I would not exactly describe myself as a perfectionist. Anyone who has seen the inside of my car would definitely agree with me, and I have managed to bumble through life without ever bothering to balance my bank account, taking the attitude that “close enough” is a legitimate approach to topics involving decimal points.
But there are some things in my life to which I attach the maddening importance of success. Riding is one of those things. Writing is another. I want very much to be GOOD at these things and it bothers me when I fall short of my own expectations. It bothers me a lot.
I come by this honestly. I was raised with a father who insisted that the only acceptable grade in school was an “A” and the only measure of value to participation in a sport is to win. (I was once grounded from watching television for six weeks in middle school because I brought home a “C” in Home Economics. Apparently I was quite average at cooking and sewing in the eighth grade! There has been little discernible improvement in these subjects since then.)
Despite my early lack of interest in mastering the domestic arts or understanding calculus, I nevertheless absorbed the lesson well that being average at something is simply not good enough.
What a shame.
Don’t get me wrong, achievement is a wonderful thing. Striving for a win is a powerful motivation to do what is necessary to grow and improve. But if you believe that perfection is the only acceptable end result, then mere mortals like you and me are doomed to failure. And if you believe that winning is the only thing that makes an endeavor worthwhile, it becomes very easy to justify not even trying.
You need to give yourself permission to screw up.
I was recently reminded of this during a lesson on my horse Rainy. I’ve been riding for 45 years and I still meet with a trainer as often as possible so I can continue getting better. At this point in my riding career, my lessons are less about making physical improvements than they are about making improvements in my mental game. During my lesson last week, circumstances seemed to be conspiring to set me up for failure. I was preparing for a horse show, so I felt that I needed my schooling session to be perfect to get us ready for the upcoming weekend. The weather was unusually chilly and my horse started out fresh and unfocused. The zipper on one of my boots broke near the beginning of my ride. I had to stop and change into paddock boots and wrap my calves in polo wraps before continuing on to my jump school. (Embrace The Suck!)
I warmed up over a few fences and I was riding very conservatively. It was OK, but I know well the difference between jumping that is micromanaged by the rider and jumping that flows naturally without overt interference. The more I focused on trying to make each jump perfect, the more I got in my own way.
My trainer and I have known each other a long time. She looked at me and said simply “Give yourself permission to make mistakes.”
You know that feeling when your brain cracks open and you get a clear vision of understanding a problem?
I started over. I literally let go of my horse physically while I also let go of caring whether or not the result was perfect. And guess what? The result was, well, pretty much perfect.
Here’s how it works. Our bodies are programmed to manifest in reality the images we carry in our minds. If we worry and stress about making mistakes in our performance, then that is where our mind is focused. And our bodies do their best to make those mental bloopers come to life. Worried about missing the distance to the single oxer across the diagonal? Let it go. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect (maybe FAR less than perfect), and you give yourself the freedom to focus on positive images and work with whatever you’ve got. So instead of thinking “I need to nail that distance to the oxer or my round is ruined”, instead you’re telling yourself “I need to maintain a good rhythm and a good canter and whatever distance is there will be fine.” And it WILL be fine.
As a friend once told me right before I walked into the ring, obviously nervous, “Oh my gawd Tosh, it’s not as if you’re trying to cure cancer!”
Exactly. We do this for fun, right?
I continued this mental exercise through the remainder of the week. At the horse show on Sunday, once again the universe tried to play with me. My experienced, well prepared horse was WILD when he got off the trailer. I borrowed a lunge line from my trainer and Rainy spent 15 minutes bucking, snorting, and squealing as he circled around me. The new boots I ordered after my zipper failure on Tuesday did not arrive in time for the show, so I carefully wrapped black duct tape around one ankle, holding the broken zipper closed.
But I refused to allow these challenges to derail my attitude. I was relentlessly positive and wore my less than perfect circumstances like a crown. I was determined to show the universe what I thought of her sense of humor. As I rode around the schooling ring, I repeated over and over to myself statements that fit into my “permission to screw up” mantra.
My horse settled nicely and the duct tape held. And most interestingly, I had no nerves whatsoever. All I felt was a calm focus and simple happiness at being there. While my results in the show ring on Sunday were not as “perfect” as they had been in my lesson, they were still pretty darn good. For one reason and another, it’s been three years since I’ve shown this horse over fences and I am nothing but thrilled at his comeback so far.
But my bigger thrill is the new tool I’ve put in my mental toolbox. In fact, I’m using that tool as I write this blog post. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I hope you like it and find it useful! If not, let me know why and I’ll try again in a week or two. 😉