When Perfectionism Holds You Back

Photo © ES EQUINE PHOTOGRAPHY || EVELYN SZCZEPANEK

By Jen Borgo Raia

In a recent lesson, my trainer had us do an exercise that would have made me very uncomfortable just a few years ago. Instead of finding the correct distance in a combination, we were to either chip the second jump or find the long distance. Sounds easy enough, right? I regularly find the wrong distance on accident—how hard could it be to do it on purpose? Turns out, it’s pretty hard to mess up intentionally.

I’m very Type-A—like the poster child for it. While it’s helped me reach professional success, this personality type has consequences. I have battled anxiety and perfectionism for years. It might seem like perfectionism is something to embrace, not battle, but it leads to procrastination, disappointment, and often completely freezes you.

Horses have always been my outlet and stress relief. But, even at the barn, perfectionism took its toll. Wanting things to be “just right” took away the fun and led to disappointment in myself when I couldn’t pull it off. 

Eventually, something had to give. It started in the classroom. There’s no way to plan and micromanage everything while being an effective teacher. You have to work with what you have in front of you that particular day. 

It took a bit longer to make that same connection in riding.   

Photo © ES EQUINE PHOTOGRAPHY || EVELYN SZCZEPANEK

This brings me back to my recent exercise. At first, I had a very hard time finding the wrong distance. Or if I’m being completely honest, the long distance was the hard one. I could shorten for days. But as the lesson continued, I became more comfortable. In fact, I left the lesson beaming. I don’t have to be perfect to get it done. 

The moral of this story is that everything doesn’t have to be perfect. I wouldn’t have enjoyed this exercise when I was younger. I wish I had broken out of the perfectionism jail cell when I was younger. I may not have accomplished much more, but I definitely would have had more fun along the way.


Jen Borgo Raia is a Professor of Biology at Coker University in Hartsville, South Carolina. She has a PhD and MS in Wildlife Biology, with a focus on behavioral ecology, from Utah State University. She enjoys spending her free time with her horse/unicorn, Mocha. 

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