Many of the professionally successful people I’ve studied—both procrastinators and non-procrastinators alike—tend to fear failure. Some of them worry that a fear of failure might jeopardize their careers, especially those who tend to procrastinate as well. Alex, for example, described how his anxiety becomes magnified and his fear of failure becomes increasingly agonizing as project deadlines approach. Although he always performs exceedingly well, Alex wondered if he should take medication or see a therapist to get rid of all the negative emotion he experiences around deadlines.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, labeling emotions as positive or negative has little to do with their value, but instead involves how they motivate us through the ways they make us feel. Negative emotions like distress, fear, anger, disgust, and shame motivate us to do something to avoid experiencing them, or they urge us to behave in ways that will relieve their effects. For example, you would be motivated to back off from a dangerous situation based on your fear, or brush your teeth before a date to avoid possible shame due to bad breath.
There are specific emotions that accompany the thought that you are going to fail, and these emotions are a huge source of motivation for many successful people The prominent emotions are fear and shame. In fact, shame is the core emotion of fear of failure.[i] When shame combines with fear to produce shame anxiety, the resulting emotional mix can be a powerful motivating force. Shame anxiety is experienced as a fear that exposure is imminent and humiliation will soon follow.[ii] Experiencing this intense emotion signals that action must be taken at once to diminish its intensity. Thus, if you are compelled, or eventually compelled, to do something or get something done in order to get rid of the effects of shame anxiety, then the combination of emotions has served its evolutionary purpose. Unfortunately, in a study where the fear of failure was found to motivate individuals to succeed, the researchers nevertheless regarded the fear of failure as a maladaptive characteristic along with “laziness” and “postponement of work” in those who procrastinate.[iii] As I noted in my previous post (Getting Things Done, Procrastinating or Not), I have found in my work with high achievers that procrastination does not interfere with success.
In everyday activities, a fear of failure is motivating. Anticipating a negative evaluation or judgment from yourself or others—like the thought of being embarrassed which is a derivative of shame—can focus your attention on accurately and efficiently completing whatever it is you need to get done. If there is an optimal level of shame anxiety that helps people to complete tasks, it would be up to each individual to determine that level for him- or herself. This is because any emotion a person might feel at a given moment has been modified by the individual’s culture, experiences, and response to situations where that same emotion was activated. As a result, there are people for whom a fear of failure greatly contributes to behaviors that ensure their success, and there are others whose response to the co-mingling of fear and shame leads them to withdraw effort and fail.
The anticipation of a painful emotional state—as well as images of loss of self‑value that accompany the physiological sensations involved in shame—make shame anxiety a powerful motivational tool for humans. In essence, people are highly motivated throughout their lives to “save face.” If a person anticipates that they will feel shame in a particular situation, they will be on high alert. Thus, in considering the many sources of shame and its significant role in motivating our behavior, notwithstanding a fear of failing at task completion, our early memories of shame experiences become reminders of why shame is something to avoid. So it is reasonable that we might become anxious about the possibility of experiencing shame.
Shame avoidance is a way in which evolution has provided humans with a useful tool to reach desired goals. Shame anxiety, as it is experienced cognitively in a fear of failure, has tremendous potential to motivates us to do what has to get done.
[i]. Holly A. McGregor and Andrew J. Elliot, A. “The Shame of Failure: Examining the Link Between Fear of Failure and Shame,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 3, no. 2 (2005): 218, doi: 10.1177/0146167204271420.
[ii]. Leon Wurmser, “Shame: The veiled companion of narcissism,” in The Many Faces of Shame, ed. Donald Nathanson (New York: Guilford Press, 1987), 68.
[iii]. Gregory Schraw, Theresa Wadkins, and Lori Olafson, “Doing the Things We Do: A Grounded Theory of Academic Procrastination, Journal of Educational Psychology 99, No. 1 (2007): 23, doi: 10.1037/0022-0622.214.171.124.