“Were it not for perfectionism, we would be in short supply of all those myriad human activities we deem extraordinary, excellent, outstanding or great in quality.”

Psychologist Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. continues: “Once upon a time perfectionism was perceived not as neurosis, but rather as a sign of commitment, caring,  and devotion to one’s work…” [From his article In Praise of Perfectionism.]

Performing arts such as ballet involve high levels of that kind of devotion to precision and excellence.

But one of the elements of the new movie “Black Swan” is how damaging perfectionism can be when pursued excessively, especially by someone with mental health challenges.

In his review, Roger Ebert comments, “Everything about classical ballet lends itself to excess. The art form is one of grand gesture, of the illusion of triumph over reality and even the force of gravity. Yet it demands from its performers years of rigorous perfectionism, the kind of physical and mental training that takes ascendancy over normal life. This conflict between the ideal and the reality is consuming Nina Sayers, Portman’s character.”

In their review of the movie, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat say, “There is a certain grandiosity that comes with this obsession as well as low self-esteem.”

They quote author Michael Gellert: “Striving for perfection is often confused with the quest for fulfillment: we think that if we can become perfect or create perfect things or situations, we will be happy.”

In her outstanding, at times emotionally wrenching, performance as both the White Swan Queen and Black Swan, Natalie Portman shows how little happiness her character finds in such an obsessive dedication to meet the demands of her mother, herself and her director, who even tells her her he finds her too technically “perfect” and lacking in “abandon” to take on the darker role.

What is unhealthy perfectionism?

In his Psych Central article Perfectionism: Adaptation or Pathology?, Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D. notes, “Somewhere on a continuum between normality and pathology there is a point at which an otherwise culturally normal behavior acquires a problematic degree.

“In other words, there is a point at which the given behavior results in functional impairment.  The difficulty of establishing whether your particular perfectionism has met the diagnostic threshold of pathology has to do with the specific cultural norms of the society in which you reside and function.”

[Pavel G. Somov is author of the book Present Perfect: A Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need for Control.]

One of those ‘cultures’ can be a dance company.

Mia Wasikowska – who was so outstanding in the HBO series “In Treatment” as a perfectionistic gymnast, and plays the title role in Tim Burton’s movie “Alice in Wonderland” – notes that she trained at dance school about 35 hours a week until she was 14.

“Then ballet started to grate,” she admits. “The whole idea of trying to attain perfection started to ruin the experience, so I decided to try another type of performance.”

From my post Gifted and driven: Striving for excellence & being a perfectionist.

Another post: The self-destructive side of perfectionism and giftedness.