The Myth of Perfection and How to Challenge our Fear of Failure


Within the last month, I have experienced a few public moments of failure that sent me into a tailspin of self-doubt and a serious ego-trip. One was in a team CrossFit competition a few weeks ago when I didn’t perform as well as I had anticipated during one of the movements. The other was last week, when I made a few mistakes during a presentation to business leaders in my corporate job. Now that I’ve had some time to process those events and talk to a few people about my reactions to them, I’m able to reflect on these opportunities for growth and more clearly understand my responses to them.

It has also become quite clear that we all struggle with this on some level.  After divulging my own stories, several of my friends and family members have subsequently shared their own about the need to be perceived as perfect, and most of them revealed that they either avoid the situations altogether or they self-sabotage so they don’t have to publicly display their “imperfection.”  For example, one friend purposely performed poorly during soccer tryouts her senior year of high school, because the stakes were so much higher, and she didn’t want to fail according to the higher standard.  She would rather not play at all than have to demonstrate that she wasn’t the best. Another is currently afraid to quit a job she hates, because the people in her social circle might view her as a failure in the difficult industry she’s in.  Another avoids asking out the girls he’s interested in, because he assumes he’ll be perceived as just another guy hitting on them and will be rejected. Another is hustling so hard to achieve the perfect body and can’t reveal that to others, because she needs her self-image to be perceived as confident and effortless. All of us are plagued by the need to be perceived as perfect in some way.

I really don’t enjoy not being good at things, and I don’t know anyone who does. So many of us have been programmed to believe that we must be perfect or we’re not enough.  Based on my conversations with others, the reason behind this commonly held belief varies based on each person’s specific upbringing, but the responses are very similar. We’re all ashamed to be seen as less than perfect, and our initial reaction is to avoid situations that might reveal our shortcomings.

Using my own recent experiences as examples, I had no interest in competing in the team CrossFit competition, because I knew there would be movements in the workouts I don’t do well and some I simply can’t do.  In regards to my presentation, I have never been a fan of public speaking, and I have never sought out an opportunity to do so. Despite receiving positive feedback after most of my presentations and public speaking engagements, I always get nervous before, and I can’t stand the idea of others potentially seeing those nerves (they usually can’t, but last week they did). Maintaining an image of limited shortcomings seems preferable to actually living my life and experiencing “failure.”  At least this is the mindset I had until a few years ago, and it clearly still needs a lot more work.

Now that the initial sting of publicly displaying a few of my many weaknesses (“opportunities for development,” as we call them in the workplace) has worn off, I am able to understand that my initial reaction of never wanting to put myself in those situations again is not the right approach. In fact, it’s a terrible one. Rather, we can all do the following when faced with these situations:

1.     Talk about our fears, insecurities, shortcomings, stories of rejection, etc. with people we trust. We connect with these parts of each other, not images of perfection. It simply doesn’t exist, so how can anyone resonate with it?  As Brene Brown states, shame needs secrecy and silence to survive, so simply saying these things out loud is immensely helpful. Every time I have shared my personal struggles and fears around failure, the other person has a very similar story, and they certainly have experienced almost identical feelings. One of the great benefits of talking openly about insecurities is the ability for other people to connect with us in a deeper way, and it might be the invitation they’ve been looking for to openly discuss their own struggles too. 

2.     Consider the worst-case scenario: when we’re faced with a situation where failure is an option, think of the worst-case scenario. Imagine yourself failing, being rejected, showing embarrassment, whatever the case may be. And ask yourself if you can survive. I usually get a pit in my stomach at the thought of one of those outcomes, but yes, I will always survive. Chances are you will too.

3.     Intentionally put ourselves into more situations that will require us to face these fears: Once we have determined that we will in fact survive the situation, we need to force ourselves to do the thing that may result in failure. This has been the biggest game-changer for me, because acting in spite of our fears reinforces the belief in ourselves that we can do the things we’re afraid of. Especially when I fail and get right back at it. This creates a positive feedback loop, and the momentum is huge!  It’s a great way to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

Staying in our comfort zones and our neat little boxes of what we excel at makes for a really boring and stale life. It's the easy way out, it protects our egos, and it's comfortable, but it's also a sure way to keep us stagnant without any growth.  We'll never reach the level of success we ultimately want if we're paralyzed by our fear of failure or if we don’t know how to continue moving forward despite those outcomes. Additionally, we're doing everyone else around us a serious disservice if we're not willing to show our flaws and the reality of simply being human.  We can't connect with each other's images of perfection, because they're simply not real.

Imagine what would be possible if we all collectively dropped our need to be perceived as perfect. We can’t control others, but we can commit to shattering our own perfected image. A life of imperfect adventure sounds like a hell of a lot more fun to me.