When the Black Swan Invades: Act I, The Price You Pay for Valuing Perfectionism

Let’s take first position (heels together and toes facing equally out to either side) at stage left.

Imagine sitting (It could be anywhere: the house, a coffee shop, the office.) with a strong feeling of restlessness, fidgeting (mind and body), knowing something just doesn’t feel right. Continuing to sit, in a still, calm fashion, it occurs to you that what you feel is a lack of satisfaction with yourself. In further rumination of thought, the actions taken, if any, simply do not feel enough. But what specifically? Everything! Do more! screams the thought in your head. But how? The to-do list, longer than any one person has possible time in a day to accomplish, is swirling around, powerful and forceful, trapping you in a cyclonic cycle. One that you know all too well but yet can’t escape. The dance of internal competition nags…and then nags some more. Telling you lies, skewing your views, bending the truth. The psyche is now in control, driving the mind with leaps and bounds of demands for perfection over and over with little satisfaction. And even when finished, you still find…just one more thing to add to the list. Just one more thing that is not being done as desired, one more thing you need to do better, faster, stronger, harder, with more dedication. Inside, you twirl and spin with ambition, and yet on the outside, it looks like a chicken running around with no head, no direction, just ambition that keeps you leaping and bounding to that godforsaken banana peel that slams you down to the ground.

Does this sound familiar?

This will be a four-act-series blog specifically about valuing perfection. Be sure to follow me for the additional blogs on exploring the price to be paid for valuing perfection.


Dancers spend hours each day perfecting their art through slow repetition. Each moment in front of a mirror. Each moment watching every move of every individual in the room who pirouettes across the resin-dusted wooden floors. A mentally and physically grueling practice. Observing. Judging themselves in every move.

If you struggle with perfectionistic tendencies, this is what you are doing. Let’s take a moment to set the stage. You may find yourself fighting to agree with me, but bear through to practice your own flexibility. Like a prima ballerina, we need flexibility. What better example of perfection than ballet?

In the story, The Black Swan, the main character, Nina, has the lead role in the Swan Lake ballet. Tirelessly, she practices day after day, peering at herself in the mirror, striving for better. The competition for her position is fierce. She is selected to dance both the graceful white swan and the opposing black swan. At the end of the day, after leaping and spinning in adagio, she removes her pointe shoes to uncover a mess of blisters, raw skin, and a sharp pain ignored. Throughout the movie, her role is risked for the black swan as a new character comes twirling in. Just like Nina in The Black Swan, thriving for perfection in tasks, relationships, self-image, and success comes at a price.

She strives for perfection of the role so intensely that she drives herself to a psychotic break. The premise of the plot is that she is the black swan and swoops the audience with her flawless performance. The black swan—“perfectionism”—is lurking, always waiting to provide comfort in seeking perfections. In the film, Nina ignores all the signs that something is changing within her, driving her to what she wants but definitely not what she needs.

Can you imagine doing every task in front of a mirror? Causing self-consciousness, correction and overcorrection. Picking apart every flaw or misstep.

This is the struggle with perfection, forgetting you are a human and not just an image in the mirror. Our human capacity to implement mind over matter is amazing. And, may I say, we are pretty demanding of ourselves. It’s the dark side of us that tends to take over and demand things we would never ask our friends to adhere.

The swans, one black, one white, in Swan Lake, are a dichotomous example of struggling with perfectionist tendencies. It’s either perfect or it’s not. It’s either black or it’s white. There are no shades of gray. This is called a cognitive distortion (link to Distortion information).

Cognitive Distortions:

  • Mental Filtering
  • All or Nothing “Black or White” Thinking
  • Discounting the Positive
  • Fallacy of Change
  • Control Fallacy
  • Overgeneralization
  • Jumping to Conclusions
  • Catastrophizing or Minimizing
  • Personalization
  • Mindreading
  • Fortune Telling
  • Blaming
  • Shoulds
  • Emotional Reasoning
  • Labeling
  • Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

(Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library)

We all have distortions. It’s a natural human tendency. When we value perfection, we become captured in multiple distortions at once. At the point that they start to cause concerns in decision making, self-evaluation, relationships, roles, etc. that is when cognitive distortions are getting in the way of what we want or need.

Often, when many distortions exist and often present in someone’s life, so is depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or mental illness. We may go through transitions from time to time that increase our likelihood of distortions. The expectation to have zero distortions is unrealistic. This is a painful cycle! I am certainly not saying perfection will cause one to lose sanity like Nina did in the film. However, what is the price you pay for thriving on perfection?

valuing perfectionism

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about valuing perfection:

  • Do you have trouble asking others for help? Or see it as a sign of weakness?
  • If you do ask others for help, do you struggle with letting go of the way you would want things to be done?
  • Do you have the need to be in control?
  • Do you want others not to see your flaws?
  • Do you think about your mistakes over and over?
  • Do you get stuck working on projects longer to meet your own standard, when another person would already be finished?
  • Do you take disappointment and/or lack of success very hard?
  • Do you have a difficult time connecting with others?
  • Do you have a fear of rejection from others, not allowing you to emotionally connect?
  • Are you judgmental and critical of others?
  • Do you say/do things just to please others?
  • Do you think that things are either one way or the other, no in between?
  • Are you extremely hard on yourself?
  • Do you struggle seeing things differently, even when others explain alternative perspectives?

I know these feelings and thoughts all too well. Perfectionism and I were frenemies. I held it near and dear, it provided safety. The black swan made all of my decisions. Occasionally, it still gets me wrapped up in it, grasping me, tricking me into thinking I’ve found a warm nestled space within myself. Perfectionism is just that, a trick. It rips you away from the things that inspire you and from the people who are genuinely good. It has you look at situations with a slight skew that makes your self-evaluation harsh and mean internally while on the outside you rationalize its purpose.

This blog will be a series of Acts, just like in Swan Lake. I hope you will explore the ties you have built to honor your perfectionism and explore what cost it has on you and your relationships. Let me clarify, the point of this is to understand perfection in depth and establish a relationship, not to eliminate perfection. When we try to eliminate something, we start to struggle and we overcorrect, which, generally, does not create a positive outcome.

As creatives and fellow perfectionists, the time for overcorrection will always come. It will always be there when you need it. However, right now you are reading this because you need less perfection and more action. Stay Tuned for Act II, III, and IV of learning to be less perfectionistic by signing up (http://www.infocuscounselingdenver.com) for the blog updates.