Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Fear of Failure

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

It may surprise you to learn that perfectionism is closely linked to anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, many people have a fear of making mistakes and suffer from perfectionist behaviors. It’s essential to understand how to let go of these desires so you can improve your quality of life.

Let’s explore the key information you need to know about letting go of perfectionism.

Learn to Enjoy Your Tasks

Letting go of perfectionism is an important factor in managing your fear of failure. Many people who suffer from perfectionism find themselves striving to excel at tasks or obligations they don’t even like.

If you find enjoyment in the things you do, you will be much more forgiving when you make a mistake. You won’t be as rigid or idealistic about how you perform and you won’t be as likely to dread executing them. Even if you fall short of your goals, you can focus more on personal growth.

Of course, you won’t always enjoy everything you do. For instance, you might have to study for an important exam or complete a challenging project. Instead of worrying solely about your performance, appreciate the information you are learning and how you can apply it to your life. By letting go of perfectionism, you are likely to carry out your personal responsibilities with more efficiency and with a more positive outlook. 

Know Your Capabilities

In order to reach your goals in a healthy and balanced way, it is important to have realistic expectations of your capabilities. Letting go of perfectionism means accepting that you have limitations. If you want to be a top-tier athlete in a certain sport but you lack the skills to do so, your rigidity in carrying out this unrealistic plan is destructive. Your perfectionism and drive to boost your ego will leave you working harder only to feel more frustrated and defeated.

By accepting that you might not have the same athletic build, the same level of coaching, or the same natural talent as other athletes, you can devise another plan that will be more realistic. You may not reach your original dream goal, but you can still dramatically improve upon your skills through training and discipline.

By becoming more flexible and creative with your goal setting, you can find a better fit for your lifestyle. You will likely find that the new journey is not only much more enjoyable, but that it actually allows you to achieve more success personally and professionally.

Understand You Can’t Control Everything

If you suffer from perfectionism, you likely have distorted thought patterns about why you fail to reach your goals effectively and efficiently. You might continue to push harder while losing sight of the fact that your mental and physical health are declining. You refuse to accept that things outside of your control are affecting your performance. You remain dependent on your original plan working out in order to feel okay.

Unfortunately, virtually any situation can unexpectedly veer off course. You might get the flu a few days before a big performance, for instance. Or, unforeseen traffic could cause you to miss an important meeting.

Learning to let go of what you can’t control is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your mental health. Dwelling on details like these will only perpetuate stress and anxiety.

Separate Self-Esteem From Success

It is not uncommon for people to tie their self-worth to their personal and professional achievements. A promotion at work, an invitation to a respected social event, or an athletic win can increase self-esteem, confidence and motivation. In turn, a bad performance review, a social rejection, or an athletic failure can lead to feelings of discouragement and lack of motivation. However, the ability to be resilient in the face of failure is key to balanced mental health.

If your self-esteem is greatly diminished by lapses in performance or rejection, it is important to reframe your inner narrative. Rather than overly identifying with the outcome, you can learn from the experience, try something different, and set goals to improve. If you continue to hold onto the need for doing and being the best, your mental health will be adversely affected. These rigid self-built expectations will lead you down a continued path of unhealthy behaviors, ultimately contributing to your long-term stress levels.

Maintain Self-Respect

Maintaining a base level of self-respect means setting realistic standards for yourself. Allow yourself to forgive past mistakes and to accept circumstances outside of your control. Work on accepting your humanness.

You will have many opportunities to improve your future performance. And even if you don’t, a crucial part of respecting yourself involves finding peace in the possibility that other people might be disappointed in you. Your well-being cannot be dependent on receiving admiration from other people. Improved self-worth comes from staying true to your inner values. By moving away from harsh criticism and self-imposed pressures, and practicing self-love and acceptance, you can achieve a healthier sense of self.

Try Something New

If you tend toward perfectionism, you might struggle with trying new things. You might stick closely to what you know, trying diligently to perfect your skills rather than using that time to experience new opportunities. The fear of not being good at something leads to missed opportunity and lesser quality of life. You might shy away from exercise, playing an instrument, or engaging in an artistic pursuit. This will deny you the chance to discover hidden talents or pleasures, and can perpetuate a cycle of anxiety and depression.  


If you make a mistake, try not to take things too seriously. Focus on the learning process and the progression as opposed to perfecting a goal. In fact, your new goal can be centered around finding delight in being perfectly imperfect in your new pursuits. This will help you let go of perfection and learn to err gracefully. Your positive attitude will help keep you motivated, engaged and proud of yourself for stepping out of your comfort zone.

Take Time to Self-Reflect

Be honest with yourself about who you are and why you feel certain ways. If failing to reach a goal causes distress, ask yourself why.

Did you set the goal for yourself or others? This is also a great time to dissect the reason behind your shortcomings and look at what you can do to improve. Those suffering from perfectionism often don’t view failure as an option, so they never want to confront it when it occurs.

Work With a Professional

Seek out the guidance of a mental health professional who specializes in therapy for perfectionism. They will have the tools and resources necessary to help you live a more fulfilling life and minimize the behaviors that trap you in this perfectionistic loop.

Research licensed therapists who are well schooled in cognitive and behavioral techniques.
Ask if they specialize in treating fear of failure. Inquire about the techniques they use, their success rates, and what you can expect in a treatment plan.

 

Let Go of Perfectionism 

Letting go of perfectionism will release you from your fear of failure, guide you toward self-acceptance, and boost your quality of life. By learning to alter your negative self-talk, accept your limitations and create a realistic framework of expectation, you can improve your overall  mental health.

Make an appointment today at Advanced Behavioral Health, LLP. Our psychologist provides CBT for fear of failure using evidence-based treatment techniques.

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