Fear of Failure Holding You Back?

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Source: Anderson Rian/Unsplash
Source: Anderson Rian/Unsplash

“Do not fear mistakes: There are none.”

Easy for me to say? Well, no, not really. Even though one of my favorite personal mistakes* ultimately led to the successful publishing of my first book, this Miles Davis quote, which is posted visibly in my office, is a reminder that there is always a valuable lesson in our perceived mistakes—even the wretchedly painful ones that in the moment appear cataclysmic and irreversible. This is not to say that we would never alter some of our decisions, given the retrospective opportunity. But in reality, the best we can do is learn from our missteps, make amends if necessary, and usher our newfound knowledge into the present, allowing it to inform our future with wisdom.

The words we choose to describe our blunders matter. Our minds often transform a mere thought into a hard fact, often without our consent. A simple “mistake” can easily morph into a big fat failure if we aren’t cautious about how we perceive it. Which is why I have long bristled at the word failure, finding it too finite, too definite, and much too all-or-nothing in its formulation. And because I have repeatedly observed how “failure” paralyzes us in an unending cycle of fearing more of the same, I am opposed to even permitting it full-word status outside of mental quotation marks and often refer to it as “the other F-word.” It is infinitely more productive, motivating, and sanity preserving to practice reframing the concepts of “mistakes” and “failures” as the potential learning opportunities they are.

When it comes to risking failure, each of us falls somewhere on the continuum from cripplingly risk averse to consummate adrenaline junkie. Ideally, we want to find ourselves in the center, making wise, deliberate decisions without allowing fear to immobilize us.

In my younger years, perfectionist tendencies and the fear of failure kept me playing it safe most of the time. As I have grown older, I have learned to nudge, and occasionally (lovingly) shove, myself more toward the center. As with learning any new skill, this was initially frightening, but it has become less so with practice. Despite my earlier risk aversion, I have nevertheless managed to experience my share of setbacks. It’s just as important, if not more so, to discuss our losses than to underscore our wins. Success is decidedly not linear. Colin Jost of Saturday Night Live said it better than I ever could: “We have to remember that progress isn’t just a straight line upward. . . . It’s a weird roller coaster where sometimes you’re screaming for joy and other times you’re barfing in your own face.” Pretty much.

Here are simple steps to help mitigate the risk and recover from the inevitable setback

1. Designate where you fall on the risk-taking continuum:

Do you tend to play it safe, hang back, and think long and hard about decisions? Do you often regret not having jumped in and experienced adventures, large or small? Or do you find yourself frequently regretting impulsive decisions? Are you regularly drawn to that addictive adrenaline rush from just going for it? Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, reserve judgment about who you are or how you have behaved in the past. This is not about self-criticism but about kind awareness. Self-acceptance must first occur before we can create any mindful positive change.

If you tend to be risk averse, your next step is to work on stepping out of your comfort zone in tiny, manageable ways. Granted, we may not make as many missteps if we are always playing it safe, but without some risk we cannot live up to our full potential and end up stunting opportunities for growth.

If you are more of a natural risk taker, your objective is to stop and notice your bodily sensations before you leap, paying attention to what they may be communicating and honing your ability to notice and follow your intuition over time.

2. If you are deliberating about whether to take a leap:

Regardless of whether you are risk averse or risk adoring, first get quiet in order to listen to your body, as it provides valuable information. You must physically stop to do this. Briefly scan through the body from head to toe, staying curious about any sensations and making mental notes of what you observe.

If it is difficult to notice any sensations at all, do not be discouraged. Each time you practice this mindful break, you increase your familiarity with your own unique body sensations, becoming more in tune with what is normal—and what is not—for you. Typically, we experience sensations tied to emotions somewhere between the head and the stomach or lower back. For example, you might feel muscle tension in your head, neck, or back. Perhaps it feels as if an elephant has taken a seat atop your chest or butterflies are trapped in your stomach. These unpleasant sensations commonly signal an unhealthy, unwise choice. Conversely, ask yourself if there is a general sense of ease, calm, and relaxed muscles. This usually means you are proceeding in the right direction.

THE BASICS

Even if you are skilled at noticing sensations, it isn’t always clear what they represent. Or, as in my case, we recognize the sensations but doubt the message out of fear, avoidance, or denial. Since we know that attempting something new often also entails some level of fear, our goal is to distinguish between natural trepidation (take the risk) and our intuition screaming NO! (consider turning back). This, too, requires practice and never entirely becomes foolproof. Provided we gather facts and heed our intuition, we can be assured that we have done our best in that moment, whether we succeed immediately or not.

3. If you are recovering from a “mistake”:

Take a deep breath and offer yourself compassion for the suffering. Remind yourself that you are not alone; everyone has a similar story to share. I know this may be irritating to hear right now, but it will ring true later. Regardless of whether you did not notice informative body sensations, interpreted them wrong, or chose not to heed them, there is always a lesson to be learned—even if it is not immediately clear. Sometimes the best you can do is breathe, put one foot in front of the other, refuse to let fear keep you down, and use what you’ve learned to wisely, kindly inform your next decision.

Fear Essential Reads

Adapted and excerpted from Don’t Forget to Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Women (The Experiment Publishing, 2022).