When Success Feels Like Failure

Perfectionism takes a toll on the psyche.

I remember, in kindergarten, the first time one of my worksheets was marked wrong. We were learning to write by tracing over numbers, the same number repeatedly, before moving on to the next. I got caught up in the rhythm and missed a transition, writing one too many sevens when I should have written an eight.

I was so ashamed, that on the walk from the bus stop to my house, I balled up the sheet of paper and tossed it into a ditch, hoping my parents would never find out I had made a mistake.

I was four years old.

My entire life, perfection has been the only standard that mattered. Excellence was a low bar to me. It never felt like success.

Graduating first in my high school class didn’t seem like success. It’s what was expected of me. Graduating second would have seemed a shocking failure.

I never aspired to become class valedictorian. During my thirteen years of public education, I was a good student without much effort. And that easy success inured me to any sense of accomplishment.

And so it continues today.

In true INFJ fashion, I create visions in my mind of how things could be. But execution never lives up to imagination. How could it? So instead of seeing the things I did well, I’m mortified by the things that fell short, even if no one else can tell the difference. After all, they didn’t see what was in my imagination. They don’t know how much better it was supposed to be.

The one place where I feel a true sense of virtuosity is in my writing. Through the magic of editing, I can craft a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter until every word is perfect. Or at least, until it feels perfect to me. That’s the gift that creative writing gives me.

In a blog post on Writers and Doubt, author James Scott Bell suggests that doubt is inevitable in any novelist worth reading. But creative writing is the one place where I never feel doubt. If the manuscript is flawed, I can fix it. If I don’t know how, I can learn.

I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life than I have on my novel in progress, now nearly complete after an eight-year-journey. And no effort has been so rewarding. I know the novel will never be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. Novels aren’t about perfection. They’re about humanity—our common struggles, failures, contradictions, self-sabotage, and rare brilliant moments when we grasp the longed-for and near-impossible prize.

I was born to write. That’s the positive part of my INFJ personality. The negative is that when I’m speaking with people, I feel barely competent to string words into sentences. And afterward, I obsess over all the things I could have done better. I keep trying to edit my life.

The four-year-old inside me still wants me to be perfect. But the great God-force inside me asks only that I share my gifts with the world. And if I’m grateful for those gifts, I must also be grateful for my limitations. They’re two sides of the same coin.

So when the doubts of my life feel overwhelming, I retreat to the one place where I always feel sure. The one place where struggle is the best teacher and failure the source of deep insight. The one place where I can get it right the fourteenth time instead of the first, and no one will ever know the difference.

I write.

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4 thoughts on “When Success Feels Like Failure

  1. I think perfectionists evaluate themselves much more harshly than others evaluate them. While taking a pastoral counseling class many years ago, I was struck by a recorded counseling session with someone who expressed clearly that he felt like he would never “measure up” and who was overcome with his self-perception of his own shortcomings. He had risen to be a college department chair, but still thought he was not competent.

    As a perfectionist (INTJ, as I discovered recently) myself, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that I’ve done the very best that I could do at something. I always see things I could have done better. However, that hasn’t stopped me from being able to positively impact others.

    I think you underestimate your verbal communications skills. I never had the sense that you struggled to string words together. No, you don’t get the opportunity to go back and re-speak until you’re able to express your ideas perfectly. None of us do. I never thought I had any ability to speak publicly. (I’m still not really sure, but my audience seems to enjoy it.)

    Thanks for providing a window into “what makes you tick.” I’m excited that you’re close to completing your novel.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Ben. I had an interesting experience a couple of years ago, when I listened to myself on a recording of an STC Carolina meeting. I sounded much more confident than I felt. And I thought, if I sound that confident when I’m not, then I wonder how often that’s true of other people. I don’t know whether it’s more true for introverts, but I suspect it is. Generally, introverts don’t use their dominant function when interacting with the world. Instead, they reserve their dominant function for their internal processes.

    Ben, one reason people enjoy listening to you speak is because you communicate your expertise. You speak with that typical INTJ confidence in your subject matter that leads people to trust you and to want to learn from you. And that’s one advantage introverts have when it comes to public speaking. Their planned presentation likely draws on a deep well of knowledge. While extraverts may feel more confident speaking to a large group, introverts may feel more confident about their subject matter.

    I may just have to accept that whenever I speak publicly or lead a meeting, I’ll feel a sense of unease afterward. INFJs don’t feel comfortable unless they can read other people’s expectations and emotions. They want to connect with others on a deep and meaningful level. It’s impossible to do that in a large group. But that sense of unease doesn’t mean I’ve failed. It means that *my* needs weren’t met, not necessarily that my audience’s needs weren’t met. It’s just another step in the journey toward learning to accept imperfection.

  3. I relate to this so much, as a fellow INFJ. One of my favorite quotes was spoken by football legend Vince Lombardi. He said “perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” I live by this quote to keep a level head and still strive for the perfection that I feel is achievable. We have a difficult journey, but I believe INFJs are created with a great ability to “catch excellence.”

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