Fear Of Failure, Fear Of Success, Passion For Excellence — The Complexity Of Perfectionism

My 5 minute intro video

Before we get into it, I have to share this moment of insight. Have you struggled with what to say when people ask you, what do you do for a living? Or they want to know, how are you? Or they ask you for your favorite book or your favorite color or your favorite documentary or your favorite anything? Well my friends, here is your one size fits all answer. You say: IT’S COMPLICATED. Then, if they look at you smiling expectantly, you can elaborate. If they glaze over, groan, or walk away mumbling, you know you don’t have to waste your time explaining.

And so it is with perfectionism. Complicated. I’ll never forget the gifted teenage boy I was working with. He wasn’t doing well in school and his parents were trying to figure out why. I don’t remember what I said in the moment but I remember his response. “It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple.” He was so right.

There are two types of perfectionism. Intrinsic or healthy. Extrinsic or unhealthy. I have written about intrinsic before. Here. And extrinsic here. And here.

Today, I am going to give you a new look at the intrinsic variety and then share my thoughts about the client dilemma I mention in the video above. Her fears of failure and success.

Intrinsic perfectionism is the innate version that is your deep, heartfelt striving for beauty, balance, harmony, justice, and precision. It is not ego-driven or pathological. It is what your soul must have to feel nourished, authentic, and met. It comes naturally to you. You may not realize that many others do not have this, so they (and you) may label it obsessive, neurotic, controlling, or compulsive.

It is not any of those things.

I don’t usually use celebrities as examples but I happened upon this YouTube interview of Barbra Streisand. She personifies intrinsic perfectionism. If you know of her acting, singing, and directing, all of it is extremely meticulous, detail oriented, precise– in films, down to each single frame (she says in the interview). And this drive is not just professional. In the video, she talks about her personal need for beauty and how carefully she has designed her home. Colors, textures, sounds, tastes, smells. This is not a wealthy person being self-indulgent. This is a gifted human with the highest standards for beauty, balance, harmony, and precision. And when it comes to justice, she has that, too. Streisand is an outspoken activist who cares deeply and has contributed quite a lot to creating a better world.

Granted, you are probably not a celebrity, but I am betting you can relate to this description. As I say in my video, your job is to embrace this about yourself and appreciate the extraordinary quality that emerges when you live this way. That said, there will be days when you can’t quite satisfy these standards– many moments when there is no time because you still have to do the laundry. Thus, you will need to evaluate the specific situation you are in. Is supreme depth and highest quality really necessary here? Might your standards be lowered in this particular case?

Consider, then, there will be times when you will need to prioritize. Otherwise, some important tasks may be missed. Relationships may be neglected. For example: Do you really need to send the perfect email to your friend? Does the apple pie need to look gorgeous as long as it tastes delicious? Will your three year old really notice if the birthday party is skipped this year? Does the newsletter you design and write for your electric utility job need to be visually stunning and comprehensive so that you have to work overtime to complete it when, chances are, your customers will toss it in the recycle bin unread?


Got it?

Now, referring to my client’s fears of failure and success, what did I tell her as she was unable to learn the new painting technique quickly and easily? When she was tempted to quit because she did not feel she had natural talent and was not used to having to work at something, having to practice, and struggle to learn?

This: It’s complicated. You are not used to struggling because typically you learn many things quickly. But it is good and appropriate that some things take time and practice. This is how it is for most people. You may want to quit because this struggle may confirm in your mind that you are not gifted after all. But giftedness does not equal advanced abilities in all areas all the time! And you need to model for your kids that patience, practice, struggle, and setbacks are all part of growth and learning. Sometimes the greatest satisfaction comes after an achievement borne of struggle.

My client looked at me. Not particularly convinced by my explanation.

What did I tell my client about her desire to hide her accomplishments for fear of criticism, jealousy, and rejection by others?

This: It’s complicated. It is true that you may need to select carefully who you tell about your achievements. Not everyone will celebrate your successes. But that does not mean you should not achieve or that you should not strive for excellence. (Excellence, not perfection.) Your job is to be you. To shine your light. It will be important to find at least a few humans who love that you are so prolific or so talented or so accomplished or so kind-hearted. Build a team, however small, of advocates who are not threatened but who are thrilled by your pure, authentic, magnificent youness.

My client looked at me. She will think about it.

And, I imagine, my dearest magnificent complicated rainforesters, that you will think about it, too.


To my blogEEs: This one took me a while to write. Do I think I’m a perfectionist? Do you relate to many of these complications? We would love to hear from you. As always, thank you for being here. Much love!

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

22 responses to “Fear Of Failure, Fear Of Success, Passion For Excellence — The Complexity Of Perfectionism”

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  1. Mirjampje Avatar

    Thank you!! THIS exactly describes how I always feel about perfectionism, or setting the bar high. I’ve always (almost subconsciously) known that it is not setting a high standard, but that that just IS the standard. That that bar is just how things should be (and yes, to other’s that probably still looks like a ridiculously high standard :-)). And it also describes the conversations I would have with others about perfectionism, where they would tell you, oh yeah I am also a perfectionist, and you might feel a hinge of connection, and then they explain, and I would just feel like, no, that’s not what I am talking about.
    But indeed, it probably makes life easier to choose where to meet that bar, and that in other areas it is fine if the apple pie doesn’t look perfect.
    So… excellence from now on!

    1. pprober Avatar

      Yes, Mirjampje!Thank you for sharing.

  2. Fourteen Tips For Parents of Gifted Children – YOUR RAINFOREST MIND

    […] a strength. Differentiate this from fear of failure and pressure to be perfect which is unhealthy perfectionism. Encourage your child to try projects where they might make mistakes or even fail. Model this […]

  3. What Does Exceptional Giftedness Look Like In A Teen? | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] gifted kids I have known, Judith’s emotions were explosive at times and she struggled with perfectionism and procrastination. She said, “I don’t want to turn in crappy work that isn’t up to my one […]

  4. Dina L Sayers Avatar
    Dina L Sayers

    Thank you so much for this post, Paula! The timing was perfect for me, since I recently started a new job in a highly technical position with a fairly steep learning curve and some days I’m SUPER mean to myself about either A.) not picking up everything immediately or B.) not knowing everything beforehand. Even though I receive lots of positive feedback from my superiors, sometimes it’s tough to convince myself that I even deserve to be there and honestly I ‘think’ I fit in really well. Your words reminded me that I really want to be an expert at all the things and I’m used to being able to make that happen without trying very hard. When it doesn’t I feel completely stupid and I berate myself into oblivion. Needless to say it’s been a rough six months or so, but I think I’m getting the hang of it. 😉

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, Dina. So many people will relate to what you are saying. I may have to quote you in a future post. ” I really want to be an expert at all the things and I’m used to being able to make that happen without trying very hard. When it doesn’t I feel completely stupid and I berate myself into oblivion….” Yup.

  5. dw Avatar

    I love this distinction! I’ve so often found it helpful in my own life; it gets at the subtle Tao of gifted work. In The Secret of the Golden Flower (a Taoist meditation manual!), Master Lu writes

    The decision must be carried out with a whole heart, and the result not sought for; the result will come of itself.

    If I am rigidly outcome-driven, rather than abandoning myself to the process, I am probably in a state of extrinsic perfectionism and paradoxically less likely to achieve that outcome! But this can be hard to diagnose. Choosing the right word in a poem, or color in a painting, seems “outcome-driven”. One question I often ask myself: would I still do this if no one else saw the end result? This is different from leaving the thing undone, which can feel (and maybe other readers will identify!) “icky” or “wrong”. Aiming at completion and rightness in the thing itself can be integral to the process, and the intrinsic goals of feeling “authentic, nourished and met”. Even if no one reads my poem, or looks at my painting, I want to satisfy my own sense of aesthetic rightness in the world.

    Naturalness of completion is different from an extrinsic outcomes that might result, e.g. the A+, the essay prize, the MacArthur fellowship, so another question might be: am I aiming at some other outcome? One I perhaps have not fully declared or admitted to myself? I’m not suggesting the A+ is a bad goal; rather, we should not conflate activities! That is (part of) how we get into those corrosive feedback loops of external perfectionism, since the conditions for completion are no longer coherent, but distributed across efforts in an unnatural way. Each activity has its rhythm, season, time and place, its intrinsic contours, and like water we should try to follow them. As Lao Tzu says,

    Water give life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.

    Water flows through mountains and valleys alike, but not both at once. So too, it makes sense sometimes to focus on the novel, sometimes on the Pulitzer; but not both at once, unless we want to get stuck in a feedback loop of extrinsic perfectionism. The water does not “strive” by trying to flow uphill, or dictating the shape of its container; it does not conflate activities, or pick outcomes in advance. The water achieves unconsciously, without unnecessary struggle, and leaves no record other than the path it naturally carves out. As Chuang Tzu says:

    They were upright and correct, without knowing that to be so was righteousness; they loved one another, without knowing that to do so was benevolence; they were honest and good-hearted, without knowing that it was loyalty; they fulfilled their engagements, without knowing that to do so was good faith; in their simple movements they helped one another, without thought of giving or receiving gifts. Therefore their actions left no trace, and we have no record of their affairs.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, dw. A lovely way to describe this: “…to satisfy my own sense of aesthetic rightness in the world.” Yes! (May have to share that elsewhere…) Your comments add a fullness to the post that makes it so much richer.

  6. Georgia Patrick Avatar
    Georgia Patrick

    Brilliant. Here’s my big action item and I’ll need advice from many Rainforest Minds to do it. “Build a team, however small, of advocates who are not threatened but who are thrilled by your pure, authentic, magnificent youness.” Paula, I will build a team, then the online community, and scale it globally for Gifted Professionals and Communicators. I’ve been working for two years to get extremely clear on who, why and where else they are searching for each other–and still wanting and yearning for this specific Rainforest Mind species. Yes, it’s complicated.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sounds exciting, Georgia!

  7. Lenette Howard Avatar
    Lenette Howard

    As a perfectionist and a lifelong slob, I’ve been all over the map. I blame my slobdom on rebellion against the grim perfectionism of my mother and grandmother, yet watched my perfectionism grow in areas they never touched, like writing, painting, anything artistic. Finding some balance in my life has been a challenge, to say the least. Yet I’m proud of taming my inner slob and learning to live with some structure which oddly, comforts me a great deal.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’ve known people who don’t think they are perfectionists because they keep a messy house. But, yes, it might be rebellion, or the thought that if it can’t be perfect, I will leave it in chaos. Kind of the all or nothing approach. Balance can be an important goal. Thank you for sharing, Lenette.

  8. soulbridgecoaching Avatar

    I greatly appreciated the perfectionism of the heart surgeon who replaced my husband’s heart valve and created a new aortic root. I greatly appreciated the craftsmanship of the woodworker who renovated our house. And I greatly appreciated the perfectionism of the dentist who rejected a front tooth’s crown (two times) because she wanted the color to be just right. But when it came to my own perfectionism, that was another matter. I have since learned about “living wabi sabi,” like the perfect imperfection of the natural world, and it has become easier for me to accept my own imperfections and those of others. When I feel the disappointment or discomfort of imperfection, I just whisper to myself, wabi sabi, and that usually brings a sense of release and relief.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, yes! We appreciate the perfectionism in our practitioners. Absolutely! And thank you for the wabi sabi reminder.

  9. hksounds Avatar

    Complicated defines all of my earliest memories, including my responses to questions, which I later understood were not actually meant to be answered in depth. As if anything less could be an answer worth giving. And it’s still the same.

    As for perfectionism, I have found the perfect solution: a deadline. Thanks for the post.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      That is one of the challenges, hksounds. To the RFM, depth matters, but others may just want the simple response. Thank you.

  10. lackosleep Avatar

    Hah! That’s my default answer to most questions asked ABOUT me… “it’s not as easy as yes or no”. Especially when asked by therapists! But then again, I just failed at my own explanation of why I’m not a perfectionist nor control freak, because I just back spaced over all of it, and left this instead. grrr.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I would hope that the therapists are looking for details beyond yes or no! 🙂 Thank you, lackosleep!

  11. M. J. Cuthbertson Avatar
    M. J. Cuthbertson

    Perfectionism a story: The one thing I observed over the years when people become dreadfully ill is those that are left are often upset by the feelings they didn’t do enough. When Jacquie, my beloved, became ill in May 2011 I decided to do my best and avoid those feelings.

    I let go of everything and focused entirely on her. And by focused I mean being quiet and listening to her verbal and nonverbal wishes and desires. That included giving her a great deal of alone time. Space when she could write and create art and walk and meditate. And especially, I folded the laundered towels exactly how she wanted them.

    Apparently, the environment I created for us worked. In October 2012 Jacquie said, “I know we have had all the medical stuff to do every week, but this has been the best year of my life.” She was adopted as a baby, and felt qualities of abandonment from that. She had a nearly 30 year marriage that was filled with abuse from her spouse. She also said, “This is the first time I felt truly loved for being myself and know I’ll never be alone.”

    She died in February 2013. She was always going to die. The five year median survival rate at that time was zero. I looked it up recently and saw it’s now at 25%. I didn’t manage to do everything perfectly, but I tried to find a balance point that with every choice moved as close as possible to what she wanted. And choosing to do that knowing the inevitable outcome, that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I learned perfection is finding the balance between what needs to be done and what can be done. It’s the fulcrum not the lever.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, what a beautiful story, M.J. Thank you. “I learned perfection is finding the balance between what needs to be done and what can be done. It’s the fulcrum not the lever.” .Yes

  12. Florence Avatar

    Its complicated. I love it! That’s now officially my new default response. Many times, I give the easiest response because its just that: easy. Its easy for the other person to understand a response like: i’m fine, even tho for me it might be totally untrue in that moment. Like when someone asks: how are you. They ask it so nonchalantly and effortlessly that i feel the only appropriate response is the same nonchalant, effortless response: I’m fine thanks.

    Now about that part about the intrinsic perfectionism being the innate version of that is your deep heartfelt striving for beauty, balance, harmony and precision……oh yes, YES YES, my mind screamed as I read that. Beauty, balance, harmony, precision……my soul needs those things to feel nourished and alive, the same way the human body needs a cool drink of water to feel hydrated. In my job, I develop competency models – maps of those specialized, unique skills needed for a job. Its something that comes to me so naturally and effortlessly but at the same time, there is an inner struggle between finding the precise words to describe a skill that i take days and days and days and days……to develop one model. My colleagues look at me and say: “just go on the internet and download one, use the technology that’s there, why are you beating yourself up.” In my mind i say: its not that simple.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for those comparisons, Florence. Needing these things to feel alive. Like your body needs water. Yes! Thank you for sharing.