Too Perfect?

10/04/2018 - 14:52

By Richard Ferguson Ph.D.
Society subtly places may unwritten expectations on people. Being perfect in numerous aspects of life is often communicated in popular media, through social media and product advertising. You have to look a certain way, live a certain lifestyle, drive a certain car and even be involved in a certain exercise routine. Each and every day the bombardment of being just right and perfect infiltrates the mind, and therefore your belief system.

With constant images and messages about the importance of being perfect, many begin to genuinely internalize the idea of perfectionism. Sure, you want to do well, do a good job, feel confident and even run well. Striving for excellence can be very healthy, but there is a big difference in striving to do well and being a true perfectionist. Perfectionism is a rigid belief system where perfectionists must be absolutely perfect in what they do and they must appear to be perfect to others. Perfectionists have a compulsive view that they must reach their goals, even if the goals are unattainable. Their self-worth as a person is often formed by their accomplishments and social approval.

However, the real paradox is in the fact that perfectionists are rarely satisfied even when they reach a goal because of the high expectations they put on themselves. If they don’t perform well, they are extremely self-critical. Over time, perfectionists develop extreme fear of failure that often leads to extreme anxiety. This is in stark contrast to people who strive for excellence and want to get better. Striving for excellence comes with a healthy sense of optimism, satisfaction when goals are met, and a genuine sense of pleasure when a job is well done.

You might think perfectionists have just what it takes to be good runners, but running perfectionists are on a slippery slope between great running and self-destruction. Perfectionists are motivated, train hard, set high goals and show unbelievable dedication. All these traits are needed for running success, but there may be a point where they become a negative for running performance, especially if the goals are unrealistic. Perfectionists may train longer and harder, however what happens when their hard training no longer yields the desired results in races? Overtraining can occur, leading to chronic fatigue, both physical and mental, leading to poor performances. Perfectionists may respond, not by reducing their training, but by trying to train even more. For perfectionists, rest may not be an option because they aren’t working to reach their goals and that can lead to feelings of extreme guilt.

Running perfectionists are really hard on themselves personally when they have a below par race or even workout. At some point perfectionists may begin to tie their self-worth and self-concept to their running. As a result, poor performance may equate to being a failure and inadequate person, at least from their point of view. Since their self-concept may be so closely intertwined with their running, perfectionists may develop high levels of fear of failure. Sometimes perfectionists begin to not take any risks because they are afraid of poor results, and as such, they may sabotage their chances of reaching any of the high goals they may have set.

Even when perfectionists do run really well, they may not enjoy the moment. Nothing seems be good enough and there is lack of satisfaction. Perfectionists must do even better. The pressure of perfectionism can rob runners of the joy and exhilaration that comes with a really good race. Things just aren’t ever good enough.

Perfectionism is an insidious psychological trait that can often be rewarded in running performance, but perfectionism can also destroy runners. So how can runners see the signs and avoid getting caught in the self-destruction pattern of perfectionism? Perfectionism often develops in childhood and could be a result of parenting behavior But perfectionism can also develop in adulthood, even in experienced runners, so there are some points to keep in mind concerning running and perfectionism. Tying self-worth to running is concerning because there will be set-backs and disappointments in running. Sure, we all feel disappointed when we don’t run well and it’s very difficult emotionally when we put in countless hours of training and don’t meet our race goals. Poor races don’t make bad people! The perfectionistic tendency to tie self-worth to running is irrational and should be cognitively disputed when the thoughts are present.

A major point to keep in mind is to always enjoy running successes, no matter how big or small. Good training runs, good races and even completing a recovery run all deserve positive personal feedback. Give top effort and be pleased with giving one hundred percent. There is no place for guilt when a top effort is put forth. Great enjoyment can come from the actual process of preparing for a big race, not just running well in the race itself. Work on enjoying the process of running and training, not just the product, because “process leads to product”. Enjoy the running journey, not just the destination.

Perfectionists may consider “rest” to be a dirty word. However, without proper mental and physical rest and recovery, chronic fatigue and compromised performance can occur. Perfectionism can lead to having problems developing the discipline to rest, not the discipline to train. When mileage becomes more important than race performance, training perfectionism may be developing. Extreme guilt over a missed run can also be a warning sign. Work to develop a mindset that blends the dedication required for hard training with the discipline required to get proper rest and recovery. It’s just so important that hard training be combined with proper recovery to give the body time to adapt to the stress of the hard training.

If signs of perfectionism become evident, talk to someone about them, even if it’s just a close friend or training partner. Verbalizing feelings of perfectionism can allow others to help you think more rationally about your running and also allow you to gain insights from others concerning your running habits. On the other side of the coin, don’t be afraid to verbalize running successes. This doesn’t mean becoming a braggart, but share running successes with others! Genuinely enjoy all the great moments running brings to life.

Even though many believe perfectionism is a positive and needed for success in life, it can be very counter-productive and dangerous if allowed to spiral out of control. Self-criticism for not being perfect can be a negative for psychological health. In extreme cases perfectionism can lead to depression, disordered eating, anxiety disorders and even relationship problems. Being less perfectionistic may just result in better running performance and more enjoyment from running, both which are great!

Richard Ferguson is Chair of the Physical Education, Wellness, and Sport Science Department of Averett University and is an AASP Certified SportPsychology Consultant. He may be reached via email at

This article appeared in the October issue of Running Journal.

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