Perfect Failure


Is perfectionism failing you?

The letter D tortured me. In second grade, I simply could not learn to write a capital D in cursive. For the first time, I struggled to learn how to do something in school. Everything had always been so easy for me, and I simply didn’t know how to handle making a mistake. What made it worse was that there were witnesses. Other kids were seeing me having to write that letter over and over. The teacher saw me in tears and patiently guided my hand, over and over and over. Not only was I failing, everyone KNEW I was failing.

I went on to complete grade school, graduate from high school, and earn my bachelor’s and master’s degrees—yet that cursive capital D stands as my most frustrating and upsetting academic experience ever.

Everything was easy for me. It was who I was and was the primary way I saw myself. I didn’t make friends easily, and I wasn’t very coordinated at hopscotch, but I was smart and I learned quickly.

As I struggled with that capital D, I remember thinking, This can’t be happening. I’m the smart kid. School is easy for me. If something is hard, then who am I? Struggling at something new attacked my entire foundation of who I thought I was.

Even now, when I am struggling with something, I get incredibly frustrated and overly worked up. Every time, I can sense that inner voice of I’m a complete failure at being me if I can’t do this. It rocks my equilibrium.

It’s bad enough that I have to know I’m a failure. I still don’t want any witnesses. When something is new, I want to tackle it on my own. I don’t even want anyone to know I’m trying to figure it out. I want to launch the results after I’ve completed my learning. I show the struggle only when it’s done and I’m good enough that no one will witness the struggle. I want to show my efforts only once they’re perfect.


I’ve had to face the fact that I’m a perfectionist. I would rather fail for lack of trying than try and do something less than perfectly.

My habit of solo learning meant that I resisted my husband’s efforts to share marriage resources with me. He would send me links to article and blog posts. I would read them, and they disturbed me because I started to wonder if they were right—which mean that I was wrong, which meant that I’d failed. He would ask me if I’d read them, and I would tell him I hadn’t. I couldn’t bear to think about having been wrong and having someone else see me struggle with the realization of that. It’s the only thing I’ve ever lied to him about. That should have told me something, but I wasn’t listening.

I worried about everything being just perfect. (When Jesus told Martha that she was anxious and troubled about many things, well, let’s just say that it hit a little too close to home for me.)

My perfectionism extended to an unwillingness to try to do better at sex. I don’t recall exactly when I began to realize that a genuine effort toward a better sexual relationship might be a good idea. Even though I thought my refusal was justified, I knew it was causing a problem in our marriage. I knew I could have changed—but I was terrified that I would fail.

What if it’s hard? What if I try and I still can’t do it? What if I put in everything I have and even let Big Guy see my struggle, and it still doesn’t work? Then he’ll have proof that I’m a bad wife. At least now I can tell myself that it’s only because I haven’t tried yet.

I suspect that my perfectionism contributed to the development of the gate-keeping and refusing. I know absolutely that it got in the way of me trying to stop.

I would rather fail at sex for lack of trying than try and do it less than perfectly.

Perfect Improvement

I would be lying if I said that I got over my perfectionism and that it led to a change in our marriage. The moment I realized what my refusal was doing to my husband’s heart will always be etched in my memory. I knew that I’d had a huge failure that Big Guy had not only witnessed, he had also suffered from.

I have never been so terrified to try to learn something as I was then.

So I came up with a plan: I’m going to make a real effort to do better, only I won’t tell Big Guy that I’m doing it. It will sneak up on him, and he won’t see what I’m doing until I’ve figured it out and I’m not failing anymore.

I didn’t tell my husband that I had made a decision to change. If I messed up, I didn’t want him to know that I was a failure when I finally was actually trying.

Perfectly Alone

So I plowed through, trying to figure out on my own how to change my behavior, my thoughts, and my very sense of who I was. I wasn’t the smart kid anymore. I was the wife who had been so stubborn behind her own emotional walls that she had become a refuser, a gate-keeper. I wasn’t the good girl who followed rules. I was the one who had really, really messed things up.

Because of my perfectionism, I deprived myself of the very support that could have eased my learning. I didn’t tell any girlfriends that I was trying to be a better wife in the bedroom. I didn’t tell my husband, who at the very least would have prayed for my efforts.  I read discussion forums but didn’t post. I read blog posts but didn’t comment. Articles and blog posts began to work on my heart, and I never even emailed the writers to thank them or ask them about whatever my current struggle was. (Lori, J, and Julie, please accept my very belated thanks.)

My walls were so firmly entrenched that no one could reach in—and I couldn’t reach out, either.

Struggling at something new attacked my entire foundation of who I thought I was. I had to completely redefine how I identified myself.

My perfectionism had failed me too many times.

It was time to try something new.

What if?

I receive emails from women who express the same fears I had: What if it’s hard? What if I try and I still can’t do it? What if I put in everything I have and even let my husband see my struggle, and it still doesn’t work? What if I go through all this and it doesn’t make any difference? What if it isn’t enough?

Ask yourself: And what if it is enough? What if you reached out to just one or two people for support—a counselor, a woman at church whose marriage seems joyful, or a Christian woman you “meet” online? What if you said to just one person, “I’m trying to do something important and hard in my marriage. Will you pray for me? Can I share my struggles with you?” What if you allowed yourself to let go of your ideas of perfection? What if you allowed yourself to know that a mistake is just a mistake, not a reflection of who you are or a label of failure?

Insisting on perfection means that you’ll never mess up, and no one will see what it’s like for you to fail.

It also means that you will never get any better than you are now. You will miss out on all that God has waiting for you.

What if you let yourself experience the struggle of learning, all so you could go on to experience the joy of success?

Eventually, I did learn how to write a cursive D. Years later, I ran into my second grade teacher. She told me that she remembered my struggles. Then she went on to say that she had shared the story of that struggle with every second grade class since then. Oh, dear, I thought. Thirty years of second graders have heard about my struggles to write that stupid letter? I asked my teacher why she shared that story. “It is a beautiful illustration of persistence. It took you a few days, but once you figured it out, your capital D’s were beautiful.”

What I had seen as a sign of failure was beautiful!

There is more than one way to see mistakes and struggles.

Is it possible that your perfectionism is failing you? What if you tried something new?

“ . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . “ Romans 3:23

Is perfectionism failing you?

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4 Comments on “Perfect Failure”

  1. Chris, your post was very touching. Your story is such an encouragement to me. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you, but it’s so exciting to hear about the changes in your life and the lovely intimacy you now have with your man. What an encouragement you are becoming to so many.

  2. “I worried about everything being just perfect. (When Jesus told Martha that she was anxious and troubled about many things, well, let’s just say that it hit a little too close to home for me.)”

    Absolutely. I’m reading a book now called “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World,” and Martha’s plights definitely resonate more with me, too.

    And your letter D? Well, that was my M. You’d think it’d be easy, right?! Really great post…thanks for sharing!

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