I live with a demon.
His name is Perfectionism, and he helps me see. Through Perfectionim’s eyes, I notice everyone else’s successes– and with clarity only Perfectionism can give, I see my own failures.
I’ve owned cockroaches, spiders, and snakes. I’ve reached the summits of mountains and highest branches of ancient trees. I’ve performed solos before audiences of hundreds. Fearless, you think. But all it takes is the beginning of Perfectionism’s soft whisper: “Failure…” In a heartbeat I’m reduced to quivering doubt.
He never means a one-time “oops.” Fail once and laugh it off–that makes a good story later. Perfectionism prefers to find things I try hard at. He likes to wait till I’ve done my hours in the practise room and then point out the fingering I still miss every time. Once I’ve rewritten a draft four times, he sneaks up to remind me that I still have too many adverbs — that I probably always will — that I’m a permanent failure.
And see, here’s the funny thing: I’m good at a lot of things. But Perfectionism likes to play this fun comparison game. He says, “Well, your performance was pretty good–but hers is better!” And as soon as I acknowledge that, and my life spirals into a self-deprecating depression. I question every performance of my entire life. I recognise my incompetence, suppose I’ll never improve, and fear my entire future. And that seems ridiculous–and I realise this.“See,” I think, “I’m fearing my entire future because of one mistake. I’m completely overreacting. Look at all those other people–they don’t overreact. I’m a failure at reacting. I’m incompetent. My future is hopeless.” And the cycle continues.
Fear. Depression. Self-ridicule. More fear.
That fear smacked me upside the head this week. Check this thing out:
Suffice to say Chandler won a book deal in this awesome competition that hundreds if not thousands of people entered.
Hundreds if not thousands–including me. And as I begin to be happy for him, Perfectionism, sitting on my shoulder, interrupts. “Failure…see what he did? What did you do?” And my happiness dissipates, because the truth is that other people were better. My work simply wasn’t the best. And, realising that, the wicked spiral begins again:
“I didn’t win the competition. Probably I’m just a horrible writer. I’m probably kidding myself. I also missed some questions on my exam yesterday, so I’m probably also a horrible student. In fact, I’m probably a horrible person. Maybe I should give up and stop pretending.”
But lately I’ve been talking back to Perfectionism. Because you know what? Here’s the truth: Someone will always be better than you at something. In fact, there will probably be someone better than you at anything and everything. Let that sink in a moment.
Now, before you fall into a devastated spiral with me, let me tell you another truth: It’s okay. You do not have to be the best. Because you are not defined by what you’ve done. Failing does not make you a failure. It makes you human.
If you can’t give yourself permission to fail, let me help you: I hereby give you permission not to be the best. I give you permission to be not even good– not even mediocre. I give you permission to fail and fall flat on your face.
It does not make you a worse person.
When the Perfectionism demon is on your shoulder, when he points out your flaws and mistakes, don’t try to tell him he’s wrong– he’s probably not. But don’t let him tell you they define you, because they don’t. Instead of moping in a corner or giving up entirely, try listening to people who are better than you. Ask their strategies and advice. Try doing things differently than you have before. And if you really want to kill the little demon, try being happy for people. Even people who feel threateningly better than you are. Even people who make you feel like a mediocre pretender. Cause it’s cool that other people can do things.
And because somehow, when you can be happy for other people, you find you can be happy with yourself.
And because no matter how many people are better than you, you are not a failure. Even if you fail– you are not a failure. You are unique and talented and worthwhile, and maybe you haven’t found your niche, and maybe you need more practise, and maybe you just haven’t had a chance to shine– but you are not a failure.