As some of you are aware, Shelby Williams (Biscuit Ballerina) and I are collaborating by exchanging articles for our respective blogs. Here is Shelby’s first article entitled “A Perfectionist’s Guide to Happiness”, giving good advice to all dancers from her own experiences.
In the beginning
When I was a ballet student I developed anxiety issues as a result of the intensity of our training and the way I, like many other students, compared myself to my peers. My school recognized this after I had an emotional breakdown in class one day and referred me to a psychologist. I have to admit, going into my first appointment I was doubtful of this psychologist’s ability to help me.
To my surprise, he gave me an analogy which really clicked for me and initiated the first of 4 lessons I learned about finding happiness in the pursuit of perfection. He compared ballet to golf and told me to fall in love with the process.
He pointed out that in golf, there is a definitive perfection which cannot be denied- a hole in one. But a hole in one RARELY occurs. So how is it possible that golfers are even able to enjoy the sport when it consists of CONSTANTLY falling short of the ultimate goal? It’s because it’s the process of improving and challenging themselves which they find joy in- not the once-in-a-lifetime achievements. After all, the high we get from achievements such as awards and promotions is fleeting. For consistent happiness, we have to turn to the process and remember what it is about the process that we love. Instead of using perfection or an ideal as a definitive goal which we pressure ourselves to reach, we should use it as a source of inspiration and see where it takes us.
Using psychological tools
Keeping these things in mind made a huge difference for me and allowed me to cope with disappointments and setbacks much better, yet like most have probably experienced, it’s not always possible to mentally coach yourself out of a negative headspace. Naturally when a person is passionate about something, the emotional response to falling short of expectations can be strong and overwhelming. In these situations, I learned my next lesson:
Using humour to overcome difficulties
Don’t take yourself too seriously. We are human. Mistakes will happen. When things don’t work out as planned, why not find the humour in it?
This is when my alter ego Biscuit Ballerina was born. At the ballet, when I wouldn’t live up to my own expectations, I would take whatever I’d done poorly and do it again, but completely over exaggerated. I would make myself a caricature of my own flaws, which would give me some space from how seriously I’d been taking it all. Consider it a mini-mental vacation from the overly invested mindset of a ballerina. This allowed me to giggle a little bit, and then get back to the serious work with some of the weight of my own self-criticism lifted off of my shoulders.
Now self-deprecating humour may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we all need something to help us take our work bit lighter in heavy moments. This might be cracking jokes to ease tense moments, or any number of other options to get some space from our strive for perfection when it becomes suffocating. This could be through meditation, tuning out to music, physical exercise, or just spending time with people (or pets!) you love!
By poking fun at myself and giving me some emotional and intellectual distance from my work, I came to find I suddenly saw other paths I didn’t see before. When I’d finally stopped banging my head against the wall and took a step back to breathe, I suddenly became aware of all of the doors which were to either side of me…..which taught me my next lesson:
Find the opportunities that arise from imperfection.
George Balanchine was known to have preferred working with dancers who weren’t perfect and weren’t capable of doing it all. This forced him to work around limitations and come up with creative solutions he otherwise would never have considered. I’m sure most know the dancer-falling-in-rehearsal story from Serenade. The problem is, there tends to be a stigma around not sticking to an original plan of action. Then when we hit a roadblock on our path to perfection, we often refuse to divert the path elsewhere. We then assume that any other path wouldn’t lead us to that perfection which we seek.
So, let’s get rid of the stigma, and instead embrace open-mindedness and flexibility in our strive for perfection.
If we reach physical limitation in our work, we can let imperfect situations evoke creativity and originality, and hopefully arrive somewhere that is even better than we originally planned. This brings me to my last lesson I’ve learned about happiness in the pursuit of perfection:
Being authentic and ignoring social media
Many of our ideas of perfection come from outside influences. What’s popular. What we see on social media. But ballet is an art, so it’s all a matter of taste. We can’t get fixated on somebody else’s idea of perfection. If it isn’t our own, it will always feel foreign. It will be that much more of a challenge to stay motivated when things get tough. We need to allow ourselves to find what’s perfect for each of us through trial and error. Don’t be self-critical when it doesn’t match the expectations of others. Remember, people are not drawn to machines. They want to see others who are comfortable in their own skin and enjoying it.
These lessons I’ve learned have helped me to be happier and more successful in both my career and life as a whole regardless of how much of a perfectionist I am. I hope they help you all just as much and enable each one to be the happiest and healthiest dancer they can be.
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