Practice Makes Perfect – the myth of perfectionism

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Practice makes perfect – the myth of perfectionism

My parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was in the first grade. Both my mother and my older sister played piano, and this was my chance to join them. I remember being excited to learn how to play; I imagined it would come naturally and I’d be playing sonatas after my first lesson. Things worked out a little differently… I hated it. I didn’t enjoy lessons. I wasn’t very good. I hated practicing. Sitting on the piano bench and playing my scales felt tedious and boring. I stuck it out for a year before I convinced my parents to let me drop it. In the mean time my teacher encouraged me to keep practicing, because ‘practice makes perfect.’ While I have no doubt practicing the piano would have made me better at playing, I was no interested. However the words of my teacher, “practice makes perfect” haunted me the rest of my life. I doubt it was the first time I heard that phrase and definitely not the last, but in that moment I felt like I could be perfect at anything if only I worked hard enough. I really didn’t care that I wasn’t going to be a concert pianist, I had other things to explore…and eventually attempt to perfect.

“Practice makes perfect”

As I look back at the origins of my perfectionist struggles I have come back to this phrase again and again. I think it’s an important piece to look at, because this is one of the biggest myths of perfectionism. The idiom “practice makes perfect” was adapted from the phrase “practice makes mastery”[1] around 1550. This version was translated from the original Latin phrase “uses promtos facit.”[2]

Why is ‘practice makes perfect’ a myth? Doesn’t practice make us better at something? Well, yes, it can. However, this phrase tells us that by practicing we will reach perfection. Perfection is like that mythical land where we can do no wrong. So when there is something that we are working on and we have not yet reached perfection, it stands to reason that we have not practiced enough. However, given that perfection doesn’t exist (we are human after all, naturally and beautifully flawed) it becomes a never-ending struggle for an unattainable fantasy.

This one thought can fuel an addictive cycle that keeps us trapped in believing if only I try harder, practice more, I will then be enough, I will then be perfect. In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes “Perfectionism is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. So rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.”

As I discussed in a recent post [HERE] the perfectionist cycle traps us like a hamster on a wheel, feverishly spinning yet getting nowhere. A little recap of that cycle: I fail at being perfect —> therefore I am not enough (shame) —> to combat this feeling of “not enough” I try to be more perfect —> however perfection is unattainable, so I fail at being perfect… on and on.

In my work I often talk about “practices” (ie. A gratitude practice, a yoga practice or a shame resiliency practice.) The key is that we practice these behavior changes, rather than focusing on an end goal of perfection. Practice to practice. This is where the rubber meets the road. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

I see practice as twofold; it is both a learning method and a way of life. Practice often makes us better at something as we move along our journey. It is a way that we can learn something and become better at it. Practice ingrains what we do into our brain. As we practice something we build roadmaps in our brain for how we do it. As we gain mastery over a skill our brains actually use less energy to do the same activity.[3] Thus, our practices often become a way of life. I find great wisdom from the 6th century BC Greek philosopher Periander who said, “Practice is everything. This is often misquoted as: practice makes perfect.”

“Practice is everything. This is often misquoted as: practice makes perfect.”





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