How to Cure Perfectionism in Your Music Practice

Musicians who identify as “perfectionists” should understand the following about what perfectionism is and how to cure it.

Perfectionism is an anxiety disorder. It’s a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

By “anxiety disorder”, I mean you’re afraid of making mistakes, and furthermore, this fear is making it hard for you to practice.

Here’s the problem: even if you know you shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes, it’s still going to get you. That’s because this anxiety disorder is deeply conditioned into your nervous system.

The mere thought of making a mistake is enough to scare you.

Logically speaking, “mere thoughts” shouldn’t be scary. After all, they’re only images and sounds, raw sensory experiences.

But, few of us have been taught to see them that way. Instead, we see them as elaborate stories that are true. Our minds interpret them this way automatically.

The only cure for an anxiety disorder is exposure therapy. That’s when you deliberately expose yourself to the thing you’re afraid of.

So, if you want to cure perfectionism in your music practice, you’ve got to expose yourself to the fear of making mistakes, and the thought of making mistakes. All those sensory experiences must become comfortable for you.

Good luck with that, when the fear of mistakes makes you want to run and hide…

Now, I’m guessing you’re not literally running and hiding. Instead, you’re doing it subtly, deep inside your body. It manifests itself as an internal tension, barely visible to the naked eye.

Maybe when you were a kid, you did run and hide. But now, no. You sit there and deal with it. Not happily, but you still deal with it (maybe even reaffirming to yourself and others that you should just suck it up…again, not happily…you can feel it in your body, deep inside…).

Exposure therapy is necessary to untangle this. But, it’s scary.

So, how do you get to the point where exposure therapy is possible?

You must learn to see the thing you’re afraid of as being only sensory experience.

For example, if you’re afraid to perform in front of a potentially-disapproving audience because you’re afraid of criticism, you can learn to see the fear of criticism as merely images and sounds in your head and sensations in your body. Once you see it this way, it’s much easier to be willing to expose yourself to it.

We all know it’s hard to deal with rejection. But, when that fear of rejection is seen to be merely a story told by the mind, it becomes much easier to handle.

Even better, when that story is seen to be merely images and sounds (still frames from a movie), nobody would have a problem dealing with it.

The good news is that this skill can be learned.

How? By practicing meditation. Meditation teaches you how to view your experiences as sensory phenomena.


So, this is the point of meditation: it makes it easier to do exposure therapy. If you don’t meditate, you’ll have a hard time seeing your stories as stories (you’ll be too attached to them). Then, you won’t allow yourself to entertain the thought of making mistakes while playing, and you’ll be a rigid perfectionist forever.

That’s no fun.


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