For most of my life, I was so afraid of making a mistake that I wouldn’t even attempt things I knew I wouldn’t be great at on the first try.
I did an A+ job of insulating myself from any situations that would expose me to embarrassment or lack of control.
I may have looked confident on the outside because I loved things that other people ran from, like public speaking and high-stakes interviews, but in reality I loved them because I already knew I was good at them.
The list of things I avoided out of fear of imperfection ranged from silly (I’m 34 and still can’t ride a bike) to debilitating (being unable to ask for help from loved ones even in the midst of genuine crises).
Over time, this created a vicious cycle. I actually DID begin to lack some key skills (see: biking and reciprocal human relationships). More importantly, I lacked the confidence and resilience that’s a result of repeated contact with, and survival from, failure. That only reinforced my original fears of inadequacy, and it became all the more critical to protect myself from being found out.
While I wish I could say that I had some magical, uplifting epiphany that eliminated my fear-based avoidance and perfectionism in one fell swoop, it didn’t quite happen that way.
It started several years ago with one experience of being absolute shit at a new skill I was learning (only due to the mistaken belief I’d be immediately good at it), in front of a group of people I really wanted to impress.
While I was busy beating myself up over my poor performance, the nasty inner-critic voice accidentally did me a favor.
It said, “You’re terrible at this and it’s really embarrassing. If you don’t work through this now and you’re still terrible at this in 5 years, it’ll be even more embarrassing.”
Not a motivational strategy I’d recommend, but let’s be real – sometimes we have to work with what we’ve got. When we’re used to being afraid and critical all the time, reaching self-love nirvana isn’t a realistic step 1 for personal growth.
In short, fear was what I knew how to access, and in that moment it became an ally.
“Failure” redefined itself. I had been considering any minor misstep or vulnerability to be a failure. Now, the prospect of the life unlived and the skills unlearned because of the fear became the real failure to avoid.
I trained my well-worn fear onto that bigger Failure and made myself sit through the discomfort of little mistakes while learning something new, so I could get to the other side of mastery. The fear of not growing was big enough to motivate me to do the thing I’d been avoiding my whole life.
It was wildly unpleasant. And it worked.
That doesn’t mean the battle with perfectionism is over. It does mean that when I mess up these days, the voice of self-recrimination is quieter and shorter-lived. I tell myself that more mistakes means I’m taking more at-bats, and then I celebrate that. And with more practice, I’m actually starting to believe it.
And no, I don’t have a bike…yet.