Feel the fear, and carry on

Mental wellness expert Philippa Saunders has some tips for helping perfectionists learn to thrive

I didn’t know I was terrified of failing, until I failed my driving test. It was intolerable. And then it happened again.

I remember feeling like it was the end of the world. Because I hadn’t failed anything up until then.

“I’m a bit of a perfectionist” is something many people admit to. It’s often said with a sense of pride. You may even remember being advised to say in an job interview that being a perfectionist was your biggest weakness. Well, fear of failure is most often related to being a perfectionist. And there is nothing positive about perfectionism. Nothing at all.

Being a perfectionist is tiring. It can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health symptoms. It can interfere with personal relationships, your work and your overall quality of life.

Great British Life: Perfectionism can lead to poor self-esteem. Photo: Getty ImagesPerfectionism can lead to poor self-esteem. Photo: Getty Images Being a perfectionist is really you running away from feeling rubbish. Deep down, you feel worthless, not good enough, and a bit of a failure. You are constantly fighting to get away from these deep-down feelings and as a result, you set yourself very high standards (and often expects these standards in others too). Failure is intolerable as it puts you in touch with these uncomfortable feelings.

However, the standards perfectionists set themselves are almost impossible to meet so, ironically, they constantly feel like they’re failing. They give themselves a hard time for not meeting their standards, their self-esteem takes a hit, and cue an increased desire to be perfect to get away from the uncomfortable feeling of not being good enough. It’s a vicious circle that only ends one way.

If you are a perfectionist, you are likely to be driven, successful, and talented. But your self-esteem is always quite low and you often engage in negative self-talk. The high standards you set mean you don’t allow yourself to process the things you have achieved. When you’re aiming so high, normal achievements don’t tend to be seen as anything to celebrate. You will often dismiss your successes, saying things like “it wasn’t that difficult to achieve” or “I was just lucky” (you also don’t want to be seen as big headed, and may have some social anxiety).

A fear of failure – driven by perfectionism – is also linked to social anxiety. It is really a fear that people are judging you. This is because you’re judging yourself – harshly. Social anxiety is a projection of our own self-esteem. The reality is that often no one knows when you have failed.

Procrastination occurs when you fear you might fail, or when you don’t think the outcome will be perfect. If you avoid putting yourself in a position of potential failure, you’re trying to protect yourself and avoid any emotional discomfort. In some cases, a fear of failure can cause people to avoid trying altogether. You can be so scared of not succeeding that you steer clear of attempting it in the first place to avoid possible disappointment or embarrassment.

Great British Life: If you're afraid to try, you'll never succeed. Photo: Getty ImagesIf you're afraid to try, you'll never succeed. Photo: Getty Images

Here are some common signs you might be afraid of failure:




Feeling out of control

Feeling helpless

But if you think about it, failure is inevitable. It’s as inevitable as the sun coming up each day. If you really try at something, there is a chance you will fail.

Tips on reframing failure

Here’s the good news. You can change how you see failure and so get rid of perfectionist thinking for good.

Challenge the perfectionist thoughts. Ask yourself: “Am I really a failure if I only score 90% on my test when the pass rate is 70%”, “Do I really have to get everyone to like me?”

See the bigger picture and realise the pressure you feel to be perfect comes from within you and not outside of you. You could spend another three hours making your presentation perfect, but is it really necessary and a good use of your time?

Get used to tolerating the uncomfortable feelings of trying and not being perfect

Reduce your expectations of yourself to manageable levels. Aim for 80% (good enough) rather than 100%.

Do the thing regardless. Stop thinking about it and do it. Failure is feedback and making mistakes is how we learn.

And remember this…. if you fail, you’ve already won, because you tried in the first place. How many people wanted to try but didn’t because they were too scared? So many – but not you.

Philippa Saunders is a licensed ThriveR Coach based in Knutsford. You can find her on Instagram @thrive.with.philippa and Facebook @thrivewithphilippa