Overcome Fear of Failure, Perfection and Imposter Syndrome
Someone recently said, “I can’t bear being idle!”
Who’s familiar with fear of failure, while setting the mark for achievement very high and constantly striving for perfection? I certainly have struggled with imposter syndrome that drip feeds my feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure for a long time and I’ve battled with perfection for nearly as long. So this casual remark triggered something much deeper within me. These words spoke to my guilt and fear of not being acceptable, and deep rooted toxic shame that often accompany feelings of failure, while reminding me about the fault finding ways in which I began to perceive myself.
Where it all starts…
Throughout my upbringing my parents persisted with instilling in me what they considered certain ‘acceptable’ behaviours and ground rules for living, including lofty work ethics that were valuable to them. This was my mother’s most frequent expression when I was a child, “No one ever died of hard work”. The meaning of these words have continued to echo within the deepest depths of my psyche.
She probably meant well. She probably said these things because she thought she was helping me somehow. She probably intended to motivate me by her words. And more importantly, she was probably parenting me in the same way that she had been parented. In her mind she was being a ‘good’ parent and I have no cause to doubt that she had my very best interests at heart, and a heartfelt desire to bestow ‘her best values’ in me.
As a child, further to school work, I was expected to put in a lot of extra hours at home to hone my grades to perfection. It was a hard grind that deprived many play opportunities. In India, where only the fittest survive, the consequences of not achieving the highest educational standards are a real and severe threat. Failure in this endeavour would mean that I should prepare myself for a lifetime of poverty and impending gloom. The formative messages I was being fed were that poor grades would not get me anywhere in the highly competitive Indian job market, and consequentially the best job opportunities would pass me by. Some careers were considered ‘good’ and acceptable, like being a doctor, an architect, an accountant or a lawyer. Value judgements were placed on these particular careers, because in their minds these would fetch me the highest monetary benefit in my adulthood.
I was being primed for ‘success’ through all these early messages I was receiving as a child and pushed in the direction of certain professional careers of my parents choosing. Unconsciously, they were passing on their esteemed values to all their children. I now realise the effect of constant parental pressure to strive harder, to achieve better grades, and sowed the seeds of perfection perfection, while focussing my attention on certain academic subjects that were viewed in a preferential way.
The results of this pushy style of parenting, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, and manifest in what I now know as my inner imposter.
feelings of failure
need for perfection
lack in my sense of achievement
focus on critical self evaluation and fault finding (Imposter Syndrome)
emotional damage to my self esteem
Meet the Imposter
As I ponder over the smoke and mirrors of my early conditioning, I can see through the many encouraging grunts that I received throughout my painful and long suffering youth. But equally involuntary, I found that I was already imagining myself in the brightest of promising careers within some dreamy corporate world. From this very young age I began to fantasize about the glamour that this high end corporate workplace would provide me, where I would be dressed in the smartest business attire. My vivid imagination featured knee length skirts and high heels, white collars and leather briefcases. I dreamed about this formal nine-to-five arrangement, a fat salary within a reputable firm and clear visualisations of my weekly commute to a chic office.
So far, I had been industriously living my life around various big and small projects, a demanding and challenging marriage, juggling various precarious careers whilst also bringing up a young family. All these things I did, believing that this is what I should be expecting from my grown up life.
Yet, it felt as if I could never live up to their expectations, and that none of my personal achievements was enough, not even for me. I had adopted an unconscious self belief that failure to achieve the highest standards, and on some deeper level for me it meant that ‘I am not good enough’. In my youth, I struggled half heartedly through a degree whilst also working in a full time job that required me to work shifts. Miraculously, I scraped through the examinations with a low pass and finished with what I now consider ‘a useless degree’. I was going through the motions. The subject didn’t fully engage me, I missed attending most of the lessons and in an academic sense, this left me feeling worthless and valueless. To me this also meant that I had failed to meet my parents expectations. As a result of this, I made the harshest value judgments of myself and I felt like a total failure.
But I was also left with an unfulfilled study ambition and a penchant for going back to university at some future point in my life for further study, in a more useful subject of my own conscious choice.
I have learned to embrace the shame of crawling through my second degree, which began so much later in my life than I originally expected or planned. Yet all my academic attempts have been overshadowed by overwhelming challenges. Again, for the first half of my degree, little did I know that I was subconsciously choosing a subject that would gain ‘someone else’s’ approval. Although this course of study was very important to me, I was forced to complete this over two phases, having to fit this in around the family, accommodating a major family relocation and included a significant sandwich break at an intensely painful time while I was getting divorced. Finally, after much hard graft and lots of tears, I managed to complete the second half over a prolonged eight year period.
Every time I compared my internalised dream like visual to my real life, I was filled overwhelming disappointment. Instead, I had ended up battling to fulfil a problematic marriage and all the unpredictable curved balls that this life was throwing at me.
Fear of Failure overwhelms me.
Since my marriage ended, the dispiriting inertia of the past several years began to loom heavily over me. This period follows a prolonged stressful time in my life, when everything I had ever lived and worked for, as a student, mother and a wife, all fell around my ankles. I was in my mid-40’s and my whole life’s efforts were rapidly falling to pieces. By now my suffering mental health meant that I had to take a significant break from work. It felt as if my mind and body had completely lost the ability to function.
I didn’t really choose this and on so many levels all this went against my every grain due to my early childhood conditioning and my youth experiences. But I felt helpless and powerless.
I felt broken.
With a lot of help and support from my close friends, I finally succumbed to these feelings of mental confusion and inadequacy. I was faced with all the grief of having lost everything I had ever built up for myself in one clean swoop, my precious home, my family now broken, my business and marriage lost. When involuntary tears streamed down my face as I walked around in a messy daze, I couldn’t care less about who saw me crying or what they thought about me. They didn’t see my arduous journey and all that I had actually accomplished. All I needed now was reassurance and emotional comfort, for someone to tell me that everything was going to be alright; and for me to know that I could continue to provide a safe, stable home for my children.
Overcoming the Imposter
Counselling helped me to see with new eyes. I was able to safely remove the foggy spectacles and view this mess for what it was, an unconscious consequence of my early conditioning as a result of the pushy style of parenting that I had endured.
I learned to appreciate myself and all my hard work. I learned to understand what was important to me and to create a life around myself that suits me, and these days, I live my life in a way that accommodates my own values.
Today I have to remind myself that I deserved a break. I was not being idle, I was idling, my life was in idle mode. I prioritised me when I started dancing salsa. I made lots of lovely new friends. In two years time I found the capacity to pick up my unfinished degree. I grasped the opportunity to retrain as a counsellor. I re-engaged with personal counselling and I began helping others to understand how their pasts and personal circumstances affect their decisions and life choices.
If I had one message to share with you, it would be, “Don’t leave it too late to learn about yourself.” Start now. Life is too short and too precious to live in darkness. Know yourself. Don’t let the influences of your early life hamper your ability to be happy, to get the most of your life and achieve your dreams.