If there’s one thing I’ve spent a ton of energy preventing in my life, it’s allowing others to see me fail. Whether on stage as a professional opera singer or in other parts of my life, I didn’t want anyone to see that I royally screwed up. I was trained by society that no one should ever see me fail and that I should keep my failures hidden behind the curtain. I’ve thought most of my life that failure was disaster. That when I failed, people would think less of me. Since what other people thought was my primary motivator, I could think of nothing worse than leading them to believe I’m not perfect.
Apparently, I’m not the only one that received this programming. In the book The Confidence Code, by Katy Kay and Claire Shipman, they talk about the gap that exists between men and women in confidence. Research shows that even though most girls are outperforming boys academically grade school through college, once they get to the workforce, their confidence plummets. They found that one of the main causes is that girls are raised to be perfectionists and aren’t encouraged to take risks and potentially fail. Boys get the experience of failing, learning important lessons that build their confidence. Phew! It’s not just me. I was the ultimate perfectionist whether it was baking a pie that looked and tasted perfect, how I should be dressing and looking, or doing my job without an undotted i or uncrossed t. It was exhausting and unsustainable.
Despite my efforts, when I did fail, I tried to move on as quickly as possible. The show must go on! One experience I’ll never forget is when I fell flat on my face in an opera performance and then got up so quickly that the stage manager said it looked like I bounced. I was desperate to never let anyone see that I was flawed and human. Both on stage and in my personal life, I never stopped to see if I was okay—I just kept going. I didn’t sit with a failure and learn from it. All I learned was shame. The opera incident became a metaphor experienced over and over in my life.
“What will people think” are the four words that destroy dreams. If I try doing this and I fail, everyone will think I’m a loser, incompetent (you can fill in the blank). We’ve all had this thought. Have you ever tried to figure out who everyone really is? Martha Beck, a famous life coach and writer, calls this the Everybody Committee. She says your generalized other is actually based on a mental magnification of just a few people, often just one individual and almost never more than six, that are the most judgmental people you know. She says that when she has made people clarify exactly who these people are, they’re usually people that aren’t very significant in your life. And yet we allow them to rule our lives.
Playing it safe and avoiding failure never allows a person to be happy and free. It takes courage to try something, and, like a muscle, the more you flex it, the stronger it gets. If you’re trying something that you really want to do and it feels risky, it’s probably something positive for your life. The way you know if you’re doing something that’s stretching you in a way that makes you grow is by how it feels. Taking risks that allow you to grow can be scary but always feels like freedom. What you “should” do can feel easier, safer, and more comfortable, but it never feels like freedom. Gay Hendricks, author of The Big Leap, tells us that most people stay in their zone of excellence and never reach their zone of genius because of a fear of failure. It takes trust in yourself to take a leap, and every experience, success, or failure is designed to lead you to your next level of genius.
Let’s say you take a risk and fall flat on your face…then what? Congratulations! You tried and failed. You did the thing, but the thing didn’t work. Now sit for a bit. Look around. See what you’re able to see sitting in that hole of failure that you weren’t able to see when you were taking the leap. Notice anything? Is there something you can take with you on the next leap? What parts felt the best? What parts felt iffy? Be kind to yourself while you sit in the void of ick. Your brain will probably keep saying you shouldn’t have tried, but that’s what life is: a big experiment where each day brings more learning about yourself and your limits. Having peaks and valleys along the roller coaster—that’s life.
“You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled altogether! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out it.” — Parenthood
Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.