Looking failure in the eye

Perfectionism has served me well. Yes I have succeeded academically and in my profession. But it has also caused it’s fair share of unhappiness and is the source of a great deal of my own imposter syndrome. If you can only ever peer into the gap of failure, then you can’t ever really acknowledge your success or growth. No achievement is ever good enough.

After most coaching sessions I spend time reflecting on what went well…and what didn’t. I predictably notice failures first. Like many recovering perfectionists, these points of perceived failure in a session totally outshine any success and feed relentlessly into a sense of inadequacy and being an imposter as a coach.

The majority of my clients also struggle with imposter syndrome. And if I’m to be of any use to them at all, then I need to making progress in my own development and in finding and using more useful, functional and healthy approaches to imperfection.

Much is written about strategies such as growth mindset and vulnerability. But they all too easily can become just another venture in perfectionism – and just something else to fail at.

“Am I vulnerable enough yet?”. Oh the sheer and utter irony behind trying to be perfectly vulnerable is not lost on me.

One thing that seems to be missing from this conversation is an honest account of failure. An honest account of not knowing…and how to be in the face of your own imperfections. An honest account of looking failure in the eye and being ok with it and with yourself.

An honest account of failure

I have been heavily influenced by Carl Rogers. I have experienced in my own life the transformative impact of being really listened to, heard and understood.

So I try to listen and empathise with my clients in he way he suggests. I try to build the kind of relationship he describes with all my clients. Some days I’m better at it than others. Some days I feel like I completely get it wrong. And then, predictably, I berate myself.

Not helpful.

Looking failure in the eye

So I decided to reread one of Carl Rogers’ books “On becoming a person”. This time I read with a different lens. Previously I have read what he had to say as setting some kind of gold standard that felt so enormously difficult to achieve. This time I read it from the point of view as tentative suggestions of the way things may be, in particular around his failures in reaching his own truth. He talks a lot about his failures.

Really, I found this so comforting. If Carl Rogers can lay out a whole system of helping relationships and when they work best, then describe how hard it is to actually do that, and describe the times he failed to establish the type of relationship he wanted, then I can certainly be a little kinder to myself in admitting the actual truth.

A perfect coaching session can’t exist, will never exist and has never existed – neither for myself or anyone else as coach. I can only try to be as honest as I can be with my failures in the service of growth. What more can a person do?

There is no perfection in this world or in ourselves. We can only bring the best we can be in a given moment to serve another with faith.

What is the real failure?

Perhaps the real failure is to let failure crush us. Maybe it’s only by meeting our inadequacies head on that we can ever hope to transcend them.

Perhaps the true test of greatness is being able to admit to ourselves our own failures, and then recommit to continued striving to growth.

Perhaps the true perfecting of ourselves is having the courage to look failure in the eye and grow.

Here’s some of what Carl Rogers has to say:

It does not help to act as though I know the answers when I do not…It seems to me that most of the mistakes I make in personal relationships, most of the times in which I fail to be of help to other individuals, can be accounted for in terms of the fact that I have, for some defensive reason, behaved in one way at a surface level, while in reality my feelings run in a contrary direction (p16-17)

I have found that truly to accept another person and his feelings is by no means an easy thing, any more than is understanding (p20)

I am by no means always able to achieve this kind of relationship with another (p34-35)

I believe that most of my failures to achieve a helping relationship can be traced to unsatisfactory answers to these two questions. When I am experiencing am attitude of annoyance to another person but am unaware of it, then my communication contains contradictory messages. My words are giving one message, but I am also in subtle ways communicating the annoyance I feel and this confuses the other person and makes him distrustful, though he too may be unsure of what is causing the difficulty. When as a parent or a therapist or a teacher or an administrator I fail to listen to what is going on in me, fail because of my own defensiveness to sense my own feelings, then this kind of failure seems to result. (p51)

Can I let myself experience positive attitudes toward this other person – attitudes of warmth, caring, liking, interest, respect? It is not easy. I find in myself, and feel that I often see in others, a certain amount of fear of these feelings. (p52)

It has been my experience that when my attitude is conditional, that he cannot change or grow in those respects in which I cannot fully receive him. And when – afterward and sometimes too late – I try to discover why I have been unable to accept him in every respect, I usually discover that it is because I have been frightened or threatened in myself by some aspect of his feelings. (p54)

If I could, in myself, answer all the questions I have raised in the affirmative, then I believe that any relationships in which I was involved would be helping relationships, would involve growth. But I cannot give a positive answer to most of these questions. I can only work in the direction of the positive answer (p56)

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