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Fear of not being good enough: the inner life of a (recovering) perfectionist

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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 can this recovering perfectionist!

In a couple of days, I will be starting my Ph.D. journey at McMaster Divinity College in the Theology program. Maybe it’s just me, but I already feel like I’m behind on my readings and school work… and school hasn’t even started yet! It’s really difficult for me not to look around the people who are going and not feel like I’m good enough. Some of them are presenting at conferences or on a panel for some colloquium thing… and I’m at home wondering what I’m going to cook for lunch. Sigh.

There is actually a thing called Impostor Syndrome.  It’s a condition found among many graduate students and academics. Basically, it’s this feeling that they’re a fraud and live in fear that they’re going to be found out. No matter how many awards, medals, plaques, trophies and words of affirmation they may receive, they never internalize their accomplishments. They attribute it to external factors like luck or that they just worked harder. For me, another factor that I have attributed my success to is lack of qualified candidates during the time that I won. It is pretty horrible the more I think about it because in my refusal to acknowledge my accomplishment, I have to denigrate other people’s abilities.

Throughout high school, I was a member of the Honours List. I graduated from my undergrad as a cum laude student (with honours). I even graduated from my Masters program on the Honours List and the recipient of the academic excellence award. And I still think I’m dumb! Usually, people tell you that you don’t need to listen to what others tell you. Instead, just believe in yourself. However, I find myself being the exact opposite. I have to listen to what others have told me (aka you’re smart!) rather than listening to what I tell myself (aka you’re really dumb!) Other people are way more gracious and capable of seeing things that I cannot see in myself. I think the only time that I feel smart is when I feel threatened and someone says (or makes me feel) like I’m dumb… it is only then that I act as if I know and believe that I’m smart.

When you have spent the majority of your life being constantly compared to others by your parents, it’s really hard to switch it off. It may have started off with them, but you end up internalizing that type of toxic mentality. There comes up a point though when you have to be responsible for your own actions and thoughts. I get riled up when people blame their parents, friends, or some other external agents for their own issues. Part of growing up is taking responsibility for your actions and stop blaming others. You are the one in charge of living your life and you can’t pass the buck to someone else when things don’t go well for you.

At the end of the day, I am thankful that I am no longer my own. My worth and self-esteem is found in the One Who has given Himself up for me. As I think of the love of Jesus, I am comforted that His love for me is unconditional. He’s not going to love me more or less because of my academic achievements or professional success in life. He loves me just the way I am. To Him, I’m good enough.

Thank God!

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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?