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My Take

Fear of Failure and Success

Hi everyone, happy Monday! I have an interesting topic to discuss today; the fear of failure and the fear of success. These two fears are a pretty big deal and can hinder our progress. Fearing failure is something pretty much everyone experiences and knows about. What’s a little less known is the fear of success. They both play an important role in how we think of ourselves and the way in which we undertake anything to be accomplished.

Fear of Failure

Let’s begin with fear of failure; the demon that everyone experiences at some point or other. Whenever there’s an opportunity to either succeed or fail, we may face the fear and anxiety of coming up short. We call these situations ‘failures’ but as I and so many others always recommend, it’s more constructive to view them as learning opportunities. This is a much healthier mindset!

After a bit of thought I’ve concluded that fear of failure stems from 4 larger ‘sub-fears’, if you will. These are: The fear of something bad happening, of something good not happening, fearing the reaction of others if we fail and finally fearing how we will see ourselves if we fail. Along this reasoning we may fear one, more than one or all of the above at the same time. I propose asking ourselves which of these categories we fall into when we experience this insecurity to help us better comprehend our own thinking.

Analysis Questions for Fear of Failure:

  1. What is the best outcome of this situation in which I believe I can either succeed or fail?

2. What is the worst outcome?

3. How will I feel if I see my result as a failure? (Think about some key ‘self-blame’ words that you tend to use. Ex: I’m stupid. I never succeed. I always mess up. I knew this would end badly. I knew I couldn’t do this. I shouldn’t have even tried. I’m useless. I’m worthless.)

4. How will others view me if they know I ‘failed’? Do the people around me always comment on my ‘failures’? If so, how does this make me feel? How much do I care about this?

The Dangers

What I believe to be the worst impact of struggling with a fear of failure, (and believe me I have quite a bit of experience in this department), is the conclusion that it’s best not to try. This seems like a natural safety mechanism that I’ve used many times. To protect ourselves from potential failure the obvious solution is to convince ourselves either that we don’t care about the outcome so that a ‘failure’ won’t hurt us, or, we decide not to try at all. We can’t fail at what we don’t attempt, right? In other words what begins as a self-protection mechanism is actually a disguised form of self-sabotage.

Just imagine the missed opportunities involved in living your life avoiding failure by never giving yourself a chance. It may feel easier at the time to put up a barrier that keeps us from experiencing the pain of ‘defeat’, but trust me, it’s not a solution in the long-run. The more we get accustomed to this habit the more we feel personally incapable of success; it becomes a pattern. It eats away at our confidence and leaves us feeling powerless in our lives. The truth is that by resorting to never trying, we’re literally giving our power away! The consequences? Mounting anxiety and often depression.

Alternatively, let’s say that we DO try but maintain our intense fear of failure. We continue the mindset of harshly criticizing ourselves for every mistake and let it erode our persona. I don’t think it takes very long before we feel angry, resentful, sad, etc. As this happens we become more and more discouraged and focussed on every little thing that doesn’t go our way. How can we try our best with full use of our faculties if most of our consciousness is either predicting worst case scenarios and/or beating ourselves up? There isn’t enough space in our minds to do both simultaneously. In other words, once again we are comiting self-sabotage perhaps unwittingly.

Division of energy

An Alternative Perspective

How can we reframe our negative thought patterns in such a way as to preserve our concentration and mitigate excess self-doubt? I say excess because a certain amount of self-doubt is natural and human. A health amount of doubt can keep us from becoming over-confident, sloppy, careless and hot-headed, whereas an unhealthy amount can be paralyzing. Let’s take a look at some new questions that encourage a more balanced perspective.

  1. If I do ‘fail’, is it possible to try again? If not, are there lessons I can learn for the next similar situation?

2. If I feel doubtful of success is it because I’m working in an area of which I have little experience and practice? If so, can I relinquish my need for total control and ask for the help of someone more knowledgable in that area?

3. Can I come up with a realistic Plan B and perhaps Plan C to relieve some pressure? Leaving room for alternatives can be a great way to foster some peace of mind.

4. Am I surrounded by people who are quick to judge and criticize my shortcomings? If so, is this on me or on them? Can I control what people think of me? If I can’t, can I focus on what I want out of the situation? Can I remind myself and accept that their perceptions and negativity are not my problem so I should concentrate on what I can influence? Are they the ones in my shoes dealing with my struggles? If not, is their opinion valid enough for me to internalize and use to berate myself more than I already do?

A Few Helpful Reminders:

  • NOBODY succeeds at everything they touch. (Even if it appears that way or a person would have you believe this, looks can be deceiving.)
  • NOBODY can make everyone happy at the same time. (Again, anyone who claims the opposite is either lying to themselves or preserving their image because they ALSO care about what others think.)
  • Even if you think everything you do or will do is unsuccessful, the odds of that are highly improbable. (Even a broken clock is right twice a day – Kidding aside, give yourself some credit!)
  • Let’s say that if you try your odds of success versus failure are half and half; the odds of success if you don’t try are a big fat zero! (I love the sports quote: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” SO TRUE!)
  • We learn more from ‘failure’ than from ‘success’.

Fear of Success

Now let’s move on to a fear with more subtlety and complexity. The fear of success has its roots in many areas but a lot involves socio-cultural influences. Though becoming less of a huge problem yet still a key factor, gender plays a role in the fear of success. Gender norms have made it such that men are the ones expected to achieve great things from being the bread-winner to moving up the corporate ladder or starting a Fortune 500 company. Women have traditionally been praised for qualities not involving grand and widely-perceived forms of success. They’ve been praised for having a quiet and gentle demeanour, raising children, performing household chores, etc. I know this is rapidly changing, but I assure you it’s still a factor. It can be especially true in various cultures that are less progressive. We still see in some classrooms and work environments that men are expected to be loud, go-getting and self-assured while women with the same qualities are viewed as not being in their proper place, called a b*tch for knowing what they want and expect from others if they’re in a leadership position and many other examples. It’s a double-standard that can discourage women from pursuing their dreams out of fear of how others will view them if/when they get to the ‘top’. We can also see this reflected in the goals of men vs. women starting from a very young age and continuing forward. For example a woman with the dream of becoming a CEO, driving an expensive sports-car and owning a large house is still thought of as ‘unusual’. God forbid she isn’t interested in being married and having children! What is this…is she defective or something? NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT!

This reminds me of another insidious perception; how women view other women. It’s not just men that view this type of women’s successfulness as unusual! There are women whose view of success IS having a family and raising children and there’s nothing wrong with this. At least until THEY begin to judge women who have a more ‘manly’ take on success. What nonsense!

I’ll give you a perfect example… a busy and successful businesswoman who also has a child goes to a parent-teacher event. It’s likely that one or more of the other mothers who have bonded at parks, bakesales and whatnot will view and treat her as an outsider. How’s that supposed to make a woman feel? After all…it’s enough to get flack from the opposite gender is it not? But no, in fact women can be even more hurtful. Suppose not that the same businesswoman misses the PTA and the father goes instead. AGAIN she’s looked down on for not doing her ‘duty’. Who thinks it’s unusual when it’s the mother that comes and not the father because he’s at work or something? That perfectly acceptable. Do you see what I’m getting at? Double-standards EVERYWHERE! It’s quite frustrating and certainly enough to make a woman fear how others will treat her for being successful. She’s made to feel guilty about it.

Other Factors

Now let’s take a look at gender- and culture- neutral influences. Here’s a list of factors that can foster fear and result in ‘dumbing oneself’ down to fit in.

  • Maybe when you were a child / teenager your peers treated you differently for being intelligent and successful in school. Maybe they called you a teachers’ pet, a suck up or a show-off for raising your hand a lot. I have to admit that I experienced this when I was younger and it impacted me deeply. I learned to read, write and communicate fairly effectively from a young age AND didn’t have much experience socializing with people my age. I was made fun of frequently and called the above MANY times. My intelligence singled me out and though I’ve since been told that this was out of jealousy, I was a sensitive child who took it deeply to heart. I loved learning and had a thirst to prove my understanding so I participated wholeheartedly in group discussions and raised my hand when no one else would. After a while I learned to silence myself and barely raised my hand anymore. I waited for written assignments to prove my knowledge but dreaded it when teachers called on students to pass them out once they’d been graded. Imagine that: I was ashamed that others would see my high grade. I learned to strategically put my hand or pencil case over the grade so my neighbours wouldn’t see and comment on it. It’s hard to say this without sounding like I’m bragging, but I frequently sat in frustrated silence with the often correct answer in my head while other students raised their hands to answer questions. I felt guilty for my own hard work…something that should never happen to anyone. Long story short, this is a perfect example of fearing success because of how others will perceive you; it conditions one to censor themselves and hold back. Truth be told, only NOW am I beginning to stop giving a f*ck!
  • Similarly, perhaps the thought of being treated differently by your family, friends or coworkers is causing you to fear being ‘too’ successful. Maybe you’re the kind of person who wants to be successful but not be in a spotlight. After all, people tackle the one with the ball. Unwanted attention can be uncomfortable and jealousy can take many unpleasant forms.
  • Another big one in my opinion is the fear of failing after you’ve been successful. Let’s say you reached the goal but your anxiety and doubts make you feel as though your success won’t last or be maintained. Some achieved successes require constant upkeep, if you know what I mean. It takes time, energy and effort to keep the momentum going and often it’s scarier to think about losing what you accomplished than to not reach what you wanted. Of course that’s a very individual feeling. My point is that fear of success can be a result of thinking that there’s nowhere to go but down.

Combatting Fear of Success

I believe confronting a fear of success can be tricky and it really depends on what factors resound with you the most. However here are my current ideas on what could help:

  • If you work hard for your successes, it stands to reason that there’s nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about. You didn’t have it handed to you and even if others are jealous or don’t understand that, it’s on them. Trust me when I say that I know this isn’t as easy as it sounds! It can help to remind ourselves of this fact though.
  • Try not to waste your precious energy explaining to others why you deserve the success, how hard you worked for it, etc. You don’t owe anyone an explanation or justification. If someone is genuinely curious and interested in how you achieved your success, that’s a different story.
  • If you’re a socially private person like myself, avoid the feedback from others by keeping what’s close to your heart out of their reach. This isn’t possible for everything, but it often comes in handy. Staying quiet and humble is a pretty great way to avoid confrontation and negative attitude.
  • Expect ‘haters’ and learn to not internalize their non-constructive feedback. It helps to build a shell…especially for those of us inherently sensitive and prone to being guilt-tripped.
  • When you succeed, try to enjoy it…you worked hard enough!
  • When you have setbacks try to keep in mind that they’re natural and you’re human. Mistakes can be remedied and with the right attitude they’ll help you grow and improve to reach even greater heights!
  • It’s important to think about potential pitfalls but NOT to the point where you drive yourself crazy with worst-case scenarios!
  • Try to surround yourself with people who support you regardless of whether you ‘win’ or ‘lose’, ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’. I try to remind myself that not everyone is a critical monster waiting to prey on my insecurities and weaknesses.

What's YOUR take?