Don’t get me wrong. Attention to detail and high standards in your endeavours are not bad things. So-called perfectionism has driven the human race to our greatest victories. Thomas Edison wasn’t satisfied with the light bulb filament he invented that only lasted a few hours, so he worked relentlessly until he discovered one that lasted for nearly 1,200. Flaubert scoured his language over his lifetime for les mots justes (the precise words), and the byproduct of this was one of the greatest novels ever written: Madame Bovary.

The perfectionism I am criticising is marked by an aggressive, all-or-nothing attitude in which anything judged to be less than flawless is considered to be worthless. Situations when a non-linear progression is not a progression, and a step back is cause to give up entirely.

So settle in. Work hard, and fall in love with your endeavour. You will find that even the most aggressive perfectionist in you will overlook the most skewed of picture frames, and putting your best foot forward will be easier than ever.

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Photo 1 courtesy of Rx’d Photography.

Photo 2 courtesy of Shutterstock.

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