Leaders Understand the Pitfalls of Perfectionism and the Fear of Failure

I have never suffered from perfectionism, but I’ve certainly felt the fear of failure. For me, it isn’t perfectionism that produces the fear; it’s competitiveness.

I like being the best at things.

One year, about 15 years ago, my New Year’s resolution was to be the best Scrabble player in the state of Iowa. Then, I learned that there’s an actual tournament circuit and rating system, so my resolution was totally measurable. I started studying techniques and word lists and practiced online to max out my potential. Then, I looked up the ratings and found out that Mike, a guy from Cedar Rapids, was the best in the state at the time. I reached out and met with him for a day of matches and mentoring. I’m sure the folks at the Cedar Rapids Barnes and Noble wondered what was up with these two nerds playing Scrabble all day. We played seven games; he beat me in six of them.

That day, I realized that I was never going to be the best in the state, but I had the ability to be excellent. In my heyday, I think I made it to third or fourth. Now, I’m 19th, and I’m okay with that. Mike is 3rd. The best in the state is a Luther College professor. (To explore the hidden subculture of competitive Scrabble statistics, check out www.cross-tables.com.)

Perfectionism is a shield.

While I’ve not suffered from perfectionism, I can see how it can harm. As a teacher, I saw perfectionist students suffer perpetual disappointment and frustration. I’m not talking just about those who had high standards—I’m talking about tears and self-harm when their scores weren’t perfect. Dr. Brown is more familiar with perfectionism than I, so I’ll paraphrase her thoughts below. 

“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us, when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” ~Brene Brown

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden. Center City, MN.

Perfectionism is defined by…

  • a belief that says, “If I do it all perfectly, I can avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame.”
  • an incorrect assumption based on personal perception which makes it difficult to talk about.
  • the impossibility to achieve thus the inevitability to experience blame, shame, and judgement.
  • a cycle of more shame, because each occurrence is followed by entrenchment in the quest to look and do everything just right.

If you consistently think “If I do everything perfectly, I can avoid pain,” and/or “It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because I’m not good enough,” you might be a perfectionist.

Leaders identify perfectionism in themselves and others.

The solution? Talk about it with your team and define the difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence. Create a list of the differences as well as warning signs that individuals might be slipping into perfectionism. Notice a lack of self-care in yourself or others, and take action when you see the signs. Self-compassion and empathy are antidotes to the perfectionistic fear of failure and will not stand in the way of striving for excellence. In fact, self-compassion and empathy set the stage for excellence.

Bottom line—instead of allowing perfectionism to foster the shame that comes from the fear of failure, leaders model and encourage healthy striving, empathy, and self-compassion.

Let me know if you want to play Scrabble sometime. I use the iPad through the Facebook portal. Really, I’m up for more playing partners.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

This is the third post in a series featuring the work of Brene Brown. Specifically, her book Dare to Lead. Read the introduction post to this series here.
Post #1: Leaders Know the Myths of Vulnerability

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