Perfectionists Need to Embrace Failure 

9 minute read
Curran, author of The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough, is a professor of psychology at the London School of Economics and author of a landmark study that the BBC hailed as “the first to compare perfectionism across generations.” His research has been featured in media ranging from the Harvard Business Review to CNN and he has appeared on numerous television and radio programs

Imagine a world without failure. A republic of success, where our entire existence consists of one, long, never ending victory lap. Would it be enlivening? Or would it lack something essential? Sports fans know the answers to those questions in their bones. Remove the possibility that their side could lose, and few would turn up to watch the procession.

Cycling provides perhaps the most enjoyable failure theatre. At the end of mountain stages, a delicious monodrama always unfolds. Cameras set the viewer’s gaze squarely on the diehards, who’ve shed the peloton, and are farthest up the incline. All of them have tiredness and tension in their legs. Rather than a smooth revolution of the pedals, they appear jaded, their shoulders chop from side to side, their legs wade through the revolutions as if they’re riding through molasses.

Yet amid the collective anguish, there’s always one cyclist, smuggled away in the bunch, who’s measured their effort slightly better than everyone else. Their breathing is controlled, their shoulders rock-solid, their legs spinning in fluid synchrony. With perhaps a kilometre to the summit, suddenly, just like that, they’ll flick the gears on their bicycle an arise from their saddle, stamping their pedals as hard as they possibly can.

Seeing this unfold is agonizing for the exhausted competitors. They grimace with raw hurt. They gallantly try to stay on the coattails of the now runaway leader, knowing, in their heart if not their legs, that the race is already over. One hundred meters to go, hands littered with blisters, calves cramping with excess lactate, they must sit down on their saddles and watch in resignation as the elated victor crosses the finish line to raucous applause.

The brave losers roll in one by one behind the elated winner, their heads bowed, their exhaustion compounded by bitter disappointment.

Perfectionistic people struggle a lot with failure. After all, at its root, perfectionism is an escape from ourselves, or to be more exact, an escape from our imperfect selves. Which is why, when we study perfectionism, we like to see what happens when perfectionists fail. We set impossible goals for them, create competitions that they cannot possibly win, and when they fail, we take a good look at how they respond.

Psychologist Andy Hill and I spearhead much of this research. And to get the maximum effect, we harness the anguish of sports. In one study, we set up a cycling sprint challenge and invited volunteer cyclists to race in fours against each other. After they’d raced, no matter where they finished, we told them that they’d come last.

Afterward, we asked the cyclists how they felt. All of them reported higher guilt and shame compared to when they’d first stepped foot in the lab—they’d just tasted bitter defeat, after all. But it was the cyclists who self-reported the highest levels of perfectionism who reported the steepest spikes in guilt and shame.

Why? Well, since the perfectionist’s self-worth hangs on the outcomes of their efforts, they naturally feel self-conscious when they’ve failed, especially when they’ve failed publicly. And there’s something else perfectionists do when they fail, something of importance not just for their psychology, but for their behavior, too: They withhold subsequent effort.

Because you can’t fail at something you don’t attempt.

In another study, Hill tried teased out this curious form of self-sabotage. Once again, he set up a cycling challenge, only this time the cyclists were racing against themselves. Following a sham fitness test, he set the cyclists a goal of covering a certain distance in a time that should’ve been comfortable. The cyclists worked flat-out, and when they were done, Hill delivered the bad news: You failed.

He then told them to have another go, and that’s when something astonishing happened. The cyclists who scored low on perfectionism said the effort they put in on the second trial did not change. If anything, they worked slightly harder. The cyclists who scored high on perfectionism, however, did the opposite. They stopped trying. On the second attempt, after the first failure, their effort fell off a cliff.

Withholding effort in this way is what I like to call perfectionistic self-preservation. Conventional wisdom says that perfectionists strive relentlessly to meet their excessive standards. And that’s true. But when you look closer, they’re always striving. When the going gets tough, the trepidation of failure—and the guilt and shame that failure would bring with it—is so fierce that it ties them to the spot. They worry about how that failure would look to other people.

So, to make other people’s discovery of their shortcomings a little more difficult, they simply stop trying when faced with a challenge that’s likely expose a vulnerability, a flaw, a chink in the armor.

Read More: How Perfectionism Leads to Burnout—and What You Can Do About it

Unfortunately, real life isn’t like Hill’s experiment. You can’t just withdraw from most tasks without consequences. There are deadlines to meet and bosses to please. That’s why perfectionists, when they can’t remove themselves from the picture, tend to do the next best thing: Procrastinate.

Procrastination is often talked about as a time-management problem. But as psychologist Fuchsia Sirois argues, for the perfectionist, it’s an anxiety-management problem. Her research shows that rather than tackling difficult tasks head-on, perfectionistic people dither, check social media, go internet hopping, or cook up the latest TikTok recipe. The relief they get from switching the brain off for that moment is soothing but, ultimately, when they’re done watching all five seasons of the latest must-see television series, the task is still there, right where they left it.

Far from helping matters, procrastination just compounds perfectionists’ shame and guilt. Behind the scenes, work keeps piling up. With every additional unfinished presentation, unseen email, or unwritten report comes even more effort just to keep up with the backlog. They distract themselves, tinker, dawdle, redo, and iterate, all in one Herculean effort to postpone responding to testy emails, starting big projects, or sending out sub-standard work. In other words, they use procrastination to try and circumvent the emotional repercussions of failure.

But eventually, they’re just damaged by the passage of time.

This self-sabotage is why, contrary to popular belief, those who score higher in perfectionism don’t perform any better than those who score lower. Perfectionists are overstrivers who often find themselves pushed to the point of burnout. And they’re also inefficient allocators of where that overstriving is channelled. Putting off and avoiding challenging tasks, with a low probability of success; preferring instead to channel their efforts toward the completion of more straightforward tasks, with a high probability of success.

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

So why, then, do we still believe the successful perfectionist myth? The answer is survivor bias. Survivor bias is the mental error of learning only from life’s winners. And there are plenty of those in the perfectionism camp. Demi Lovato, Steve Jobs, Andre Agassi, Michelle Pfeifer, Virginia Wolf, Serena Williams—the list goes on and on. These are all high-profile figures who, in their triumphant climbs to the top, exhibited intelligence, daring, drive, and, yes, a high dose of perfectionism.

Then again, many others exhibit the exact same traits. They just exhibit them outside the spotlight, striving in significant discomfort without a Grammy, Booker prize, immense personal fortune, or Grand Slam to show for it. Since the experiences of these perfectionists are hidden and out of sight, the experiences of the perfectionists who did “make it” leads us to incorrectly conclude that perfectionism must’ve been the secret to their success.

We’ve got to be extremely wary of this selection effect. Because when  the only people television shows, podcasts, blue tick accounts, and YouTube channels care about – and learn from – are the winners (or to be more exact, the outliers) then we’ll invariably see perfectionism in high performance when no such relationships exists. Survivor bias has duped many high-profile pundits, coaches, celebrities, researchers and psychologists. And it’s also duped us—as a society—into putting perfectionism on a gilded pedestal and calling it our favourite flaw.

If we’re going to bust the successful perfectionist myth once and for all, we’re going to need to view it from a different angle. Rather than looking to the few perfectionists whose circumstances, genes, physiology, smarts, or sheer good fortune propelled them to the top, we must look to the great majority of perfectionists who didn’t quite scale those dizzying heights. Because when we do that, as Hill discovered in his experiments on failure, we see a different picture. Perfectionists overstrive to the point of burnout, and also, at the same time, will self-sabotage their chances of success if it means avoiding the unbearable guilt and shame of defeat.

That’s not the ticket to success. On the contrary, despite all the breathless striving, perfectionism makes us no more likely to succeed—generating a great deal of distress and self-doubt in the process. The answer to that paradox lies not in simply dialing it back a bit. It lies in learning to embrace the inevitability of setbacks, failures, and things not going quite as we planned. And being able to sit comfortably next to those humanizing experiences, to let them be, at least for a little while, not needing to constantly rehabilitate them on the redemptive arc of growth or excellence, not needing to strive them out of existence.

Success is sweet. But failure is so much more intimately revealing of what it means to be human.

Adapted from The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough by Thomas Curran. Copyright © 2023 by Thomas Curran. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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