Please Help Me Fail.
May 11, 2015 4:07 AM   Subscribe

I need to screw up a couple of times. Once I do, I'll realize it's not the end of the world, and I will be able to stop keeping everything on hold. But I've been on hold for most of my life, paralyzed and afraid to move for fear of not getting it perfectly right. How do I bring myself to put forth the effort to do the scary thing, even knowing that that's the only way I can make it stop being scary?

I'm one of those pathologically anxious, perfectionist, procrastinating types. That's not an awesome thing to be to begin with, but I take it really ridiculously far. I've essentially wasted a lot of years I could have been using on cool stuff because I am too frightened of doing it wrong to do it at all. I've learned to convince myself that the things I want are worthless and I do not actually want them-- preemptive sour grapes. Thing is, that's not true and I know it, and I am desperately unhappy.

I recently learned through the stupidest means possible-- a sudoku game on my phone-- what I need to do. I need to just go out there and Do It Wrong. The first time will be excruciating. The second time will be even worse. But after a few times? Eh, not really a thing, because life goes on and it wasn't that big a deal to begin with. It's just getting to that first hurdle I won't clear and jumping anyway. (And then the second. But the first is the issue right now.)

The trouble is, what I need to fail at is a creative activity. I need to put a couple of things out there and be rejected. But in order to put something out there, I have to finish something. And there are so many self-sabotage opportunities on the way to doing that. I've gotten very good at finding spurious reasons to skip out on things. I need to cut that crap out.

Let's say I'm writing a story. I can convince myself that the plot is terrible and the characters are asinine stereotypes and stop before I start writing it. I can convince myself that it's going so poorly that there is no hope for bringing it back and abandon the project at any point after I've started writing it. If I did manage to finish it, I could decide I hated it and it would be too humiliating to ever read it again, and I should probably just delete it. I could compulsively edit it into oblivion and decide it was never going to be good enough to send out at that point. All of those are exactly the sort of thing I would do, and have spent about a decade and a half now doing.

I can't just make something asinine purely for the purpose of screwing up. It has to be a good faith effort or it will be meaningless. So, since my brain is a treacherous beast, does anyone have any tips on how I can trick the thing or wear it down or just beat it into compliance so I can slog through this and just mess up a couple of times?

I'm already medicated for my anxiety, and I am in therapy. But, awesome as my therapist is, she can't solve this for me. I need to put the work in myself. I've had success in other areas in coming up with workarounds to make myself more functional. But I've yet to find one for this.
posted by Because to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would start by trying something that is meant to be disposable and that no one will ever see so the stakes are low. Say, like drawing on an etch -a-sketch. It's made to be erased. If it's crap, two seconds later, it's gone. So draw something and then erase it. Spend twenty seconds, tops. Then draw something a bit more detailed. Then progress to paper (cheap paper so you won't feel like you have to be precious) when you feel comfortable and throw it away. Keep doing it. Set a goal that you have to do ten drawings in twenty years minutes. The sheer time frame will mean you won't have time to be hung up on quality.

Then when you start to feel more comfortable, spend a bit more time. Basically I would progress like this until you feel ok with what you're doing. It might take a while. You might never, actually, like the result. But that's not the point, is it? The point is to do anything creative at all. So start small in whatever discipline (drawing, writing, etc) and throw it away. You can do it!
posted by Jubey at 4:15 AM on May 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Have you ever taken an improv course? I'm doing an introductory improv course at the moment and the whole course is structured around learning to "fail happily" and just go with the flow, rather than becoming paralysed by mistakes. It's a pretty safe place to learn how to do that, because everyone else is learning too.

If you want something a bit scarier, then how about performing at an open mic night/a poetry slam?
posted by kinddieserzeit at 4:24 AM on May 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Do lots of things you care about. Unless you're sandbagging, you will fail at some of them. The more you do at once, the quicker failure.

NB: "you care about" is not optional. Otherwise you don't learn that the world didn't end.
posted by PMdixon at 4:29 AM on May 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Don't write for other people. Write the story that you want to read, and write it to amuse yourself. Keep coming back to it until it's finished.

When it's done, show it to someone.
posted by BrashTech at 5:33 AM on May 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I just read an article about "Rejection Therapy." It seems like it is exactly what you're looking for - you put yourself out there, embrace the shame and embarrassment that comes with it, and find out that the more you expose yourself to rejection, the more you realize that it's really not that bad of a feeling and life still goes on when you've been rejected. You start to become more comfortable with rejection. Rejection Therapy is more focused on everyday things, not a creative activity, but I think the heart of why you're afraid to start a creative project is because you're afraid of how it will be received. If you get used to that feeling of rejection, maybe putting your creative projects out their for others' enjoyment won't seem so daunting.
posted by pumpkinlatte at 5:36 AM on May 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: First: Good for you in recognizing your pattern and what you need to do about it. Many, many people never ever get it, and hence are unable to do anything about it. At heart, the procrastination and excessive self-criticism are generally rooted in a fear that "you're not good enough".

YMMV, but my intentional failure came by way of massive, and deliberate, underpreparation to run a problem-solving meeting. Prior to that, I had always carefully planned out every meeting, specifically because I didn't trust myself to handle a situation that I hadn't anticipated. Of course, that meant that the meetings I ran were horribly over-scripted and so stilted that nothing productive ever emerged.

In your case, you could perhaps achieve the same set of pressures by having a ridiculously short deadline - say, committing to provide a brand-new story to someone tomorrow - that precludes your either overworking or abandoning the project. After all, you have a deadline to meet. Then you'll be able to find out whether your off-the-top-of-your-head work is good or not.

The punchline from my story is that the meeting I deliberately didn't prepare for was the most productive and satisfying *ever* and it awakened a belief that I no longer needed to hide behind overthinking and overworking. And I expect you'll discover much the same thing.
posted by DrGail at 5:39 AM on May 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've noticed you have yet to make a FPP on the blue. Start making some and you will fail, eventually, but among friends.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:01 AM on May 11, 2015 [20 favorites]

>I can't just make something asinine purely for the purpose of screwing up. It has to be a good faith effort or it will be meaningless.

This sounds a lot like worrying about failing to fail properly, and I am saying this as someone who also finds a regular dose of failure to be a very healthy thing*. Sudoku's pretty meaningless and seems to have taught you something. Likewise, a baby step into failing creatively would be to actually complete a creative thing you know is dumb from the start.

Go to a big-box craft store and get some supplies that cost less than 20$, that look appealing, and which are nearly guaranteed to create a result that is not to your personal taste. Finger paints, or modeling clay, or decoupage supplies. Ideally it's something that you have minimal prior experience with. Play for a bit. If something is starting to look good to you, if you're starting to care too much, smear it up with the joy of Making A Terrible Thing. Hang that ugly thing up on your fridge for a week or two when you're done as a reminder: you made something bad, and the world is still spinning.

If you're starting something that's important to you, I find that pushing through the hard parts with intentional badness helps. Character seeming like a trope? Write about her flaxen tresses looking like a unicorn's mane for 10 minutes, get silly, and then keep going without deleting anything. Editing is for later.

*The things I use or have used for this are capoeira, Lego, building with balsa wood, and dance-based video games.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:31 AM on May 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have the exact same problem with writing. What I'm trying now is ghostwriting in a genre I don't normally write or read. I'm getting paid for it, (not a great rate, mind you) so that keeps me motivated to finish, and the jobs come with basic plot outlines so I feel less responsible for (and therefore less stressed about) plot.

It's been a huge improvement for me over my total writing paralysis.

I haven't done Rejection Therapy yet, but I'm very interested in that approach, too.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 6:37 AM on May 11, 2015

There is no way to get to a point where you can express yourself in a second language you've learned as an adult without having made thousands and thousands of mistakes first. Even if you memorize a textbook's worth of grammar patterns, vocabulary and example sentences, you will certainly make mistakes when you really start putting yourself out there and try to draw on all of your knowledge to produce your half of a conversation. And "mistakes" is soft-pedaling it: I'm quite sure I've produced tears of laughter in my Japanese friends who have read my writing. But that's great! The more mistakes you make the better, because if you're not making mistakes, it means you're not expressing any new thoughts and you're not pushing yourself to learn. Plus, there's no shame in making those mistakes. Polyglot Kato Lomb once said "Speaking a foreign language is the one thing in life you can get away with doing badly: If you try to practice medicine without a degree you will be put in jail; if you perform a musical instrument before you can play it well your best friends will leave you; but should you speak a foreign language badly, you will get nothing but praise for your efforts."

It took me several years of study to realize that making mistakes was the only way to progress and longer still to become comfortable with it, but I think it was the best thing I've done for my own perfectionist anxiety. So my advice is to plan a vacation a few years from now and work to learn the language in the meantime, making as many mistakes as possible.

I'm happy to chat about language learning strategies over memail, if this approach sounds good.
posted by shirobara at 6:46 AM on May 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding kinddieserzeit's suggestion of an improv class or open mike night - or any performance-based type of activity, really. Sing karaoke sober. Take an acting class. Audition for a part in a community play. Or heck, take ANY kind of class that's outside your comfort zone! I suspect one reason that writing isn't quite working for you is that you're doing it solo, with no external motivation, timeline, or risk involved, and as such you can keep not doing it until you think you're ready to "fail correctly*." If you're in a class with deadlines, or you commit to an audition date, etc., you won't be able to keep hovering forever - you'll have to take the plunge and see how it goes.

(*like tchemgrrl already noted, it sounds to me like you're getting in your own way here by feeling like you need to fail "correctly". Maybe take a little while to analyze what your concerns are here, if your goal is to fail? You're kind of in a great situation - it's not like there's only one good outcome and you shouldn't move until you've figured out how to achieve that; either you'll succeed in failing, or else you won't fail and thus ... you'll have achieved a new success?)
posted by DingoMutt at 7:50 AM on May 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have anxious, perfectionist qualities too, but no one would know because it seems like the word "perfectionist" is totally reserved for people who overdo. I consider myself a "collapsed perfectionist", defeated before I start. I just don't know if there are books written for this type of insecurity. All the books about perfectionism seem to be about people who overdo and can't rest due to insecurity. I guess I need a book about procrastination instead. I guess I can't offer help, but you can have my empathy. I hear you. (And I have one written but not fully edited drawer novel that I am terrified to self-publish.)
posted by puddledork at 8:06 AM on May 11, 2015

How to fail in three easy steps:
1) Go to Your favorite "maker" market, eBay, Etsy, whatever it is the kids use these days. Look for a hula hoop that is sturdy (1.5"+ HPDE preferred) and has a look you prefer. The circumference of the hoop should be a couple of inches added to the distance in inches from the ground to your navel, or likely 35"-37" if you don't want to measure.
2) Go on YouTube and search the term "hooping." Watch many videos of people doing things with a hoop that you did not even know were possible. Pick one trick that is basic-intermediate. Watch a tutorial video on it.
3) Attempt that trick. Want to fail in public? Go to a park.
If you do this, you will fail and fail and fail and fail and fail some more. But, if you are diligent and you don't give will succeed. And it should help you understand that failure is actually very important, and that we would accomplish very little without it. Good luck!
posted by Mr. Fig at 8:23 AM on May 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you can find a charcoals/conte style sketching class, it might fit the bill. Especially if you can find a good instructor. The class is so you make the upfront commitment to a time and place for your efforts. The activity is time bound. Ideally you'll do a lot a lot a lot of very quick drawings. As in, 3 minute sketch, now 5 minute sketch, now 90 second sketch where you don't pick your tool off the paper, now 3 minute shading study, etc. etc. etc.

Not only will you "fail" in that what you produce will often look very little like what is in front of you. But you will also start to see where the beauty and unexpected joys are in those failures.

The course I took on this, way back when, was called "Drawing and Perceiving" and it helped unlock exactly what you are talking about. If you really want to try to self-study it, the professor has published a book by the same name. But I strongly recommend the class environment for keeping the commitment and achieving the proper levels of self-mortification.
posted by meinvt at 8:28 AM on May 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

What do you plan to fail *at*?

Ask the prettiest girl/guy you see in the next 5 minutes out for coffee?

Go answer some online trivia and laugh at the results?

Play your next game on "nightmare" difficulty and get slaughtered?
posted by kschang at 8:44 AM on May 11, 2015

As another thought, have you talked to your therapist about all-or-nothing thinking? I get a strong vibe of that from your question, even in its basic premise. What exactly do you mean by "fail"? Or "succeed"? Authors who have had their work published still talk about things they wish they'd done differently, or that make them cringe upon re-read, even when the book is a massive hit - so have they succeeded or failed? If you take a class and get an F, but still meet some interesting people and have the opportunity to think about something in ways you'd never done before, is that really a failure?

As a way to work around your current thought patterns, could you try to drop this idea of "succeed/fail" altogether, and just tell your brain that you're going to give something new a try and see how it goes? I would think it's pretty much a given that if you've - say - never written much before, or never painted or played guitar or whatever, that you are not going to be 100% satisfied with your first attempts. You don't HAVE to "force" yourself to make things bad - just try something new and understand that it won't measure up to the work of experienced practitioners. And that's what you want, right? The only "success" criterion you need worry about is making SOME attempt and experiencing SOME new venture. That might help get you away from the analysis paralysis of being afraid of failing 'incorrectly' - truly, there aren't that many definite successes or failures in life.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:48 AM on May 11, 2015

Best answer: Have you ever read Mindset by Carol Dweck? If not then you need to get on that. Getting better at anything is a process that necessarily entails repetitive, corrective feedback. This is precisely why there are so few true "experts" in the world: being corrected simply sucks, and you need to have a ton of intrinsic motivation to keep going in the beginning, during those early stages when you're not creating anything great. You have to push through the gap.

But you're asking how to jump off the cliff - there is no magical answer. You just do. You're already failing by not writing, so failing by writing would be an improvement. If you're going to fail, which we all do, you may as well fail while doing something fun in the meantime.
posted by blazingunicorn at 8:55 AM on May 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Don't think about an audience at all, initially. You are making these things just to satisfy yourself. Pump out as many ideas as you can, however embryonic. Aim for quantity, not quality. The more you do this, the more easily they'll come. Have any equipment you need ready to catch them when they do. (E.g. a notebook. My hobby is music, so I just use my phone's voice recorder and hum things into it when I'm walking or waiting for a bus or whatever.)

At some point, you will have dozens to hundreds of idea nuggets. When you feel like you want to, go over them. Some will feel flat or make no sense; others will still feel like they have potential or buzz at you - play with those ones a little. None of them are precious because there are so many. Something may come out of playing around, in one shot. If not, set those ideas down for a bit, let new ones come, and later, go back to ones that ring. Back and forth, like that. Low investment - so many nuggets! All the time, all you're thinking is: what do I feel like making with this? What does it suggest? And what you're doing is just exploring and playing with that.

Sometimes, what I do if I'm stuck with ideas I like that are maybe half-done, and I'm kind of questioning whether or how to move forward, is ask a few friends whose taste I trust and who are willing to provide honest critique to have a listen. (I'm extremely lucky to have people willing to do that.) I ask: What do you think of these? Have I accidentally ripped someone off?

I guess not everyone will agree that what is basically a focus group approach supports the development of judgement or confidence, but I feel like it helps externalize potentially paralyzing internal critique, leaving me free to just make stuff.

Usually, 2/3 will agree. If I don't agree with them, and there's something I stubbornly like about an idea, that's a sign to me to go forward with it, too, and see where that thing goes.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:04 AM on May 11, 2015

Response by poster: See, this is why I love this place. You guys are awesome.

I can see the concern about me wanting to "fail correctly", but my reason for viewing it that way is that if I haven't actually tried at the thing, if it isn't something I feel I have done my best at, I still get to hide behind "well, I wasn't really trying." That's the same thing, though iterated one step further, that I've been hiding behind all along. If I don't try, it doesn't matter if I fail, because I can preserve the illusion that if only I *had* tried... and then write the whole thing off as something I did and it didn't help. It can help, it definitely can. But only if I take the attempt seriously.

buoys in the hood: There are definitely some things I just want to have done rather than wanting to do. Like, it would be awesome if I could paint. I think paintings are fantastic. And I did poke at it a couple of times, but fortunately I understood by then that if it didn't take I shouldn't really fuss about it. So now I support my friends who do by buying theirs.

The tragic part is that (and I'm gonna drop the "say I was talking about..." thing) I *did* always love the process of writing, before I got so scared I talked myself into believing it was pointless. I didn't always *enjoy* it, mind. "Love" is more complicated than "enjoy", but so much more meaningful. And I had that. And occasionally I can see the edges of having it again. I would love to have done certain other things, sure. But what I really regret is losing the time I could have spent in that place, which is where I wanted to be from age five onward. With silversmithing, which is also frustrating and wonderful, alongside as the subsidiary hobby. I haven't owned a torch in years.

kschang: Writing things. Letting people read them.

DrGail: The funny thing there is that I'm only beginning to resurrect even the idea of hope because of a strictly time-limited thing. There used to be a meetup in Seattle where a bunch of people would meet in a bar, solicit a prompt from a random patron, write a story based on it in 30 minutes, then read them aloud to each other and vote for a "winner". There, I did not fail. And that was good, because it reminded me that I once thought I was good at this stuff, and suggested that maybe I should give that notion consideration again. But I have to take it up a notch. Extending the timeframe to a day might help a lot. It gives me time to fuss and potentially screw up, which Write Fight did not, but keeps a sense of urgency. That seems like a really, really difficult step, but one I might be able to take. Which is exactly what I am looking for.

DingoMutt: Yeah, I'm very black-and-white when it comes to self-evaluation. (Mostly black.) Unfortunately, it's going to take a little more maturity for me to let go of the success/failure paradigm entirely. I'm coming out of a lot of years of pretty crippling depression and sort of learning to exist on my own again for the first time in a long time, so I have some catching up to do. But I think it's better to make this a part of my process than to wait. So if I have to think of it as failure at first, well, I learn to embrace failure. Once I've done that, I can perhaps understand that the thing I have embraced is not actually bad. Hugging stuff tends to make one like it better anyway.

Rejection therapy is terrifying, which means I should probably try it (sigh). I think it's a fantastic and horrible idea. But I could see it helping me with a lot more issues than just this one.

Thank you all so much. I do love MetaFilter. (And, Obscure Reference, I shall blue-post if I ever manage to come across anything really cool that the rest of you haven't already scooped!)
posted by Because at 9:11 AM on May 11, 2015

You can do this in your head through your own mental imagery. Faster that way. You can even pinpoint the moments that would be most painful and relive them on play-repeat until they lose their sting.
posted by salvia at 9:17 AM on May 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

I know you've already kind of dismissed the painting thing, but man, I have the same flavor of brain weasels re: perfectionism, and I went to a local drink-n-paint class on a lark. My little tree at the end looked...not like a tree, and that's okay! I had to get over my mistakes and agony to keep up with the instructor on all the steps, and the instructors were really into getting people to refrain from judging themselves, and it was one of the most mentally freeing things I've spent money on in a long time. I was legitimately trying, and I did legitimately meh, and I am totally going to sign up the next time it's an option. And I never, ever, ever have to get better at it. It is okay to go, and try, and be mediocre and drink my wine and chat with my neighbor and be satisfied with my own crooked tree.

Another, similar thing I tried in college was theater. I can't act, but it felt really good to learn lines and go to auditions and get out there and try stuff. I know a lot of friends who are into community theater as adults, and it seems like a pretty safe space in which to try and sometimes fail in a pretty supportive environment. I didn't stick with it, because I didn't enjoy the trying enough (buoys in the hood is right on the money there), but it was a good experience for trying things and being rejected at them, and being okay.

Also, fitness classes, if you don't have overwhelming body shame. I've been going to the same Pilates class one day a week for MONTHS now and I still suck out loud at it, but it has been so helpful for my internal monologue to just be the person who goes to Pilates every Tuesday with a good attitude towards trying hard in the face of utter ineptitude.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 11:37 AM on May 11, 2015

Can you find a writing class or group? Even if you're too perfectionist to take anything along to begin with, you'll get to read or hear other people's work, and realise that some of it's not great, or is unfinished, but they are putting it out there warts'n'all. I think once you realise your work is as good as, or better than other people's (which, reading your fluently-written post I imagine it will be) there can be a real excitement to show them what you can do, rather than an assumption that your work won't be good enough.
posted by penguin pie at 11:40 AM on May 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As anecdata, I'd just like to say that I'm currently waiting for feedback from my editor about a few chapters for a book I'm working on (so technically I guess I'm a professional writer). When I got my book deal, I was so paralyzed that I began the process of drafting much, much later than I should have, since I am still plagued by all of the issues that you deal with.

Eventually I realized that there is a fundamental asymmetry in the information that creative types have: we look at our first drafts, the crap that's on the screen, and what do we compare them to? Books. But these splendid books are merely the end result of a process we constantly overlook: they started out as shitty first drafts that were shown to a few people. Over time, they were edited and massaged into being.

Every writer and every draft sucks major balls at the beginning, but we never see those shitty first drafts - yet each masterpiece and halfway decent story started out as just that. I'm increasingly convinced that the only difference is that some people simply do not give up. They incorporate feedback and keep going until it's less shitty. Everyone fails a lot. Not everyone gets back up.
posted by blazingunicorn at 11:43 AM on May 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

Speaking of shitty first drafts - I don't know if you've read Anne Lamott's essay on this (and the accompanying book). Highly recommended.
posted by O9scar at 2:51 PM on May 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'll second the improv classes. I deliberately did a bunch recently, since I:

* Am scared of failing
* Am prone to criticizing other people's ideas.
* Dislike being outgoing or the centre of attention, or looking silly in front of people

It was basically the best therapy ever for all of these things.

Also, it was SO MUCH FUN, and I met a lot of really interesting new people. I recommend it for all overthink-y introverts.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 10:01 PM on May 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Jia Jiang transformed himself from shy and awkward to fearless and bold by tackling fear-busting rejection challenges."

His website includes 100 Days of Rejection Therapy (or listen to the abridgement on the YANSS Podcast).
posted by kreestar at 10:39 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Check out /r/WritingPrompts/. It's encouraged to just write something, but then you can just go in to the next thing.
posted by pyro979 at 4:41 PM on May 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

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