Want to Soar? Let Go of Outcome, Failure, and Imperfection

woman holding kite above her headRecently, I heard artist Phil Hansen deliver a TED (technology, entertainment, design) Talk. He spoke of how letting go of outcome, failure, and imperfection paved the way for the greatest period of creativity he had ever known.

Just imagine, if you can, how drastically your life would change if you let go of your attachment to certain outcomes, and fear of failure or imperfection. With no self-imposed psychological limits, what might you do? How many new things would you try if the inner mandate of having to have a certain outcome was not there to impede you? How would you speak to people if you felt free of self-consciousness and the desire to have people see you a certain way? After all, isn’t self-consciousness just another form of attachment to a self-imposed ideal? What would your day-to-day life feel like if you weren’t afraid of looking foolish and went with your gut feelings without over-analyzing every decision ad nauseam for its failure potential? How much faster would you get dressed in the morning if imperfection was OK?

Notice when you are stymied how often it is from the internal, almost automatic fear of imperfection, poor outcomes, or failure. Watch how doing things well (i.e., within the confines of what you think is acceptable) hampers your joie de vivre, spontaneity, and creativity. You may want to experiment with a different approach by giving yourself the opportunity to do one thing differently, without the constraints of a preconceived “should,” or as Karen Horney called them: the “tyranny of the shoulds.”

Some examples of shoulds that get in the way of living as joyfully as you can are:

  • Everything must go exactly to my plan. If not, I am doomed to be irritable, cranky, pouting, and just miserable.
  • I can’t look silly, even if I am trying something for the first time.
  • I must be excellent at everything I attempt, and if I’m not, I have to make myself feel lower than a snake’s wiggle.
  • People should respect me at all times. If they don’t, that reflects poorly on me and is absolutely intolerable.
  • If I can’t do something perfectly, it’s not worth doing.
  • It’s awful to fail. I can’t stand anything but success.
  • I must avoid most new things because there’s no way I will be good at them immediately, and looking foolish means people will think less of me.

An antidote to this mental cacophony is to deliberately and thoroughly dispute, or challenge, each of these thoughts until you no longer believe them. For a great book on how to work with your beliefs, I recommend Albert Ellis’ classic: How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything. Yes, Anything! It is a great introduction to rational emotive behavior therapy, the inspiration for cognitive behavioral therapy.

By allowing a more accepting, gentle, kind approach to all areas of your life and detaching from rigid notions of what is OK, you will feel freer and more relaxed. You might find yourself trying new things with less concern about failing or looking stupid. You may even speak your truth more frequently. This new internal comfort will enable you to be more present with everything you do, and that mindfulness will increase your joy.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, LMHC, therapist in Buffalo, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • leelee

    leelee

    September 26th, 2013 at 12:12 PM

    I don’t necessarily think that you have to have a specific outcome in mind but couldn’t it be good to have some sotrt of goal set for yourself as far as what you would like to achieve? Don’t you think that for most of us this helps to keep us a little more focused and on task?

  • Jordyn

    Jordyn

    September 27th, 2013 at 3:56 AM

    It wasn’t until I let go of amny of the unrealistic expectations that I had set up for myself that I have found myself finally able to soar.

    For so long I had set myself up for failure in a way because I had set the bar too high, not that I cannot achieve but just higher than what I could achieve in one step I guess you could say. So then when I wouldn’t achieve that in one fell swoop then I deemed myself a failure and this reflected upon me in every aspect of my life. I couldn’t let go of the fact that I wasn’t be a success in one thing so I came to expect that I wouldn’t be a success in anything that I tried.

    Once I saw how this was ultimately doing me no favors though, it became easy to let go of this expectation. I feel so much better, and I can’t say that I am any further ahead necessarily, but I feel it, and that feels better to me.

  • beck

    beck

    September 28th, 2013 at 4:30 AM

    You don’t know just how much fear has held you back until like Jordyn you let it all go. And then you find yourself wishing for all of that lost time, those lost moments to do all over again without that fear, looking to see just how far you could have made it without that holding you down.

  • Vernon Hale

    Vernon Hale

    September 29th, 2013 at 9:04 AM

    I have never liked what I saw when I looked in the mirror and I guess that for my whole life really, I have let that keep me from being what I really want to be. Now is as good a time as any to change and become free of those shackles, don’t you think? I have always wanted to do it, but this little article right here hit me like that ton of bricks that I guess I have been waiting for and just didn’t know it. I have needed it for so long, and here I have stumbled onto it. I am better than what I have always given myself credit for, and I know that the changes that I need to make won’t be easy, no change ever is, but I think that today is the today that I can finally say that I am ready to start doing the hard work that needs to be done. I am tired of being held back by those negative inner voices that I have allowed to hold me back for so long. I am ready for it to be my time to soar too.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    October 3rd, 2013 at 3:25 PM

    @LeeLee,
    Yes, I do think there are times when a specific goal is helpful; however, this article is about letting go of preconceived notions of specific outcomes, especially failure. It also focuses on how perfectionism often gets in the way of a positive experience.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    October 3rd, 2013 at 3:28 PM

    @Beck,

    I can understand how you would write that comment, as it is easy to look back and regret things. I find it more helpful to remind myself that the person I was then who made those decisions, or acted a certain way, is not the person I am today. It helps breed compassion for myself and a greater appreciation of my own evolution.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    October 3rd, 2013 at 3:31 PM

    @Vernon,

    I smiled as I read your manifesto for changing your life.
    You’re right, it isn’t easy to live authentically. On the other hand only by being your true self can you really fulfill your destiny.

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