Is your perfectionism making your ride badly?

This week I want to share a few thoughts on something that most dressage riders are familiar with and that many of us embrace: perfectionism. It’s something that is taught to students from the very beginning, and it’s something that is demonstrated by teachers and role models. Many dressage riders even pride themselves on their perfectionism.

But perfectionism is a double edged sword. It can lead some to excellence, while it causes a great deal of pain and frustration to others.

Perfectionism can manifest itself as careful attention to detail, constant striving for self-improvement, honing one’s craft, constantly trying to do the small, basic things right, every time. In this manifestation it has a certain zen quality of living in the moment, being mindful of what is happening, what we are doing, what our horse is doing, observing the relationship between our actions and the horse’s reactions, in order to learn, to deepen our understanding and our skills.

On the other hand, perfectionism can also manifest itself as setting expectations and standards so high for ourselves and for our horse that they are impossible to fulfill: “I want PERFECTION! NOW!” And when our efforts and our horse’s efforts inevitably fall short of these impossible expectations, we feel defeated, discouraged, perhaps humiliated, frustrated, angry, sad, and hopeless.

The difference between the two descriptions is the attitude towards perfection, the mindset with which the rider approaches perfection. In the first example, the rider takes perfection as a long term goal that may or may not be attainable, but that gives our efforts a direction, and we try to approach this goal in tiny, incremental steps. We enjoy the journey, the process of discovery, and we are happy with every little progress. We feel good about the work and the small victories we win along the way. The journey is more important to us than the destination.

In the second example, the goal is definitely more important than the journey. We wish we could skip ahead and already “be there”. We compare every effort we make and every effort the horse makes to the perfect outcome and are disappointed when we fall short. We don’t see small, incremental improvements, or we don’t value them. Perhaps we don’t even bother to break challenging or complex tasks down into smaller learning steps because we think that we or the horse “should be able to do this by now”. We even see every new failure as evidence that we have no talent and are therefore hopeless because we have always been told that you need to be born with talent and with “feel”. Otherwise you will never be a good rider.

From a scientific point of view, these two very different attitudes toward learning, performance, effort, and talent have been defined as a so-called “growth mindset” (first description) on the one hand, and a so-called “fixed mindset” on the other (second description).

The leading researcher in this area is Stanford University professor of psychology, Carol Dweck (Book: “Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success”). She gives the following definition (lecture on perfectionism): “In a Fixed Mindset, people believe that their basic attributes are well fixed. The talents, abilities and personal qualities they have now, that’s all they are ever going to have. So, they keep asking ‘is what I have enough? Is it enough to make me admirable? Is it enough to make me worthy?’
“Other people have a Growth Mindset. They believe that their basic talents, abilities, personal attributes can be developed through effort, learning, mentoring from others. What they have now is just a starting point. Now, they don’t necessarily believe that everyone’s the same or that anyone can be Einstein. But they believe that everyone can grow and develop.”

Growing up, my parents had a growth mindset, and so did my university professors. When I was a young student at the university, one of my professors said in a conversation with students: “There is nothing you cannot learn.” And I immediately thought to myself: “- except riding. Riding takes talent,” because that’s the belief that had been instilled in me by the riding culture in Germany. In the riding world, the fixed mindset seems to be the dominant one, which is one of the reasons that so many people get stuck at a rather low level. They are always told that they have no talent and that they will never get anywhere, so they take every obstacle as proof that they have no talent and can’t learn to become a good rider. Many resign themselves to being hopeless and give up trying and aspiring when they encounter difficulties.

Riders with a growth mindset, on the other hand, get to work trying to figure out a solution, when they encounter a setback or an obstacle because they never doubt that they will be able to do so. They firmly believe in themselves, in their ability, and they believe, as business coach Marie Forleo says, that “everything is figure-out-able.” They see problems and mistakes as challenges that need to be overcome, and it’s just a matter of time and perseverance until they do.

Fixed mindset perfectionism is fear based, outcome based, and can lead to procrastination, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, unhappiness, feelings of unworthiness, and destroy relationships. People with a fixed mindset tend to compete constantly with others and try to look better than everyone else, seek blame elsewhere, feel threatened by the success of others. They feel unworthy and incompetent when they run into difficulties. The research also shows that they tend to run away from their errors and try to hide their mistakes, instead of studying them and learning from them. The fear of making mistakes, the fear of looking bad in the eyes of others, the fear of feeling worthless prevents learning and growth.

Growth mindset perfectionism, by contrast, is process oriented, it’s about the journey, not the destination. It experiences learning and the pursuit of excellence as joyful, something that brings happiness. People with a growth mindset tend to feel inspired by the success of others. They see mistakes as learning opportunities. Brain research shows that when they detect a mistake, they process it, correct it, and learn from it.

Many of us have probably experienced a little bit of both mindsets. In some areas of our life we tend to adopt a growth mindset, while in others we adopt a fixed mindset, depending to some extent on our upbringing and the dominant culture around us. In my case, I had a growth mindset in academic matters, but it was sometimes a struggle to bring this mindset fully into my riding education because the dominant culture around me represented more of a fixed mindset.

So, when you detect indications in yourself that you are approaching a situation with a fixed mindset because you experience feelings of unworthiness, humiliation, hopelessness, fear of making mistakes and looking bad in the eyes of others, try to remind yourself that perfection is an unattainable goal and that perfection is not really important.

It is more important that you learn something from every experience. Mistakes, setbacks, and obstacles are learning and growing opportunities. Analyse them and try to understand what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. From there you can figure out your next step towards improvement or how to avoid making the same mistake next time.

Have the courage to make mistakes. Have the courage to take “imperfect action”, as Darren Rowse from calls it, because imperfect action is the only action that exists. Then investigate in what way you can improve upon your imperfect action the next time. This way, you will build your knowledge base, deepen your understanding, and expand your skillset, and experience. - And you have more fun in the process.