March 28, 2018

Peer pressure, a fresh-faced lawyer told me recently, was the biggest challenge for his generation.

“It’s not pressure to do risky or dumb stuff,” he said. “It’s about what other people are doing—which shows up what you’re not doing.” He was 23, and had his head down in a prestigious legal firm. He had a nice girlfriend. He worked out most days. Life was good. But he was a slave to benchmarking himself against others. It started in school, was fueled by his family, and he now found himself in an unspoken footrace against his colleagues and friends.

“It’s not which party you’re at. It’s which party you’re not at. And if you went to this one—why didn’t you choose the other one because (when you see the photos they post) it looks like it was better."

“It’s what you study, what grades you get, what work you do, which firm you go with, where you live, what you earn, where you take a holiday, who you date. I feel like every choice is loaded. That if I make the wrong one I’ll waste time and money, I’ll have to backtrack or start again so everyone else will get ahead of me. I want to get it right the first time round.”

He was talking about Perfectionism and Comparison (yes, proper nouns to me), which work in tandem to ramp up our insecurities and threaten our mental wellbeing.

Why We're Afraid

Perfectionism, holding yourself (and others) to unattainable standards, has long been the arch enemy of self-worth—and research shows a significant upswing in perfectionism since the 80s. It underpins depression, anxiety, procrastination, self-criticism, risk adversity, and creative (or anything) paralysis and fuels a persistent fear of underachievement and not being Good Enough.

As if that nasty legacy wasn’t enough.

Enter the age of social media. With a 24/7 open window to the lives of others we’re constantly comparing ourselves: what we have, what we do, who we are. It’s no longer enough to fret about what the Joneses are doing; it’s everyone, even people we don’t know, like, or will never meet.

Which is not very smart. But how to stop it?

I’m So Over Being Told Failure is Good

Scaring off perfectionism and comparison requires us to experiment, make mistakes, dust them off, then try, try again.

But ... boring. We’ve all heard the Failure rant. That’s it’s good for us, noble, part of the human journey. History drips with examples, like Thomas Edison (1000 attempts to make electric light), Bill Gates (Harvard drop-out) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter book #1 was rejected by 12 publishers). The list is endless.

Scaring off perfectionism and comparison requires us to experiment, make mistakes, dust them off, then try, try again.

So in theory, failing is a fine thing—yet no one really wants to do it. OK, a little side failure is fine, but on a grand scale? NO. And have you noticed no one talks about failure while they’re neck-deep in it? They only come clean when they’re out the other side, successful, with the Learnings in the bank.

What no one tells you very clearly is what to do when you’re in free fall. So, here’s a tool to help.

How to Have a Smarter Screw Up

Let’s say you’ve had a setback, made a fat mess of something, lost time and money, been called out, said something dumb or hurtful. You feel sick, distressed, your head is spinning, you wish you could reverse time.

1. Feel the Pain

Sit with the distress. Cry, scream, punch (appropriate things). Name the feeling. Say why you’re feeling it. Say what you’ve done. Don’t hide from it or avoid. But ...

2. Put a Fence Around It

Feelings are a good thing, but don’t let them run amok. It won’t help you shuffle forward. Allow yourself time to be upset but boundary or time-limit it. Then ...

3. Go Do Something

Distract yourself with an activity that takes you completely out the failure zone. Preferably something active/physical or using your hands. Give social media a rest—comparisons won’t help. Then that night or next day ...

4. Write or Draw It

Take a notebook and put on paper what you took from the experience. It doesn’t have to be a deep lesson, just something that came from it, a thought, an idea, a way not to do things. Close the notebook. Done. But not quite . . .

5. Fill the Notebook

Slowly, over time, fill the notebook with lots of other things, quotes, pictures, interesting anecdotes, whatever. Don’t make it a failure notebook! It’ll help give you some perspective—remind you that good things happen alongside bad.

One final tip: You are only allowed to process ONE mistake or failure per day. More than that is too much.

The truth is that failure hurts. Later on, you can see it for the fine, noble contribution it made to your life. Or not. But, for now, you just have to get to the other side.

This article originally appeared on Medium.


Read next: How Aiming To Fail Can Lead To Success


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