Pigeon of Discontent: “I’m a Perfectionist; I Fear Failure.”

Each week, I post a video about some Pigeon of Discontent raised by a reader. Because, as much as we try to find the Bluebird of Happiness, we’re also plagued by those small but pesky Pigeons of Discontent.

This week’s Pigeon of Discontent, suggested by a reader, is: “I’m a perfectionist, and I fear failure.”


If you want to read more about this resolution, check out…

Enjoy the fun of failure.

7 tips for handling criticism.

Lower the bar.

Post your own Pigeon of Discontent. But be fast! I’m considering changing the subject of the videos, so I may only do a few more Pigeons of Discontent. Time to try something new (and risk failure…)

You can check out the archives of videos here. It’s crazy–my YouTube channel has passed the mark for one million viewers.

  • RBO

    I can’t agree with the characterization “enjoying the FUN of failure.” The phrase is oxymoronic, as failure is, by its nature, NOT fun. It seems to me that, instead, a person has to be willing to ACCEPT an occasional failure in exchange for the upside potential of a resounding success. What I find helpful for getting started on a daunting project is breaking it down into its necessary steps, including all the prep work it will entail, then tackling each step — essentially, turning the big project into several smaller, manageable ones. I find that once I’m past the preparatory details — the most onerous and unfulfilling part of a project for me — the actual “meat” of the thing usually sails along, bringing with it the encouragement of obvious, measurable progress that keeps me going. When a project falls short of my desired outcome, I ask myself whether I’m still better off than when I started. Usually I am, so the thing isn’t a complete failure. From there I sometimes can find a way to improve the outcome with a bit more tinkering. Sometimes I can’t. Either way, if I’m better off than when I started, well, that’s SOMETHING, isn’t it? And yeah, I do have failures occasionally, which is disappointing, but less so than is THE FAILURE TO START anything. (That’s a form of failure, too, after all!) Recently, I was feeling down on myself for my lack of progress in the myriad projects I’d started — or hadn’t started –in recent months, but then I made a list of all the things I HAD done during the year (so many of them being projects thrust upon me unexpectedly by and for other members of the family), and I was AMAZED at all I’d accomplished in that time frame over and above the day-to-day tasks necessary to keep our household running. If you’re a person who needs “gold stars,” I’d suggest you keep a written record of projects you tackle during the year. I believe many of us fail to give ourselves credit for all the things we DO accomplish, focused as we are on the future.

    • M

      I really like the last sentence – I believe many of us fail to give ourselves credit for the things we DO accomplish. Very true!

  • Peninith1

    If you had not quoted Chesterton, I would have! If I had not been willing to start with crooked blocks, lumpy seams, and ugly bindings, I would not be making much lovelier (but still imperfect) quilts today. I would not have made my three dozenth Christmas Tree skirt, or my 20th baby quilt. I would not enjoy looking at my own handiwork on my own bed every morning I’m at home. I have a perfectionist neighbor who has been trying to pick the right color to paint her bathroom for three years! How I would hate to still be looking at my first little pile of fabric and fearing to fail! For personal projects, I have learned to allow for the ‘worth doing badly’ beginnings by being strategic about what I choose to learn on. Would I suggest that someone make a first quilt for a daughter-in-law’s wedding present? I don’t think so. Right now, I am learning (thanks to Happier at Home!) to use the Shutterfly program to make some photo albums. I aim to make some family keepsakes, when I am past the ‘worth doing badly’ phase. Right now, I am using my learning curve to create some smaller albums to document my own project work over the years. This will give me a record, let me find out how to get better at designing layouts and adding captions and choosing special features. If it is not just right, I will still have a record of my quilts. Now that I have done two albums and am working on a third, I am about ready to move forward into a family album of some sort, that I can be happy to give away as a gift. I am sure my kids and my brothers will forgive any imperfections in what I create for them. If you let fear of failure stop you, all you will have to show for your worry is fear itself. Much better a crooked quilt block or a caption with typos! GO FOR IT.

  • Brooke

    I’m a perfectionist to the t. It’s not until recently that I
    finally realized that the more I fail, the more invincible I feel. Living
    always doing everything perfectly only left me the more fearful of what might
    happen if I wasn’t perfect. It’s not until I fell on my bum a few times that I
    was able to say, hey I failed and I’m still ok. Going through those types of
    experiences are far more of a confidence booster than any amount of perfection
    can buy.

  • meg

    I LOVE the pigeions of discontent! pls. keep them coming!

  • M

    My pigeon of discontent – I make a list of things to do (schedule cleaning, project stuff even reading for fun, etc) for the day or week, wanting to stick to it. Then I don’t stick to it! I am distracted by work stuff, phone calls to go out, kids activities that I think I should do with friends, computer time, etc. I am left with unfinished projects, a messy house, messy life, and I am frustrated with myself for not doing what I need to get done! How do you and your readers stick to what needs to get done (like HP/HaH resolutions, for example)?!

    On other matters – I am really enjoying your book Happier At Home, Gretchen. Lots of food for thought and action!
    M (from Australia)

    • peninith1

      Reward yourself — Do something that you put on your list, then do something else. But put your priorities first. Maybe you are not really thinking through what comes first. Sounds like you might need to allow for the things you ARE accomplishing!

    • Anne

      My husband does the same thing. He has lists that would account for most of his time for the rest of his life, no exaggeration. Then he stresses because he’s “behind.”

      For me, the only list that doesn’t make me feel overwhelmed is one that’s doable. I have short lists for each day, and a weekly list. For example, today I’ll clean both bathrooms and get my flu shot. A friend is coming over for coffee–she’ll stay about an hour or an hour and a half. I have to go to the post office. All this is doable–easily.

      I have a weekly rota of household chores, and I stick to it pretty well. Some days, I might decide that I don’t need to do something on the list, but mostly, I get it all done.

      Of course, with children, you’re going to be under a lot more pressure than I am. If you’re managing at all with kids, I think you deserve a gold star. Plenty of time to be neat after they grow up. Keep your expectations of yourself reasonable–you probably are much harder on yourself than on anyone else.

    • RBO

      I have an agenda of daily To Do lists that stretch out for a week ahead, and I rarely get all the day’s items done. Often, it’s because unforeseen extras come up, and they’re higher priority items. So, every day I reshuffle the plan. I call it my “Magic To Do List”, because even if I DID finish everything on the list for a given week, things would magically appear to fill up another week. I say “don’t sweat it!” Maybe it would make you feel better to refer to your list as your To Do GUIDE — and realize that that’s all it is, really: a list to guide and organize your thoughts and actions. It isn’t a set of orders handed down from above, so just relax and know that the Things That Have To Get Done WILL get done!

    • Elise

      Maybe instead of making a To Do list you should just make a list at the end of the day of all that you got done. It might make you happier to realize all that you accomplished instead of feeling like a failure for not doing what is on a list.

  • KatieB

    PofDc #1: I get caught in thinking patterns and cannot get myself out of them. Like a broken record. Or spiral. Usually, this makes me worry about something I am analyzing to death. I want to let it go, but the thoughts seem to become more and more powerful each time I think about them.

    PofDc #2: I want to become more self-aware and willing to grow and change. I like living in this mindset (for myself). This mindset sometimes carries over to the most important people in my life where I am constantly considering how they might grow and change and be different…instead of embracing the things I love about them – I nitpick those things I want to be different.

    • KatieB

      After thinking a bit this evening, I think I can combine my two PofDc into one. I get caught in patterns of thinking of in thoughts and have a hard time pulling myself out of my own head. When I was a child, we called this “gapping out.” My mom did it often and the symptom was when we said, “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom! MOM!” over and over until she finally came back to us.

  • Carla

    I am also a perfectionist, and the thing that has helped me the most with this pigeon is to consider the consequences of failure. My best example of this comes from my college accounting class. I took the class as an elective, so it wasn’t crucial to my college career. However, the class had huge amounts of homework that took hours and hours. One night, I was working very late and really struggling to get the numbers to balance for one homework assignment. I was so tired and frustrated that I actually made myself sick. My parents picked me up the next day and took me home, and I had to start back on my medicine that I sometimes take for my anxiety-related stomach issues.

    At the end of the semester, we had a review session for the final exam. I heard the girl behind me make a comment that she had only done perhaps a third of the homework assignments. I looked at her in shock. She commented, “All of the homework is only worth 10% of our total grade anyway.”

    It was an epiphany for me. The assignment that had so stressed me and made me ill was worth probably less than 0.1 % of my total grade. I needed to get a 17% on the final exam to get an A in the class. The stress I experienced from the fear of failure was WILDLY out of balance with the consequences of that failure. Before, each failure was equally devastating. Afterwards, I could put a potential failure into much better perspective. It is much easier to stay calm when you realize that even if you fail, probably nothing all that bad will actually happen.

    Or as Anne of Green Gables said, “The sun will go on rising and setting whether I fail in Geometry or not. I think I’d rather it didn’t go on if I failed.” 🙂

  • Paris Parsa

    I have been a perfectionist all my life. The only way i can keep it under control, is to do one thing perfect and that gives me enough satisfaction for the day. When i used to work, i used to be a perfectionist at my job ( i am a Dentist) But now that i am staying home, i make sure my own Bedroom is looking perfect all the time. So i can live the other family members alone. I also have a small coloring book that when i color it perfectly, it makes me happy.

    • RBO

      Genius! I love how you manage to corral your impulses and satisfy that basic need at the same time! 🙂

      • Paris Parsa

        Thank you 🙂

  • Tania Kleckner

    Hi Gretchen,

    This is off topic but I thought you might find this of some interest (and you are mentioned in the post) about Goldwork Vestments for St Therese of Lisieux from the National Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux in Chicago. Mary Corbet from Needle ‘n Thread is also from Kansas! http://www.needlenthread.com/2012/10/goldwork-vestments-for-st-therese-of-lisieux.html#more-16882

  • Steph

    I have to give you kudos, because this is great. I’m definitely saddled with perfectionism and always have been, but with age, like most people, I am learning to let go. What I want to say though is that I loved what you said about not changing the label we put on failure. When you said that I felt the same admiration for you that I felt when I read somewhere that you didn’t want to try meditation! Sometimes I’ve thought that the idea of a “Happiness Project” is a bit too rational and slavish for my taste, but I honestly admire the way that you are working through various issues in an effort to define your own beliefs about how things work for you (rather than getting caught up in current tendencies). Inspiring work!

  • shaeon

    My favorite pasttimes all involve making stuff, and one of my heroes is Adam Savage from the Mythbusters, who is a maker not only professionally but also in his personal life. On the Mythbusters, they often say “failure is always an option”, and at times they have put a lot of work-hours into something that disappointingly failed – sometimes with consequences that prevented them from trying it again. I think it’s great that the show keeps the failures as well as the successes, so that the audience is able to see that failure is a perfectly normal part of the process.

  • DarleneMAM

    I, too, am a perfectionist and I fear failure. I’ve taken 2012 as My Year, and I’m working on a project at which I might fail, but I’m determined to at least give it my best shot. Thanks for the tips, gretchen.

  • Rachel

    I LOVE this. I’m a perfectionist and have a long list of projects I want to start but somehow they just remain a list. Find the fun in failure is going to be my new motto. Thank you.