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Five Ways to Overcome Fear of Failure and Perfectionism

Olivia Remes shares five tips for overcoming fear of failure and perfectionism.

This post is in response to
Is the Perfectionism Plague Taking a Psychological Toll?
 PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock
Source: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

A few days ago, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, "Is the Perfectionism Plague Taking a Psychological Toll?" based on a new study about the progressive generational increase of perfectionism among college-age students since 1989. Yesterday, I wrote a follow-up blog post, "Anti-Perfectionism Anthems Can Silence Your Inner Critic," based on anecdotal evidence and my own use of songs that unapologetically embrace imperfections to cope with my personal struggles with perfectionism as a young adult and professional athlete.

This morning, I decided to write another follow-up blog post offering advice on ways to overcome perfectionism and fear of failure (which often go hand in hand) based on empirical evidence. The first person I wanted to reach out to for an expert opinion on this topic was Olivia Remes from the University of Cambridge.

In September 2017, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Can’t Do It Perfectly? Just Do It, Badly!” based on Remes’ research on best practices for coping with anxiety. I am a huge fan of Remes' approach and her unique insights on fine-tuning personalized coping responses in the face of adversity. So, I sent Olivia an email asking if she could offer some fresh, evidence-based advice on how to overcome fear of failure and perfectionism.

In my email to Remes, I asked: “Do you have any advice for Psychology Today readers who might be suffering from a crippling fear of failure or paralyzing perfectionism?" Below is Olivia Remes’ five-part response to this question.

Five Ways to Overcome Fear of Failure and Perfectionism by Olivia Remes

1. Shift your focus to what you enjoy in relation to the task.

Being afraid of failure and constantly worrying about the topic/task which you want to tackle puts you in a negative frame of mine, increases your stress, anxiety, and makes you less happy overall.

Instead of thinking about how you need to do this perfectly and how afraid you are to fail at it (all stress-inducing, negative thoughts), see if there are any aspects of the work which you enjoy? Is it possible to shift your frame of mind and choose a different lens through which you can see this work/task?

2. First, make decisions. Second, stick to them.

When we get into a rut and can’t start on a project or spend hours thinking about certain details, we are not advancing. The clock is ticking and the deadline is approaching. So make a decision. Example: "I will use today to work on this part of the project and get this task done."

Equally important is to stick to your decision and follow through. This will give you greater confidence in yourself and your abilities. It can shift the locus of control from externally to internally – you are in charge of your world and know what to do with it, rather than letting others or society make decisions for you (which will inevitably happen if you do not).

Perfectionism can be crippling. Instead of wasting hours deciding what to do or how to go about something, just do it! Make a decision as to what you will do and stick to it. And even if you realize that you were overly ambitious with your goal-setting or you didn’t produce the results you wanted – this is ok, because it’s an opportunity to learn and improve.

On the other hand, if your decision works out well, that’s great! You can keep going. The worst feeling of all is not doing anything, wasting hours deciding how/what you should do, and defaulting. People who do not make decisions are often depressed and sometimes suffer from low self-esteem. But the way out couldn’t be easier.

3. Get outside!

Exercise makes people happier, raises your energy levels, makes you feel more productive, and increases your well-being. In order to get more out of work, you have to put energy into physical activity. Even just going for a walk or being in nature – these have been shown to increase creativity levels and ability to problem-solve. A fascinating study showed that exercising just once a week can also help with your depression.

4. Perfectionism: Could it be another word for procrastination? Use the Pomodoro technique.

Procrastination is leaving something for tomorrow. To get out of this rut, the Pomodoro technique can be useful and can be a more fun way of getting work done.

Take all the tasks you have and break them down into steps/smaller tasks that you have to do. Then work on each one for 15 minutes. After 1 hour take a break. Repeat. Example: Task 1 – 15 minutes (no more, you have to stop then and switch to the next task); task 2 – 15 minutes; task 3 – 15 minutes; task 4 – 15 minutes. Take a break. Repeat. Use a stopwatch.

As you’re getting good at this, you can increase the amount of time (so, each task 20 minutes; then each task 30 minutes and so on).

5. Meditate

Instead of checking your phone, laptop, other electronic devices (prolonged use can lead to anxiety, depression) during work breaks or at the end of the day, meditate. Meditation can recharge your willpower, calms you down, and clarifies your thoughts – gives you peace. Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress and can change the structure of your brain if done consistently.

Please take a few minutes to watch Olivia Remes' Tedx lecture below:


Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill. "Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016." Psychological Bulletin (Published: December 28, 2017) DOI: 10.1037/bul0000138

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