One of the things that keeps people stuck in failure is a principle called “Moving Goalposts”. Anytime we succeed, our mind does a flip, and turns a success into a failure.
We might feel like a failure because we’re out of shape, we don’t wake up on time, we cannot follow through with our intentions, etc. So we set goals for ourselves. But our mind does something really tricky when we try to make a change.
If you feel out of shape, you might eat something healthy on one day. But instead of accepting that success, your mind might tell you “Oh, I should have done this a while ago. Why didn’t I start sooner?” It might even set the goal, “We’re going to start eating healthy EVERY day now.”
Our mind takes one success and turns it into a failure. We beat ourselves for not taking action earlier.
Even though we are taking a step in the right direction, instead of being inspired and motivated by it, we beat ourselves up over it. We transform the success into a failure about the past. It might say, “Oh, I should have been eating healthy my entire life.”
The second thing our mind does is that it takes a success and moves the goalpost. “Oh, I ate healthy today, now I will eat healthy tomorrow.” The goal that you woke up with today was to eat healthy TODAY. The goal was not to eat healthy for the next week or the next month, or the next year. It was a small goal that you can accomplish. You can take one step at a time. But our mind takes success and moves the goalpost, which destines us for failure.
For example, if you eat healthy for one day, your mind will tell you “I am going to eat healthy for the entire week now”. But you may not be capable of doing that. You can eat one healthy meal a day, and you have done that — it was a success. You take one step forward and then suddenly expect so much more from yourself. You change the way you define success.
As a result, you start believing that you are a failure everyday. However, you are not a failure everyday. You actually succeed on many days. The problem is that you don’t let yourself sit with that success. You don’t pat yourself on the back for it. You move the goalposts on yourself and then expect so much more from yourself than you are capable of.
When you inevitably fail, you feel shameful. You feel lazy and undisciplined. You compare yourself to people who are further along than you. That’s not what you should wish. You should wish for exactly what you have accomplished.
For example, instead of hoping to eat a salad every day, you should wish that every now and then, you could eat a salad. That is the goalpost that you originally set for yourself and if you don’t let yourself move it, you can succeed.
As you do this, you become a different person. Instead of being someone who fails all the time, and thus, “is” a failure, you become a person who succeeds sometimes and fails sometimes. That is wildly different from being someone who fails ALL the time, as a result of moving your goalposts.
Its because of our negative perception of ourselves. If you view myself as a complete failure, the only success that will balance that is a HUGE one.
For example, if you are 300 lbs overweight, you might not think that it is good enough for you to eat a salad one day a week. You might have this perception that you are so overweight, that you are so much of a failure, that you have to balance that with a big success. It is the only way to make up for that deficit. If you have dropped out of college, you might feel that the only way to redeem yourself is to go to a prestigious institution like Harvard — community college just isn’t good enough for you.
You feel like such a failure, that there is no way a small success can make up for that failure. You have to make up for lost time. You move the goalposts because you view yourself as a failure.
But once you start to see yourself as someone who fails sometimes and succeeds sometimes, then suddenly you don’t have to move the goalposts as much. You don’t have to be an absolute success. You’re a success about half the time, so you only have to move the goalpost a tiny bit, not a huge amount.
The less you start moving goalposts, the more successful you become. The more successful you become, the less you feel like a failure, and the less you have to move goalposts. It turns from a cycle of failure into a cycle of success.
When you start to expect yourself to be perfect every day, that is when you doom yourself to failure. Acknowledge where you are and do the best you can. Expect less from yourself and let yourself be a little bit worse than you actually are.
Perfectionism has many definitions, but it is often something shared with people that feel like they have fallen behind or never "enough." However, perfectionism is not a diagnosis for an specific illness because there is no explicit way to cure perfectionism. Instead it is an umbrella term used to describe multiple root problems that lead to a similar symptom.
With perfectionism, people often encounter escalating possibility, which is when someone continually increases the expected work output because they cannot meet a particular goal that they set for themselves by a time frame. For example, when people have final exams coming in the far future, they usually plan to study a little bit each day. But when they procrastinate, they compensate for the lost time by planning increasing the amount of studying they need to do in the future. Then they continue to procrastinate and panic starts setting in, which makes it harder to study. Finally, the panic becomes so overwhelming that people create a Samskara of regret, and they finally begin to study right before the exam. Perfectionism forces you to based your actions on an expectation of results. Then when the expectation is high, your actions begin to feel insignificant and your create higher expectations to catch up based on your worry or fear. And this worry and fear also counter-intuitively holds your back from acting on any intentions or goals.
To start acting, you need to let go of "catching up" and "falling behind." Catching up and falling behind are mental constructions that you created from your fear and worry. Perfectionism creates mental markers of where you should be, and, if it is not met, then no amount of effort can make you feel like you have progressed. It is not the positive reinforcement you need to move forward and you will struggle to focus on what you can do now. Instead, you take on negative reinforcement by striving for perfectionism, and you become paralyze because you are not perfect enough to complete your goal, even when you are striving to be. Let go of these mental constructions of "not being perfect" and keep if from dragging you down from acting.
Society has also created a culture of triumph, where people celebrate grand stories of being stacked up against the odds, the possibility falling incredibly low when they fail, and the possibility of becoming magnificent when they succeed. Therefore, you have dormant emotional energy sitting in you as you wait for the emotional outcome you want to come. So when you throw away the fantasy of triumph, falling behind, catching up, you only have energy and action left in you. Focus on progress over perfection because perfection is a made up thing in your mind that tells you that you did not do anything right.
Your pursuit of perfectionism can take on more subtle forms that can lead to similar problems. People can leave their perfectionism and choose to chase after progress instead. Although progression is good to have, you might run into the same problem where you set goals, standards, and deadlines as you did with your perfectionist mindset. If you run into this, then take it slow, not stop progressing, and notice your perfectionism spring out with questions on how slow you need to be, when to start progressing after, etc. You will feel like you are falling behind or not making a change, but these feelings are attached to the previous problem with perfectionism which is creating an expectation. And by pausing and noticing your perfectionism, you begin to build distance from it and separate the action from the expectation.
Whether people struggle with progression or perfection, your kindness to yourself is independent from all of it. Be kind to yourself no matter what and progress when you can. But if progression gets in the way of your self-compassion, then you need to stop progressing, notice the expectation you built, and relearn how to progress without revoking your kindness.
People often have a belief that results are more important than the work needed to succeed, and as a result, people will either be paralyzed or avoid attempting because of this. However, this belief actually stems from a fear of failure and the belief is a rationalization for avoiding action.
To move past this belief, you first bring your awareness towards your internal emotional state, acknowledge the fear of failure, and act towards your goals despite the emotions and logic that try to deter you.
When you set your success based off of the results, then you make results matter more than your effort. For example, when climbing a mountain, if you take one step and look at the top, you will never feel like you are progressing because you are not at the top. As a result of focusing on getting to the top, every step you take will feel insufficient. However, if you set your success based on acting in the now, then your success can be very different and come from whatever effort you put in. You will see all the steps you have made and how you are one step closer toward the top.
This shift from performance oriented mindset to a growth oriented mindset is popularized by Carol Dweck, and also comes the yogic concept of karma. With Karma, you are only entitled to your actions, and not the results of those actions. Therefore, you can only control your actions and not the results of those actions. And those that focus and consistently act have more chances of getting better results.
Focusing on results and success is like focusing on being prepared or perfect, and at the end of the day are emotions. Although emotions are valid, remember that emotions are not reality; they are a distortion of reality. When the emotions get stronger, the distortion of reality gets stronger as well. But if you want to take control of your life, you do not try to control your outcomes but control what actions you take, despite those external circumstances and feelings.