On Failure and Perfectionism

It was a tough lesson.

Outwardly the failure was a small one. On the inside, it was magnified. In the hour or two it took me to regain my balance, several things became clear.

While I’ve made some strides forward in dealing with perfectionism, I still have a way to go. The good thing is, I am seeing the negative impact of perfectionism more clearly and as a result am motivated to continue to find ways to deal with it. While perfectionism can be a driver to perform well, it also has a dark underbelly.

Recognizing Unrealistic Expectations and Readjusting Them

One of the ways perfectionism shows up, often subtly, is in expecting things to go really well (or perfectly) right out of the gate. Anything less feels like failure. It is a quick leap from, “I failed” to, “I am such an idiot.” If this distinction is not clear to you, read on. Perfectionism has us internalizing what we see as failure, so that it reflects on who we are rather than seeing failure as a natural part of learning and growth. When perfectionists fail, we don’t just fail, we become the failure. The failure speaks to us about our abilities or our intelligence or worthiness. Failure impacts how we see ourselves. The ripple effect is often decreased self-esteem and low confidence. Recognizing unrealistic expectations and readjusting them is a vital part of this journey to recovering from the dark side of perfectionism.

Pro tip: Ask yourself, “What are my expectations (of myself or others) in this situation?” Be as clear as you can. If you know you struggle with perfectionism, dig a little deeper than what comes to you at first. You may find your expectations are too high. Don’t be deluded by the thought that you just have high standards and are proud of it. This is not about excellence, this is about having unrealistic and unrelenting high standards that are impossible or almost impossible to meet. When you fail to meet those unrealistically high standards, you end up feeling bad about who you are or others feel demoralized and demotivated when they fail to meet your standards.  If your expectations are to get 10/10, ask yourself what an 8/10 would look like in your circumstances and aim for that instead.

When is it Good Enough?

Part of the journey with perfectionism is about learning to let go of over-preparing or over-doing. When is it good enough? Over-preparing is about wanting to start at the accomplished level (perfect) instead of beginning at the level of incompetence (the place we all start). Over-preparing is about avoiding failure at (almost) all costs. Sometimes the cost of over-preparing or over-doing is loss of sleep. It can be a hyper focus on one area of life at the expense of other areas e.g., work comes first, relationships suffer, personal wellbeing suffers. Not knowing when or how to stop working on something is another dark underside to perfectionism.

Pro Tip: Despite what perfectionism tells you, most things don’t need to be perfect. Does what you are working on fall into the 80% of things that really don’t need perfection or the 20% that need more attention to detail? What is it costing you to keep perfecting this one thing you are working on? Is it worth the cost?

Fixed versus Growth Mindset

A subtle shift can happen when we feel we have to start at the accomplished level or never get anything wrong. We begin to only allow ourselves to do things we are already good at. We begin to believe that if we can’t master something immediately, we are simply not good at it and should avoid it. This becomes about our identity, “I’m not good at technology”, “I’m not good at communication”, “I’m not good at sport”. We simply try to avoid what we see as a fixed part of ourselves – a part that can’t be improved.

In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

Carol Dweck, Researcher Stanford University

Question: What is your mindset?

Increasing Your Tolerance for Failure

Increasing the tolerance for failure is an essential step in the recovering perfectionist’s journey. While this may seem like a no-brainer, it is not possible to increase your tolerance for failure without actually experiencing failure. This is not about intentionally try to fail, but rather about being courageous enough to try things where you are not exactly sure of the outcome. When you adopt a growth mindset, you are bound to fail at some point and failure is not a bad thing.

“…your ability to live a life that’s full of love and meaning, to make the world a braver and kinder place, to disrupt and reshape the future, has very little to do with the greatness of your plan. It depends completely on your ability to get back up and begin again when your plan fails.”

Brene Brown, commencement address to the University of Texas 2020

Pro tip: Feeling the hot flush of shame and your confidence crumbling after a failure? Acknowledge your feelings. Set aside your judgement and bring curiosity to help discover what happened. Stay away from I-am-the-failure thinking. What were your expectations? What are you telling yourself this failure means? What matters now? What benefit will learning to recover from failure bring you?

I hate to fail. What I’ve noticed is that I am getting better at it. My recovery time is quicker, and I am willing to try things with what I feel is less than adequate preparation. For me, that is progress. Progress not perfection.

This Week’s Photos

This week’s photos are a nod to letting go of perfection and enjoying life more.

Coaching

I work with perfectionists, with those who are too hard on themselves. My client’s want freedom from the relentless inner criticism and the drive to maintain almost unreachable standards so that they can enjoy life more. Through mental fitness and personalized coaching, we work on improving personal well-being, performance and relationships.

Find out more about coaching here or connect with me.

Sue Das, CPCC, ACC, B Soc Sc (SW)

11 thoughts on “On Failure and Perfectionism

  1. This piece really speaks to me today. It seems whenever I would have guests over even just for dinner, if one thing didnt look right or taste right I would / will be so hard on myself. I realize that is not a great way to live. But so difficult to break this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your honesty. I applaud your self awareness. There are so many things I’d like to ask, like what does being hard on yourself sound like/look like? What’s the impact in the rest of your life when you’re hard on yourself? What would be possible if you weren’t hard on yourself? I’d love to hear more and chat with you (if you’d like to connect ). One tip is to think of this as just taking one step in the right direction instead of getting it exactly right – reduce the pressure.

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  2. As a former perfectionist I applaud all efforts to establish reasonable levels of task results, and for being kind to oneself about perceived progress and completeness levels. As you say, most tasks don’t need over 80% done-ness. Something I’m not seeing in this article is the attitude of people around you, particularly when growing up or starting on a job. It can be well-meaning. People can inadvertently enforce perfectionism in the guise of encouragement, and saying things like “You’ve always done such a great job / I know we can count on you.” Having OCD people around you can also cause perfectionism, because they notice, and comment on, every tiny detail. It is one thing to serve the voice in our head, it is another to have someone narrating/judging all your steps. Sometimes these well-meaning commenter need to be coached too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rob. Good points made here. I whole heartedly agree that we all have tremendous power to influence those around us for good or ill including in this area of perfectionism. It is a very interesting part of the mental fitness work I am currently doing. When we are operating from our survival brain area (which is the part that is activated when we are in perfectionism mode), we actually activate other people around us to be in their survival brain. Of course that can happen in reverse too, as you suggest in your comment. In good news, when we are coming from a place of love (or in mental fitness language when our Sage brain is active) we can also alter the people around us by helping them activate that part of their brain too and live more from a place of love than fear. Fascinating stuff! Thank you for reading my blog and for your comment.

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      1. That makes sense. Perfectionism is unfortunate because it is an over-extension of the normal, healthy mental flow state when one is focused and having success on a task. Many perfectionists aren’t really aware of the harm their state causes – they incorrectly think it is just “how they are”. So I am glad your experience and coaching is helping people with this. I am not sure how the Sage state might influence an OCD parent or coworker who is around a perfectionist. OCD people are often defensive because they frequently irritate others through endless suggestions. But being OCD is a wide scale, and sometimes attributed to regular folks when they are passionate about a particular task. I’m repeating myself, but I am saying that perfectionists don’t always exist or arise on their own, by their perfectionism being strictly a genetic situation. I think many perfectionists are put into that state over time by the people around them, in addition to their own ability to focus very well.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. To your first point, strength overdone is often a weakness. Part of the work I’m doing helps people become aware of when a strength has actually become something that sabotages them and then learn to refocus again to use it as a strength instead of having it use you. A different example of this is the strength of love and compassion when overdone can become people pleasing. Of course there is the example from my post too where great strength in attention to detail and a love of excellence can become perfectionism. One way to tell the difference is by checking the impact of your behaviour on yourself and on others.

        Your second point about the OCD parent, I agree with. We can develop things like perfectionism from our environment. My work is not really helping people figure out where it comes from and more about what to do about it now that it is here. It’s not about being judgemental. It is more about being compassionate in understanding that perfectionism can have brutal impact on the individual and their relationships, their performance at work and also their personal health. What I do is about helping people tweak things to lessen the impact and bring more joy into life.

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