Fear of failure: the inner life of a (recovering) perfectionist

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I started this blog with my “On the importance of…” series. Just to change things up, I’m starting a new series which will be called “Fear of ____ : the inner life of a (recovering) perfectionist”. I think that all of us have different fears that are borne out of our perfectionistic tendencies. I know I’m not the only one who suffers from this dreaded disease and so I wanted this to be a forum where people can hopefully be honest and vulnerable about any struggles we may have in this area… and to remind each other that we don’t have to be perfect! So, here’s the first post of this series. Hope you enjoy!

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Hi! My name is Sid and I’m a perfectionist. There. I said it. I’m really trying hard not to be a perfectionist. But just like how some can slip from time to time, so, too, can this recovering perfectionist!

I guess in many ways, the odds were stacked against me. First of all, I’m Asian. I also have very Asian parents. My mother is the original Tiger Mom who constantly reminds me that I have to be the best in everything. Not only do I have external influences that constantly demands for perfection, somehow, along the way, those values (vices?) were so ingrained in me that I took it as my own. So now, even without the voices from the outside telling me I have to be perfect, the voice within screamed even louder for the very same thing.

When I tell people that I feel like I’m the biggest failure in the world, I know many of them scratch their heads and wonder “Why?” On paper, I look really good. I graduated cum laude from University of Ottawa (Honours Psychology) and even won the academic excellence award when I graduated from McMaster University with my Masters of Theological Studies degree. I lived overseas for two years in my desire to listen to the call of God in my life to help and serve others in such a way that my life would be a testimony to God’s love and compassion. I’m surrounded by great friends and a family who have always provided for my wants and needs. I am well liked by others. A life like that looks like a success, doesn’t it?

But that’s the horrible part of being a perfectionist… nothing is good enough! It is greedy, compulsive, and leaves behind a wide swath of destruction in its wake. I have gone through most of my life thinking that I was not good enough, not smart enough, not attractive enough, not financially stable enough, not Christian enough… and the list goes on. It manages to take things that should elicit joy into apathy. I have actually explained away a lot of the success I have achieved in life as either “dumb luck” or “weak pool of candidates to choose from”. Let me tell you, living like that is not fun at all.

The thing about trying to be perfect all the time is that it makes you risk-averse. It stifles you into making safe decisions. You do that long enough and it can suffocate you and prevent you from trying to achieve your dreams. In my attempt not to make mistakes, I end up making the biggest mistake of all: not living. Living is full of mistakes. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. My fear of failure has become my straightjacket that hinders me from turning my dream into reality.

So I write this to remind myself (and you, my dear reader) that it’s okay not to be perfect. It’s okay to be human and make mistakes. It’s okay to get bruises on the way to realizing your dream. In fact, if you are not making any mistakes, I would argue that you are not living at all. So go ahead and feel free to make mistakes. I know I will.

Has your fear of failure ever stopped you from pursuing your dreams?

3 thoughts on “Fear of failure: the inner life of a (recovering) perfectionist

  1. My dear friend Sid. I am turning 61 in a couple of days. I am a perfectionist wanna-be who cannot function in clutter, yet not able to bring order to the clutter around me; make a simple colour choice for a quilt then start more than I can finish in a life time. I did not even know what wifi was until my third year at MacDiv when you showed me how to access the free internet service using my student ID. I put off until the latest possible moment to buckle down to write that research paper due in the morning for fear of not getting it perfect and then slapping together just any ole thing to get it done. I have had lots of experience making mistakes (two of your lifetimes in fact) and have learned from them. The obsessive compulsive that lives within me spends far more time and energy planning the process and totally forgetting to get the product done. I am so glad that God does not keep score of my mistakes and failures. Instead, draws me in closer and takes my hand and guides me up the next step in His plan for me. I never thought I was smart enough to get a masters and here I am working on a doctorate. Go figure.
    Good article.

    • Thanks for your comment Chris! I’m so glad that, like you said, God does not keep score of my mistakes and failures. So kewl that ur doing ur doctorate! What’s it on/where are u taking it?

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