Serena tells the camera the problem with perfectionist tennis players. They miss a few shots and then “start to get mental.” They make her job a whole lot easier because they beat themselves.
In my book Flying Free: Life Lessons Learned on the Flying Trapeze, I chronicle my self-defeating experiences with perfectionism. Hearing Serena Williams, who happens to be my all-time favorite athlete, sniff at the idea that she is perfectionist was profound for me. If the greatest woman tennis player of all time thinks perfectionism is ridiculous, who am I to argue.
Here’s my take on the topic, Chapter 15 of my book:
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
“Have no fear of perfection—you’ll never reach it.” ~ Salvador Dalí
I’m sitting on a wooden bench in the gym, a safety belt snugly pulled around my waist, watching my classmates fly. I’m the only one in the class still wearing a safety belt for the entire class. Everyone else swings without safety lines and performs at least one trick without them. Some perform advanced tricks without lines. Watching my classmates fly, I feel overwhelmed with admiration and, much to my dismay, envy. It’s not the fact that they can fly without lines, nor their beautiful tricks, that incites my jealousy. It’s their demeanors, the look on their faces—every one of them seems completely relaxed—I find most impressive. They look as if they don’t even realize they are twenty feet—or thirty feet, or more—in the air. From my perspective, they are the exact opposite of me—they are confident, bold, fearless.
After thirteen years of psychotherapy, I discovered many things about myself. I even managed to make some significant emotional and behavioral changes. What didn’t change, however, were my fears. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of love, fear of people, fear of being abandoned, fear of being consumed, fear of consuming too much and more, including fear of heights. A universe of self-help and New Age slogans swirl through my mind when I ponder fear. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear is an acronym: false evidence appearing real. All troublesome character traits are a manifestation of fear. Greed and gluttony: fear there won’t be enough for me. Envy: fear that other peoples’ successes somehow preclude me from attaining my own. Dishonesty: fear that I’m not good enough. Anger and resentment: fear that someone has taken, or will take, what’s mine. On the flip side, love is letting go of fear.
Thirteen years of psychotherapy and over twenty-two years of recovery from compulsive, self-destructive behaviors gave me wads of self-knowledge. I know why I’m fearful. Unfortunately, I haven’t found knowing why to be particularly helpful in overcoming, or befriending, fear.
Trapeze gave me a question I find more valuable when facing fear. Now when fear struts into my psyche, I ask myself: what’s the worst that could happen?
The one trapeze trick I wanted to nail more than any other is the splits. Generally performed by women only, the splits position shows off my best asset on the trapeze: flexibility.
To perform the splits, the flyer leaves the platform, performs a swing by sweeping her legs behind her and driving her legs and hips forward, building height. She straightens out her body, pikes her legs slightly, sweeps both legs behind her and floats her legs up. One leg goes straight up against the bar and the other leg bends and straightens out under the bar, so that the flyer is upside down in a split with her back arched, facing the catcher. This book’s cover features me in a splits position.
At the release to the catcher, the flyer simply extends her arms forward. As a beginner trick, a splits position on the bar doesn’t involve spinning or twisting or anything truly skillful. Yet, it was the trick that scared me the most. Every time I was ready to perform the splits—and I performed the splits several times every class, two or three classes a week, for four years—my fear ratcheted up.
It made no sense. The splits is my best trick. The splits is the trick I practice all the time. I even had a practice trapeze bar installed in my apartment, just so I could practice the splits position at home. How could I fear doing something I do all the time?
After standing on the platform for the thousandth time, compulsively chalking my hands as if the action of chalking up would alleviate my fear, worrying I wouldn’t perform my splits correctly, I looked down at the net and over at the other students on the ground, all of whom were performing far more difficult, dangerous tricks than I was. My mind was beginning its usual “why, why, why I am so scared,” when I finally stopped and asked myself, what’s the worst that could happen?
I took a few deep breaths and tried to imagine a disastrous result with the splits. I couldn’t. For a simple trick like the splits, the worst that could happen would be that I fail to get into the position correctly. Since I’m strong enough to hold onto the bar even when I screw up, falling to the net wasn’t a legitimate concern. The worst thing that could happen was that I wouldn’t achieve my desired result with the trick.
When I considered this, I realized I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt. I wasn’t afraid of falling. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid to do a trick I do well, simply because I was afraid I wouldn’t do it well.
The worst that could happen is that I would be embarrassed. The worst that could happen is that I would not be perfect.
For much of my life, perfectionism has held me back. I’d always viewed my perfectionism as laudable. I want everything to be perfect; what could possibly be wrong with that? Plenty, it turns out.
Months after I’d been performing those splits without safety lines, a more advanced flyer, Teresa, was watching my class. I told her my goal for that night was to catch the splits without safety lines. Modest goal, but of course, I was scared. Teresa told me she was going to stay for my whole class and support me in this goal. She told me that all I had to do was swing into splits position on the bar. She said I didn’t have to do the perfect splits position and I didn’t have to release the trick. All I had to do, she said, was try to get into position because I would feel better for having tried. I was dubious. All my protestations came up. “What if can’t get into position? What if I can’t hold the position? What if I bend my front leg? What if I look bad?” “Doesn’t matter,” she said, “just try.”
Since she waited an hour and a half just to watch me try, I felt obligated to do what she said. I got into splits position, held the position and released for a successful catch. It was not my most beautiful splits. It was not a beautiful catch. But I did it. And I tell you what: Teresa was right. I felt great.
Perfectionism potentially dampens every facet of life. Perfectionism is not a character attribute, a fine quality that makes me a better person. Perfectionism is a curse that ruins projects, relationships, travels, creativity. Perfectionism searches for what’s wrong, not what’s right, in every situation. Perfectionism demands complete submission. Perfectionism hates fun: strolling on sandy beaches, stomping in warm springtime puddles, anything that isn’t one hundred percent tidy. Perfectionism feeds and breeds fear.
Shortly after my watershed moment with Teresa, I was in class and had performed a splits, catch and return, meaning I swung into the splits position, had been caught by the catcher, swung with him, returned to my own bar and then stepped back up on the pedestal. Since returning to the pedestal is the goal of every trick, I was pleased with myself. Back on ground, one of my instructors was watching a DVR replay of the trick in slow motion, pointing out all the things I could have done better. He had a lot of material to work with. As I listened to him, I felt my euphoric mood begin to crash. Of course, I want to perform to the best of my ability, but that is precisely what I’d done. I watched the video while he complained about how my trick looked. I asked him for the remote and turned off the DVR. I turned to him. “You’re crazy,” I said. “I’m beautiful.”
I was not about to let his perfectionism ruin my trapeze high.
Perfectionism is a bigger gremlin in the attainment of joy than fear, because perfectionism masquerades as something noble. Perfectionism must not be befriended. It must be obliterated. In reality, perfectionism looks, feels, tastes, smells and sounds a lot like fear. It even produces one of the same responses that fear does: freeze (deer in the headlights), fight (rattlesnake in the grass about to be trod upon) and flight (flying trapeze artist feeling the fear and doing it anyway).
Putting this book out there is my greatest exercise in relinquishing perfectionism. There are so many other elements I wanted to include, but I’d never finish. I knew I could find endless reasons to continue writing and never publish this book. I knew it would never be perfect. I also know that perfect is an illusion.
Fear is not the enemy. The enemy is perfectionism. Not going for what we want in life is the worst thing that could happen.