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‘I’m sorry I’m not good enough’ – Perfectionism on the water

We all know that if you make a mistake, the best thing to do is own up and apologise for it. Hit your friend in the head with your paddle as you drop into the eddy? Say sorry. Bash into the side of them as you cross an eddy line with a little too much enthusiasm? Say sorry. But what happens when the mistakes you are apologising for are only visible to you? What happens when the only standard you are willing to accept is perfection? Should you continue to say sorry for not being, as seen through your own eyes, ‘good enough’?

It has taken me a long time to realise that I am a perfectionist and an even longer time to admit it. I have found that this personality trait has had a real impact on my paddling, both positive and negative. Learning to cope with my perfectionism is still very much an ongoing process for me but I wanted to share some of my thoughts on here. Ironically this article isn’t perfect and I don’t have all the answers. But maybe it may help someone who is reading this. Equally, anyone reading who has more ideas than me, please do get in touch!

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is when someone needs to be or to appear perfect. It can come with a high level of self-criticism and an unhealthy attitude to failure. It is hard to explain just how much perfectionism can influence your life if you have never experienced it. I want to share a story that demonstrates a little of what living with perfectionism as a paddler is like.

On the car journey home from a river one day, I was reflecting on how the day had gone with a friend. It had been a big day of kayaking, towards the top of my skill limit. I had taken a few rolls but no swims and I was generally happy with the day. However I kept going back to the rolls I had taken, annoyed that they had occurred at all. My friends from the day could not have cared less – they were probably just grateful I had rolled and they had not had to boat chase. Everyone had had a good day and it was unlikely the others were thinking about my rolls – so why was I?

Trying to focus on the fact that I stayed upright in this scenario rather than the fact that I didn’t time my boof right. Photo: Tom Clare

My friend said to me, ‘You are annoyed you didn’t paddle a river stylishly when 2 years ago you wouldn’t have even be able to get down it. This is your perfectionism talking!’ It put it into perspective for me. It had been a good day – one of my best in fact. It just hadn’t been a perfect one. Whilst this is an example of how perfectionism might have tainted my day, it ultimately hadn’t changed my day. However perfectionism brings with it two other psychological experiences which can have a much bigger impact. I want to explore these in more detail.

Here I am failing to use my paddles. I was irritated at myself but guess what – my friends didn’t care! Photo: Tom Clare

1. Imposter Syndrome

There is a tendency with perfectionists to focus on their faults. When mistakes happen, it can lead to frustration and thoughts such as ‘I should be better’. I briefly touched on this in my article on ‘negative thoughts‘ last year. This focus on the negative can also be symptomatic of a much bigger issue. Imposter syndrome is where you genuinely believe that you are a fraud, that you are not good enough or that you are inadequate in some way. It is not just frustration that you made a mistake but rather using that mistake to confirm a genuine and deep-rooted inner belief that you are incapable.

Is it the paddles or is it me? Photo: Ant Mitchell

In the earlier example I was annoyed I had rolled. Many people may explain this as I didn’t want the friends I was with to have doubts about my capabilities. When in reality it is because those rolls made me doubt my own capabilities. On a good day, this may be on a smaller scale. It makes me question whether I was right to get on that particular river. To reflect on whether I had made a good choice and should I make that choice again if put in the same position. The perfectionism allows me to reflect and sometimes take away a positive learning point.

If reflection means you realise why you flipped so you can try something different next time – great! Then it is useful.
Photo: Tom Clare

However, on a bad day, these worries could be much less helpful. It leads to thoughts such as the rolls proving that I am completely incapable of kayaking and I should never have deceived myself into thinking I could do it. I should quit kayaking before someone realises just how terrible I am! These thoughts may sound ridiculous but yet I have experienced them. At my worst moments, I have even considered writing a blog to share with everyone the secret that I am actually a fraud and apologise for ever pretending I knew how to paddle! Luckily those moments didn’t last long enough to actually write the article! Whilst I laugh at myself, the sad thing is that I am certain I am not the only one who experiences these thoughts.

The thought process ‘I’m having a bad day therefore I am bad’ is not helpful!! Photo: Ant Mitchell

2. Anxiety

The second trait linked strongly to perfectionism is to experience anxiety. The other side of striving for perfection is the fear of what will happen if you do not reach it. As I said at the start of this article, perfectionism is linked to an unhealthy fear of failure. Perfectionism leads to unrealistic expectations of oneself and an extremely critical response when you do not reach those expectations.

The anxiety that builds up at the thought of failure can be extremely detrimental if allowed to fester. That seed of self-doubt grows and you begin to think I can’t. You stop trying new things because I can’t. You stop getting on rivers or perhaps if you do get on, you stop being able to enjoy them because I can’t. You fixate on those small mistakes and because of the imposter syndrome, start to question it all.

I try not to think when I drop into Inlet gate now in case ‘I can’t’ comes into my head. Photo: Ant Mitchell

Recently this has been the worst one for me. I am generally quite a happy and a very sociable person, but what most people do not know is that I have quite bad anxiety. Thanks to the pandemic and an extremely stressful year at work, my anxiety has come out a lot more this year. Usually kayaking is a bit of a refuge for me from this but my anxiety got bad enough that it has crept into my kayaking as well. Which has led me to think about perfectionism and kayaking and ultimately writing this article.

Kayaking is so fun – it’s annoying that self doubt and anxiety can take some of that fun away. Photo: Tom Clare

The solutions?

Here comes the imperfect part of my article – and believe me that is is more irritating for me than for you! I don’t have all the answers. If I did, I would be a much happier person and probably a better paddler. But my perfectionism is something that I have worked really hard on over the last few years and there are some things that have helped.

  1. Whatever the issue is you are facing, try to look at it from a third party perspective. Act as if a friend had shared this problem with you and you were giving them advice. Not being directly involved in a situation makes it a lot easier to process. Say you had a swim and are currently beating yourself up over it. What would you say to a friend in that situation? I bet it is not the things you are saying to yourself.
  2. This leads me onto my next point nicely. Be kind to yourself. Would you talk to a loved one the way you talk to yourself? It is is so much easier to be kind to others than it is to ourselves and yet it is ourselves who really needs it. This is the one I have to work hardest on and if I am honest, I am still not there. As perfectionists, we are self critical. But we don’t need to be mean to ourselves. Constructive criticism is okay, unwarranted bullying is not.
  3. Surround yourself with good people. I am in constant awe of how wonderful my friends are. Genuinely good people who I am lucky to have in my life. I was once undergoing so much stress at work that the anxiety from that was infiltrating every aspect of my life. I ended up crying in an eddy half way down a river completely out of the blue. My friends took it in their stride and looked after me that day. They didn’t care that we didn’t go and run hard rivers. We bumbled down the grade 3 and they made it into a day about enjoying each other’s friendship. Surround yourself with people like that.
  4. Finally, take a break and do something else. We can get so fixated on things sometimes that the best solution is just to step away briefly. The hard thing with this one though, is that you have to make sure you come back to it!
My friends are the best! <3

This has been a particularly long article, even for me! However I will resist the urge to apologise. I hope the article has been able to help someone and if you have anything to share which you think may help myself or others, please do comment below!

4 replies on “‘I’m sorry I’m not good enough’ – Perfectionism on the water”

I judge myself harshly on my playboating, one of the problems is that I watch a lot of online videos where the people are professional level kayaker who paddle as a job. I’m comparing myself as an occasional paddler to people’s show reels and selected video clips. I found James Bebbingtons Freestyle for the mind good as he talks about how to deal with failure and practice.

Yeah comparison is not always our friend! I feel the same – too many naturally talented friends who I compare myself too. Of course our progress will not be the same and I have to remind myself of that sometimes. That’s interesting – I will have a look at his video. Thanks for the heads up 🙂

Just a beginner, but goodness, every word of this article spoke to me. I’m saving this to read whenever I have a ‘not good enough’ paddle.

Thank you – I’ve been getting a lot of similar messages today – seems like paddling is full of perfectionists! Hope the article helps next time you have one of those day 🙂

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