Perfectionism and the Fear of Beginning

I think fear is the most elusive of hindrances, because no matter how debilitating it is, it somehow always feels a little bit natural, as If we were meant to be afraid. As we grow, fear grows with us. Its presence is sometimes marked by bodily responses: sweaty palms, racing heart, rapid breathing. Responses we can quickly recognize and we eventually learn we can overcome. But our deepest fears, the ones we do not say out loud, the ones that have emotionally scarred us, are the ones that really hold us back.

As we get older and begin to complete feats in our fear-filled states, I believe fear begins to take on new forms. It begins to show up in places we never thought it would. Its purpose becomes more sinister than to stop you from performing at the school talent show.

It seeks to destroy your future.

It seeks to halt your progress and sabotage your relationships. It seeks to deceive you so badly that you cannot even identify it anymore in your motives, your decision-making processes, and in your mind.

We shut people out, not because we feel better alone, but because we are afraid of being hurt one more time.

We give away too much of ourselves, not because we are so in love, but because we are afraid if we don’t give ourselves completely we will be left alone.

We hold off on making big decisions even after we have deliberated extensively, weighed the pros and cons, sought wise council, fasted, and prayed. We hold off because we are afraid that one mistake has the ability to derail our entire existence; that one action can completely, negatively alter the trajectory of our future. We believe that no good deed will be able to redeem us after that.

So instead we stay put.

We don’t take the time to honor our gifts and develop them into skills because we are afraid of the responsibility that inevitably comes with ability. We are afraid that we will succeed.

I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m speaking from experience here.

I always thought perfectionism was a good thing. I thought it meant that I was meticulous about the work I produced. I thought it meant I had integrity and took pride in what I dedicated myself to completing. All of this is true, but if fear takes a hold of perfectionism, it can corrupt it in a way that can often be overlooked. You begin to see everything through a lens that makes you believe if something isn’t done perfectly, it was a failure. But even worse, that if that thing fails, you are a failure.

When failure perverts perfectionism, you begin to view new opportunities and undertakings as threats. Because doing something new means that you will most definitely fail along the way. Through the lens of fear-filled perfectionism, the fear of failure, and the fear of not being able to control an outcome, can be crushing.

I was able to identify this particular fear in my life because I was finding that I didn’t want to begin something I knew I was called to do because I knew it wouldn’t start our perfect. It seems silly because we all know that everyone has to start somewhere, right? But when you’re so handicapped by the need to not disappoint, the need to avoid the path that will lead to the most failure, the need to avoid being bad at something, the reality that getting good at something requires practice begins to slowly fade.

I was afraid of beginning. Not because I was afraid of success, but because I was afraid of being out of control. I was afraid of not understanding the process, I was afraid of not being perfect. So I decided to stop altogether, to hide behind the mask of feigned perfectionism, to let the fear of imperfection to stop me from growing.

Sometimes when you’ve chained yourself to a situation and fooled yourself into thinking you’ve got it handled, all you’ve really done is halt your progress, familiarized yourself with your subpar surroundings, and made yourself unavailable for better. The fear has made you believe that what you have is better than what could come your way, because at least you know what you have. Better to be unhappy than confused, fear of the unknown says.

I didn’t realize that I was side-stepping opportunities and situations because I was afraid I would mess up. I looked back and saw my own winding footsteps that showed my desperate attempt to avoid pain, to avoid conflict, to avoid any action that would yield evidence of my less than perfect state. But then life happened, and I was forced to walk through places where I failed again and again. I arrived at a crossroads where I could choose to be bitter and anxious, berate myself and refuse to move, or I could choose to embrace my process and learn from the failure.

I learned the hard way that perfectionism isn’t an excuse to not try something new, it’s not an excuse to not begin. You’re not pardoned from stepping out on faith because you’re afraid the process will be messy or painful. It will be, and you will realize that you are anything but perfect. But that’s the beauty in it. The beauty of the human spirit is the decision to try even though we know will fail.

And growth happens when we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. You better believe that the world’s most successful people once saw themselves as failures. But success isn’t a matter of production or ability, it is a matter of perspective. If you can see failure as a learning process, you will realize how many lessons there are to learn about yourself and about the world around you.

I encourage you to seek out the places in your life that you avoid. Is it because of fear? In the places where you are stagnant, is it because you are afraid of what may lie ahead?

Face your fear.

Begin.

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