The most common issue I see with my clients

A fear of “failure”  is probably the most common underlying problem brought to me in counselling (I put failure in quotations, because failure is a subjective term. Essentially, a fear of not meeting your expectations–and responding to yourself highly critically if you don’t–would be more accurate…). On the surface, it’s anxiety or disordered eating or low self-confidence or depression or procrastination. Underneath, it’s high expectations and a critical inner voice when you don’t meet them. We refer to it in the field as perfectionism, but I really don’t think this label serves anyone. Perfectionism is not about being perfect (or clean, or successful) or wanting to be perfect. Humor me for a second and check out this nice, succinct summary of perfectionism. Sound like you? Yes? Read on.

Now, I could write a book on perfectionism and all that comes with it. There are many books that go in depth about letting go of self-criticism/perfectionism (This is one of my favourites, as is this one and this one and this one, and if those aren’t enough, here is a great TED talk on the subject.), so this article is the first of a 2-part introduction than a comprehensive overview. If it resonates for you, though, I really encourage you to read further and consider taking some of the steps I suggest to transform perfectionism into the helpful kind (what the literature sites as “adaptive perfectionism). You will end up being less anxious, more confident, and more productive as a result.

(A Bit of) My Story

My first experience with failure that I can recall happened in grade 3. Every Friday, we had a spelling test, and every Monday, we got our tests back. Mine always had a metallic star-shaped sticker next to my name when it was returned (not always gold, sometimes red or blue, but always shiny–you might remember the ones). 20/20 marks. Perfect, every time. Anyhow, one Monday in January, the paper was handed to me, and there was no star in sight. There must be some sort of error, I thought. Perhaps the teacher ran out of stars? Perhaps it’s on the back of the test? Perhaps this is someone else’s test? How could I have possibly not gotten a perfect mark?

Anxiety and distress surged through my 8-year old body as I considered the possibility that I had gotten a word wrong. I double, triple checked that there was no star, and, once my vision had stabilized, saw “19/20” listed at the top of the page. I then began the humbling task of finding the error. And there it was. The red “X” next to the word that had scarred my perfect record. “Surprise.” I had spelled it without the first “R.” “Su-prise.” Surprise! You failed! But “suprising”  was a gross understatement. This was shocking. Shattering. Sickening.

Awash with shame, I beat myself up. What did my teacher think? What would my parents think? How could I have been so careless? My perfect record, ruined. My classmates whispers–Megan, Miss Perfect, isn’t so perfect anymore now, is she?

I had too much pride to give in to my welling eyes and constricted throat at that moment. I held my breath until I went home, where I broke down crying to my mom. I feared what she would say. Would she punish me? No longer love me? Be ashamed of me? At first concerned and then confused as to why I began sobbing the second I got in the door, she finally got out of me between sobs that “I- gasp– got –gasp-a-spelling-word –gasp – wrong.” 

She looked at me with a puzzled expression for a moment, taking a moment to empathize with feeling my 8 year-old world falling apart; then, she engulfed me in her arms and comforted me, reassuring to me that it was OK that I had made a mistake. I still remember the “surprise” I felt, the relief, as I understood that she still loved me. That I was still worthy.

To this day, that powerful experience sticks with me (can you tell? Haha). I can tell you that I never spelled “surprise” wrong again–EVER–but as my first experience with “failure,” what was more integral was that I had someone as amazingly compassionate and supportive as my mom there to teach me that it’s OK to be imperfect in life. But a few weeks later, her world turned upside down, and that voice couldn’t always be there, and for the next 15 years there was a constant battle in my head between a critical voice and a compassionate one. My self-worth depended on the fragile measures of success, others’ opinions, and my appearance–particularly my weight.

For years, my self-esteem would vacillate between “good enough” and worthless. If I got a good mark, or won a tennis match, or received positive male attention, I would feel good. Of course, that feeling was fleeting, as I would accept the situation as simply meeting my expectations, refused to feel pride for more than a moment (and NEVER did I show pride), then raised the bar for the next time. If someone complimented me, I would brush it off or reject it, refusing to humor the idea that I might be worthy, terrified that thought would result in me becoming lazy or complacent.

I’ll admit that I didn’t experience a lot of failure as a result. But this wasn’t because I was good at everything; it was because I only attempted things in areas where I knew I would succeed. I refused to take part in ski-racing, piano exams, or all-star soccer, volleyball, or basketball tryouts. I had one C+ throughout high-school in grade 11 Math, and I never did math again. I double-faulted on match point during the provincial tennis championships, and subsequently banished the idea of accepting one of the 3 tennis scholarships I’d been offered. I didn’t have my first boyfriend until university because the idea was so foreign and risky to me, and I ended two healthy relationships with incredible, supportive men because not needing to work for someone’s love felt like I was “settling.” I struggled with disordered eating for years because my all-or-nothing thinking told me I was either thin or fat, and I definitely wasn’t thin so I must have been fat. I orchestrated everything in my life to ensure that I never experienced failure or rejection, and I missed out on thousands of opportunities, and many, many years of contentedness as a result.

Learning self-compassion changed my life. Discovering this new way of relating to myself made space for risk and opportunity and happiness. I can’t tell you exactly how I got there, but I would attribute it to a beautiful combination of resources and happenstance: my rekindled close relationship with my incredibly compassionate mom, the knowledge I gained in university degrees focused on psychology and counselling, a supervisor suggesting I read Paul Gilbert’s “The Compassionate Mind,” over-exercising-induced injury that led me to yoga (and mindful awareness), a blindsiding heartbreak that forced me to stop relying on external validation for a source of self-worth, another friend recommended Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart,” and of course, I went through lots of therapy over 10 years.

Today, I am still becoming fluent in the language of self-compassion. It is an active process. A lot of the time, now, it’s automatic and I don’t have to think about it. Some of the time, I still do. I know there will be times in the future when it will be more difficult to practise self-compassion than others, and self-criticism will always be backstage, the understudy just waiting for its chance. But I feel confident in my ability to notice it, and call an intermission, and put in a new actor should self-criticism somehow get on stage. And most of the time (because no one is all the time), I feel confident in myself as is, imperfections and all, and I truly believe you can as well. Let me try to help you learn how.

The Relationship between Perfectionism, Anxiety, and Confidence

—So, as I mentioned, perfectionism is essentially a fear of failure (whatever a “failure” is to you). This generally develops during developmental years when we learn to link our self-worth to performance/success/achievement. Sometimes, it’s rather apparent that a child has internalized parents’ high expectations. Other times, parents are oblivious to the fact that the child believes there is an expectation from them. Other times, still, it is coaches or siblings or teachers or babysitters or romantic partners or simply the positive reinforcement that occurs with achievement that creates the high expectations.

However, like most of these things, it doesn’t necessarily matter where it came from, and chances are its a combination of many things. The important thing to recognize it that a) at one point, it was likely helpful (e.g. motivating, ensured child did not receive criticism from parents), and b) it may no longer be helpful, so let’s find a way to make it serve you.

As I said before, the definition of “failure” is very subjective, and, for most, “rejection” and/or “negative judgment” are forms of failure–failures in the performance and social realms, one might suggest  So, although social and performance anxiety (fear of negative judgment) might have different definitions than perfectionism, they are very linked.

Fearing failure, rejection, and negative judgment naturally creates strong feelings of anxiety and distress, and, being the comfort-seeking being that we are, we listen to this anxiety and adapt our world to avoid discomfort (remember the 3 C’s?). We don’t have the confidence to risk what anxiety tells us might happen if we put ourselves in those uncomfortable situations. But where do we get that confidence? Well, that’s the problem. Confidence comes from increased skill. Skill comes from experience–not just reading it in a book, doing it (No amount of reading is going to make me a better golfer/juggler/insert-verb-here-er). But because anxiety convinces us to stay within our comfort zone, we avoid taking risks that allow for new experience until we can be sure we’ll succeed. Until we have comfort, certainty, and control.

So What to Do?

So where do we intervene? In the relationship-to-self area. I like to refer to self-compassion as perfectionism’s kryptonite. By responding to imperfect performance with self-compassion rather than self-criticism, we make failure less scary. As a result, anxiety decreases. Then, by making space for failure, we make space for taking risks and building experience. With more experience, we potentially improve our skill. The end result? More skill, less anxiety, and more confidence. F$@% yeah! And, by responding compassionately to feelings of anxiety, we can allow a productive amount of anxiety to be there (i.e. motivating amount!). This is not about coming to believe one is perfect. It is coming to believe one is imperfect, as is all humankind, and this is OK. It is about detaching self-worth and value from performance and success. It is about having unconditional love for yourself at the core whilst still having expectations and standards. 

As I’ve said before, learning self-compassion is like learning a new language. It doesn’t happen quickly, it takes a lot of practice, it can be quite frustrating and overwhelming at times, and it’s common to just want to give up. Plus, it’s scary and new and feels risky. But remember, it’s simply a tool you can use. Like French. But better. You can always go back to the language of self-criticism if you want to vacation in Cut-Yourself-Down-Land.

If you’re still with me, I’m guessing some of this resonates with you (or you’re very bored. Or an extremely dedicated reader. Or you have to finish everything you start, in which this is actually probably quite relevant for you). In the Part 2 of this article, I will share other steps and strategies for using perfectionism adaptively, ultimately increasing confidence and productivity.

For now, though, just start paying attention to how perfectionism cuts you down, tells you you’re no good, and how the need to maintain comfort, certainty, and control in your life keeps you from taking risks. You don’t have to do anything just yet. You just have to be, and be aware. Curiosity, compassion, tolerance, trust, acceptance, confidence, change,–that will all come, but with time. So for now, just be patient and mindful…and uh, keep reading my blog 😉 ?…  

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