Learning to Dance – A Lesson in Overcoming Perfectionism

How being mediocre can help you in eating disorder recovery

I started dance lessons at the ripe age of 28 years old. While other women my age had left their years of dance behind, I was just beginning.

I’d never been to a formal dance class before – and did I mention that I decided to start with ballet? Somewhere I’d read that one should start with ballet, because it is the foundation of so many dance styles.

I showed up to my first class in leggings, a tank top, and wore my socks for the first class, instead of ballet slippers. I was a complete novice amongst women who had danced since childhood, or were teachers at the dance studio. The instructor was kind, but intimidating, all at the same time. I so wanted to do well…and to fit in.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Despite barely being able to keep up, I signed up that night after my first class. And I kept coming back for the next 2 years.

Suddenly I had dance-fever

I went out and bought myself a pair of ballet slippers. Not long after that, I purchased a few leotards and tights to wear to class.

I poured over books about ballet for beginners, watched YouTube tutorials, and practiced my choreography with dance workouts.

When the school year was done, I took a ballet class at a different studio, meant specifically for beginners. That Fall I added a tap dance class to the lineup.

I was hooked…and I loved it.

But was I a good dancer? Was I talented?

I wish I could say that I became a really awesome dancer. But while I did improve, I still was (and am to this day) a below-average dancer.

And I’m okay with that.

So what does this all have to do with eating disorder recovery?

While there are many factors at play when it comes to developing an eating disorder, a few common cognitive patterns appear frequently in the clients I see:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking (also known as black-and-white thinking)
  2. Perfectionistic tendencies

These tendencies often both help AND hinder a person in life, depending on what one does with them. For example, my perfectionist tendencies help me zoom in on the fine details of how to do things. This means that if I need to do a task a very specific way, I can follow through. It can hinder me though, when I combine perfectionism with all-or-nothing thinking: “Since I can’t seem to do this perfectly, I may as well not do it at all!” I can be prone to giving up too quickly, and trying to avoid failure by never starting.

When we allow these traits to dominate our life, we miss out on many opportunities. Challenging perfectionism helps me try new things, and stick with them, even if I don’t do them correctly the first time (or even the first 100 times). I learn that “failure” can actually be a learning experience. By challenging all-or-nothing thinking, I see that instead of their being only 2 options in ALL aspects of life, there is often a 3rd option…or even a 4th or 5th!

While these tendencies may stay with a person all through their life, they don’t have to keep them from doing things they enjoy. By doing the work in eating disorder recovery, we do a lot of the same things I did by trying out a new hobby:

  1. Challenge the all-or-nothing mindset – In eating disorder work, this often looks like removing the arbitrary labels of “good vs. bad” foods. Likewise, there doesn’t have to be a hierarchy of activities I can participate in, based on my skill level. If I enjoy dance classes, I can do them, AND not be very good at dance.
  2. Letting go of perfectionism – In eating disorder work, this looks like letting go of the concept of the “perfect diet” or the “perfect body.” I tell my clients that they don’t have to be perfect in order to deserve a session with me. In fact, when they come with questions or share about how they struggled or “messed up,” those are the times when the most learning and growth happens. Similar with dance, I can keep coming back to class, even if I don’t remember all the steps.
  3. You don’t have to be “the best” at everything. For many individuals with eating disorders, their identity gets wrapped up in what they eat and how they look. As we challenge that belief, we reveal a person who makes mistakes, isn’t perfect, and is usually mediocre at a thing or two! I want you to know that your identity is about who you are, not what you do! This includes your hobbies: it’s a part of your life, but not the be-all-end-all of your identity.

Is there something you want to explore or learn about, but you keep telling yourself things like:

  • I’m no good at that
  • I tried that before and I “failed”
  • I’m too old to start
  • Everyone will laugh at me (trust me, they won’t and if they do, find a nicer bunch of people to learn with)!
  • …insert whatever your inner-critic says to you!

Whatever it is you’re telling yourself, I’d encourage you to explore what it might look like to try something and be mediocre at it. You just might surprise yourself, and find a new hobby while you’re at it!

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