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  • Writer's pictureAlisa Rao

Perfectionism, MPA, and Flow

What is “perfectionism”? As described by a Psych resource presented by Brown University, perfectionism is “ a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors aimed at reaching excessively high unrealistic goals”. Especially in our hyper-progressive society, many hold the false belief that perfectionistic tendencies are desirable-or even sometimes necessary in order to succeed. It’s important to understand that while the clear-cut route to success would seem to strive for perfection, there are countless studies that show that perfectionistic mindsets are incredibly counter-intuitive, actually hindering the road to success. This is not to say that aiming high is a regressive trait; There is a difference between perfectionism and high-achieving. While perfectionism in itself is not a personality disorder, it often presents itself as one. Perfectionism is the compulsive need to be perfect rather than the desire to excel; The line between them is thin but crucial. Those with perfectionistic mindsets often adopt certain habits and thought patterns such as: “All or nothing” thinking and intense fear of failure and rejection. Needless to say, high levels of perfectionism manifest themselves in individuals through low self-esteem and high functioning anxiety. Not only do these affect the sufficiency of work, but will manifest themselves in interpersonal relationships.

There is a term in psychology that is referred to as, “The Big Five Personality Traits”: Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Openness to new experiences, and Neuroticism. A meta-analysis study over 25 years founded that individuals with self-oriented perfectionism were characterized by high neuroticism (manifestation of negative emotions such as anger, depression, anxiety, low agreeableness (the quality of agreeing with others), and low conscientiousness (basic empathy and compassion for surrounding circumstances). After all, this quote eloquently summarizes it: “Compassion for others starts with compassion for oneself”. Humans are inherently proactive in all things progressive. This is why it’s difficult to manage perfectionistic tendencies and even distinguish them from growth-mindsets.

Needless to say, perfectionism can spiral out of control. It often presents itself in individuals suffering from personality and psychological disorders-namely OCD (Obsessive Compulsory Disorder), depression, and the umbrella of eating disorders (bulimia, anorexia nervosa, ARFID). Presence is found additionally in individuals in demanding environments, such: high class athletes, top students, and musicians (among others).

Perfectionism often manifests in these high achieving individuals through what is called, “Performance Anxiety”, a perpetual phenomenon that composers as early as Chopin have denoted in their time. Coping with performance anxiety is a highly individual experience. In the case of instrumentalists, not only is it important to have mental reinforcement but physical stillness and ease as well (both things that performance anxiety can hinder). This is what is referred to as, “MPA”, or Music Performance Anxiety. It’s important that we acknowledge it, because it’s a problem that almost all musicians will face sometime in the pursuit of their career. Moreover, acknowledging it is the first step to treating it. While jitters and general nervousness can be healthy before performances, it shouldn’t feel all-encompassing and debilitating; It is then that action should be taken against it. Here are the most sufficient coping strategies deduced from a survey distributed amongst a group of professional musicians:

  1. Deep Breathing

  2. Positive Self-talk

  3. Performance practice

  4. Familiarizing self with performance venue

  5. Discussion

  6. Mock-performances

  7. Medication (prescription)

A practice initiated by many musicians (in retaliation of their performance anxiety), is entering what is called the “flow state”-a shift to a more effortless and spontaneous mindset. It’s the same concept as being, “in the zone”, as it requires focus and discipline to achieve. As indicated by the name, the flow state elicits a plethora of anxiety-relieving effects on the performer. These effects include (but are not limited to): sensations of higher control, greater concentration on a limited stimuli, and clarity of goals. Admittedly, the flow state does take deliberative practice and concentration in order to utilize in a performance setting. Once learned though, it can serve as an integral aid to those who find struggles in performance (music or otherwise!). So, how does one enter the flow state? The state itself is based around the awareness of the individual’s touch, ease, sound, and body-integrated movement. Touch and sound go somewhat hand in hand. Acknowledge these elements by slowly and mindfully accounting for the touches and sounds that you produced whilst you prepare to play. Body-integrated movement can be described as, “dancing with your instrument”. This is usually in the form of very gentle swaying of the upper body in harmony with the intonation of sound. The sensory information gathered through this movement is not only helpful in the dissipation of rigidness and anxiety, but will also help in the learning and responding of new repertoire. Ease is inarguably the most crucial step in entering the flow state. It is putting the other steps into action, and asking yourself, “Do I feel comfortable?” and “Do I enjoy my sound?”. The continued practice of sensory-aware exercises such as these can help musicians become attuned with their instrument before performing, and naturally fall into the feelings of “flow”.

Performance anxiety is a phenomenon rooted in perfectionistic self-talk; It’s a universal experience that shouldn’t be shied away from. It’s important to bring these issues to light, and find solutions to combat it. Remember: It is okay to make mistakes! :)


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