We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them. – Christian Nestell Bovee, writer, NYC
I deal with a lot of fear on a daily basis. I don’t know what it is. It’s just always been this way. I’m afraid of a lot of things: afraid of rejection, afraid of embarrassment, afraid that I’m a fraud, afraid of disappointing people, afraid of not meeting expectations, I’m even afraid of bugs (I hate them). But mostly, I’m afraid of failure. This post series is meant as both a cathartic exploration of my fear and a call to action to overcome fear. By breaking down what makes this fear tick (at least in my own head), I hope to provide a bit of insight into how it can be conquered.
Atychiphobia: the fear of failure. It’s listed on listverse.com (go figure, lol) as the number one fear of humans. I’m sure that a lot of people share this fear with me. I think it’s something that is both socially and culturally bound as well as built into the human psyche. The fear of failure has been the biggest mental hurdle that I’ve had to face in my pursuit of self-improvement. It afflicts me from the moment I wake up to the second I fall asleep. It is the shadow of doubt that hangs over my head as I make every decision. It is the reason why I obsessively write down everything I do – to make sure I don’t miss something that can cause me to fail. It is the specter behind all my excuses and poison to my aspirations.
It is also often a source of clarity, an arrow pointing directly to the place that I need to go
More on that later.
First, I want to talk about three aspects of this fear:
1) The Results
2) The Roots
3) The Release
The Results of a Fear of Failure
The fear of failure can be anywhere from mildly debilitating to completely immobilizing. I’ve experienced both. It’s insidious. You often don’t even know that your behavior is fueled by fear. On the lower end of the spectrum, the fear of failure causes you to procrastinate or make statements to lower others’ expectations.
Procrastination is the classic indicator of a fear of failure. Dr. Timothy Pychyl, an expert on procrastination found that people who scored high in fear of failure also scored high in procrastination. The reason? It’s linked deeply to one’s own sense of competence. An individual who feels that he or she is not competent at a task could use procrastination to rationalize their potentially poor performance. This way, the blame for their “failure” can be shifted from their own lack of competence to procrastination.
I find myself engaging in this sort of self-sabotage all the time. The thing is, this behavior is hard to spot because it often comes in the form of another “productive” activity. I often feel a powerful urge to clean my room whenever a big paper is due or decide to organize my documents folder the night before an exam.
Sometimes, I find myself saying things like “oh I’m just doing this casually” or “I’ll probably lose” before engaging in an activity that I’m not confident in. I recently played in a co-ed volleyball tournament with a bunch of my friends. At best, I’m a beginner at the sport. The same goes for the rest of our team. We played against teams who had actual volleyball players that practiced every week throughout the year. Before our first game, I started making statements like “oh, we’re going to get wrecked” and “we’re really casual.” I believe this is similar to procrastination, a mental defense mechanism caused by a fear of failure. The fear of failure causes a lot of stress from anxiety and nervous tension. It can be greatly relieving to predetermine the result or lower the expectations of others. This defense mechanism is a psychological tool that is built into our brains. I’ll talk more about this in the post about The Roots of a Fear of Failure.
On this end of the spectrum, I think that the manifestations of fear of failure are relatively harmless. Relatively. Procrastination and excuses can definitely affect you negatively, especially when left unchecked. It can cause you to fail classes and projects at work or lose your head in sport competitions.
However, I believe that the other end spectrum is way worse. When you find yourself on this end, you become paralyzed, unable to act. This is the kind of fear that crushes dreams before you can even start pursuing them. It suffocates you, killing the person you could have become; no, rather the person that you would have become had you conquered this fear.
You become afraid to stand out. You seek the safety of mediocrity. You wait your whole life for that perfect chance that never comes. I’ve lived in this fear for a while. It’s why I quit wrestling my sophomore year of High School and opted out of all my AP classes. Common phrases I would (and still) tell myself are:
“I’m not ready yet”
“I’m still young, I have time”
It’s procrastination over the scale of a lifetime. You put off your life until it’s safe to live it. By then, you’ve lost your best years. The fear scares you into inaction. How can you fail if you never even try in the first place? You might not ever lose, but you’ll also never know what it’s like to win.
CA: Call to Action
Take a couple minutes today to write down what you are afraid of. Anything. It doesn’t have to be failure.
Write it down and ask yourself the following questions:
Why am I afraid?
What am I doing as a result of this fear?
What is this fear holding me back from?
Understanding your fear is the first step towards overcoming it. Be brutally honest and most importantly don’t judge yourself! To be afraid is human. It’s highly unlikely that you or I will overcome our fear anytime soon. In the spirit of this blog, it’s all a process. But even the tiniest steps towards conquering our limitations still bring us closer to our best selves.
I’ll end with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, a man who emphasized action and spoke often about the nature of failure. I am sure that he too, like many of us, grappled with the fear of failure.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States