Perfectionism in contemporary circus arts

Person in spotlight on stage with rope

Similar to dancers and professional athletes (Hill, 2016), contemporary circus artists may score relatively high on the personality characteristic perfectionism. People who score high on perfectionism tend to set very high standards for themselves, strive to achieve flawlessness, and are critical of their performance (Stoeber, 2011). Perfectionism is generally seen by researchers as a contributor to achieving high levels of performance. After all, if artists don’t set high goals for themselves (such as obtaining high levels of flexibility, learning to juggle six balls, or becoming part of a certain circus show), they are less likely to achieve that goal. In that sense, scoring high on the personality characteristic perfectionism is a good thing.

Adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism

Roughly speaking, researchers have identified two types of perfectionism* (Terry-Short et al., 1995; Stoeber, 2011). The first type of perfectionism is ‘adaptive perfectionism’. In a nutshell, adaptive perfectionism consists of setting high standards for oneself, but not being too worried about how others evaluate you. Having high levels of adaptive perfectionism is mostly a good thing, it relates to high levels of performance and does not appear to be detrimental to mental health.

The second type of perfectionism is ‘maladaptive perfectionism’. In short, maladaptive perfectionism consists of setting high standards for oneself, combined with a high level of concern over making mistakes. In individuals with high scores on maladaptive perfectionism, their self-worth is generally related to their performance. In other words, circus artists who score high on maladaptive perfectionism will think less of themselves after a ‘poor’ performance. Given that perfectionists set such high goals for themselves, circus artists who score high on maladaptive perfectionism may quickly evaluate their performance as ‘not good enough’, and worry that other people will think less of them. People who score high on ‘maladaptive perfectionism’ are at increased risk of  experiencing mental health problems. Studies have shown that maladative perfectionism is associated with the likelihood of experiencing burn-out, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorders. Contrary to adaptive perfectionism, high levels of maladaptive perfectionism are thus a cause for concern.

What to do if perfectionism stands in someone’s way of happiness?

There are some goal-setting skills that could help circus artists who score high on maladaptive perfectionism. These include:

  • Set small goals for yourself, and celebrate your successes. You juggled six balls for the first time? Reward yourself! You overcame your fear and auditioned for a show? That’s awesome!
  • Adjust your goals when necessary. You can’t predict everything in life, you may be working with an injury, or may be on a strange sleeping schedule. This may affect your abilities during training or on stage. Keep this in consideration when setting your goals for the day.
  • Find a balance in your evaluation of yourself. Okay, so you made a mistake during your performance. Of course, that’s disappointing but it happens. Was there anything positive you can still take out of this performance? Other things that went very well? Or perhaps you were able to use the mistake as an opportunity to improvise, or maybe you managed to make the audience believe the mistake was part of your act?

Psychologists can also use therapy to help people whose thinking is characterised by high levels of maladaptive perfectionism. Research has shown that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has long-lasting effects in reducing maladaptive perfectionism. This type of therapy includes cognitive restructuring, assertive communication, and stress management to reduce the maladaptive aspects of perfectionism (Riley et al., 2007).

*Note: These types of perfectionism are sometimes also called ‘perfectionistic striving’ and ‘perfectionistic concern’. 


Hill, A. (Ed.). (2016). The psychology of perfectionism in sport, dance and exercise. Routledge.

Riley, C., Lee, M., Cooper, Z., Fairburn, C. G., & Shafran, R. (2007). A randomised controlled trial of cognitive-behaviour therapy for clinical perfectionism: A preliminary study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(9), 2221-2231.

Stoeber, J. (2011). The dual nature of perfectionism in sports: Relationships with emotion, motivation, and performance. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4(2), 128-145.

Terry-Short, L. A., Owens, R. G., Slade, P. D., & Dewey, M. E. (1995). Positive and negative perfectionism. Personality and individual differences, 18(5), 663-668.