“Failure” is a word that's as vague as it is scary.
Whenever a client cites “fear of failure” as the reason they’re not moving toward a cherished goal, I get curious.
What does "failure" mean to him or her?
It’s always more than just the loss of money, time or reputation.
The psychological toll of trying something new that might not work out has more to do with one’s personal demons than the prospect of measurable losses.
A logistical failure — that is, trying something that doesn’t end up working out — is just a step in the process of creating success.
So why should anyone be afraid of that?
Something even more precious than time, money or even public image must be at stake.
Failure on a logistical level can expose what feels like an inadequate, child-like or vulnerable self.
“If I try and don’t succeed, everyone will know I’m _____.”
You can fill in the blank with your own worst nightmare — stupid, weak, unworthy, etc.
That’s a much harder prospect to deal with than a simple loss of resources.
What Color Is Your Failure-Root?
If you’re used to hearing “Who do you think you are?” (either in those words or implied) you’re liable to find yourself thinking, “Who do I think I am?” when you go for the brass ring.
Whenever we try something new, we take a risk … but the nature of that risk varies from person to person.
So ask yourself: What do you risk when you try something new?
Never stop at “failure” as an answer to that question. What does failure mean to you? How exactly does it affect your sense of well-being?
One common fear that often underlies the fear of failure is being seen as a child impersonating an adult. The mask of adulthood can slip off all too easily, especially when it’s not secure.
What do you stand to expose if you go for it?
Are you worried people will think you think you’re special? If so, the humiliation of a possible failure might be enough to stop you in your tracks.
Concerned about being identified as utterly incompetent? Failure could confirm your worst suspicions about your abilities, or lack thereof.
Get Back to Basics
If you’re not sure what your fear of failure is about, take a cue from themes swirling around in your family when you were growing up.
Here are some family values — by no means all bad — that could create internal conflicts about reaching for goals:
- Humility (You think you’re all that? You should be ashamed of yourself.)
- Security (A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.)
- Having it all together (If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t bother.)
- Being selfless (If you fail, you’ll have wasted precious resources on yourself.)
- Not taking more than your share (You should be happy with what you’ve got.)
- Hard work (If you fail, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough.)
- Perfection (You only get one shot at this. You’d better get it right!)
If the fear of exposing an unworthy self keeps you from going for the gold, try the following tips.
1. Get to know that inadequate, child-like and/or vulnerable-feeling self. Write down the specific thoughts and feelings that make you feel small, and don’t censor them.
E.g., "I'm afraid to do it myself; I wish someone would help me."
The more you accept these feelings, the less they’ll control your behavior.
2. Parent yourself. Picture your fear as a reluctant child with his or her heels dug in.
Children who are scared need reassurance, not ridicule. Rather than mocking him or her, try to understand what’s got that child worried.
Assure your child that you’ll lead the way and be the protector.
3. Take baby steps. You don’t explore the Grand Canyon by leaping off the edge.
Find a path that winds toward your goal at a pace that feels do-able for you.
Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of small steps in the right direction; by the time you get there you’ll be more ready to be where you are.