Breaking the cycle of perfectionism: my personal journey

Nobody wants to hear the F-word, and I know what you’re thinking right now but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about failure. Nobody likes that word or wants to hear that they failed. Yet failure is a part of everyday life, in the same way success is. Some people might disagree with this and that’s okay. For a recovering perfectionist like me, it takes a lot to admit that failure is a part of life and whether we like it or not we are bound to fail at some point, the longer we live on this earth.

I grew up thinking there was no room for failure in life or in other words, failure was not an option. With that rule and mind-set in place, it meant that I would work my hardest to ensure I never failed at anything.  But it wasn’t just about not failing, I wanted to be at the top and I did just that. This served me pretty well until about my 2nd year, 2nd semester of university when failure came rearing it’s ugly head at me for the first time. I failed two modules and it felt like my world had literally come to an end. See, I’d never failed a subject before so seeing the letter “F” on my result was about as alien as swimming in the Atlantic ocean. I couldn’t accept it. I tried my hardest to get my lecturer at the time to re-mark my results, but all my efforts were futile. After much internal struggling, I resigned myself to my fate and vowed that I would more than make up for those grades during the next semester. So, I poured myself into my studies with a renewed vengeance. Every spare moment I wasn’t having a lecture or working on an assignment was spent studying. Needless to say, I aced the following semester with a 4 point GPA. 

Since then, I’ve had other encounters with failure – not necessarily of the academic kind but nonetheless just as unpleasant and traumatic in some cases. Failed relationships, driving tests and job situations. Each time I failed at something, it felt worse than the last time. A sea of emotions would overtake me and I would wrestle internally with not being able to understand why I couldn’t just succeed at whatever it was, after all I was accustomed to excelling at most things. It never occurred to me that even the best of us fail sometimes and that’s normal and part of navigating life. Finally, my epiphany about failure came when I realized I’d attached my sense of identity to my ability to succeed. This meant that whenever I failed at something, my entire identity was questioned and nestling on shaky ground. I no longer felt like the ground beneath me was stable and I was worried I would not be able to overcome this unfamiliar feeling. It has finally taken me a string of failures and a lot of deep reflection to truly understand and even come to appreciate what failure can do for me, if I allow it. We’re told we must work hard to succeed, but nobody ever tells us that even though we work our hardest, sometimes failure is just inevitable. Nobody teaches us that failure in itself is a teacher. I’ve come to realize that success, whilst rewarding and exhilarating teaches very little. Failure however opens up a whole new world of opportunity to learn about ourselves, our world and even challenge previously held views and beliefs. Failure can be the catalyst to enjoying a kind of success borne out of true humility, maturity ,wisdom and experience.

A wise quote put it succinctly “failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of success”. Take for instance, I have failed my driving test 6 times. Now some might think I must be a terrible driver to have failed a mere driving test that many times, but believe me when I say that I am actually a very good driver. In fact on two occasions after taking the test, the examiners have commented on how well I drive even though they still failed me. Human logic would reason “if I’m such a good driver, why am I failing”? Well, that’s a good question but the problem with that question is that it assumes that good drivers never make mistakes. Every test I failed allowed me to continue learning to drive and correcting the mistakes in the first place that caused the failure. So while I may not have a licence to prove my road worthiness as a driver yet, my experience of spending more time learning has greatly improved my skills, arguably more so than some who may have passed the first time. My point is, my encounter with failure allowed me to continue the journey of learning and in the process, build experience. My driving success is no longer defined by the plastic card I long for, but by the experience I have garnered behind the wheels and by the strength of character it has built up in me to brush off disappointment each time and keep going. 

I am no longer afraid of failure. Failure is just another word that has no control over my emotions or my identity. It is just another step on the journey to a life well lived.

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6 thoughts on “Breaking the cycle of perfectionism: my personal journey

  1. This is awesome. Great write up. ‘Failure is part of success’; we have no reason to be afraid of it as it’s just part of the journey leading us to our ultimate destination of success (whatever that means!). Thanks for writing!

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  2. My dear Chika, you write so beautifully well and you touched on a very raw subject which i have had my fair share of struggles with. To quote a particular phrase of yours- “Failure can be the catalyst to enjoying a kind of success borne out of true humility, maturity ,wisdom and experience”- This is what i have gradually learned enjoying success borne out of humility, maturity, etc. God bless you dear.

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    1. Thank you Linda :). I’m so glad to have been able to write something you can identify with. We all struggle with failure in different ways and for me being able to talk about it without fear or shame helps in overcoming that fear of failure.

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