Fear of Failure

bare feet boy child couch
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are well over 500 documented phobias, or irrational fears, that can affect individuals at any given time. Some are merely temporary, while others can be life long. Certain phobias are so severe that individuals may take heavy doses of medication to maintain some level of “normal” function, while some simply prevent them from having household pets. A fear that isn’t frequently discussed as a phobia, but is named as one, is atychiphobia, or “fear of failure.” As it turns out, I’m more than a little familiar with this fear, and have dealt with for most of my life.

As a child, I learned early on what it meant to disappoint my father. His stern, judgmental, and religious orientated parenting methods often left me feeling like I couldn’t do anything right. As the offspring of a devout Jehovah’s Witness, I was taught to strictly observe their customs and beliefs, such as Do NOT celebrate Birthdays, do NOT salute the flag, do NOT have “wordly” (non-Jehovah’s Witness friends). I silently watched other children socialize with each other and enjoy these forbidden celebrations at school, while I either sat in the corner of the classroom, or worse, out in the hallway at a lonely desk all to myself, where for all it was worth I may have just as well been hanging on a cross in front of the school. I wanted so badly to be a member of the group, but feared letting my father down (as well as the fearsome Jehovah God, who watched my EVERY move, EVERY second of the day).

Because I felt so strongly inside that I needed to obey both my father’s and Jehovah’s commands, yet at the same time wanted to fit in, I carried around feelings of tremendous guilt and conflict. On the rare occasion that I’d sneak to some other kid’s house and have a piece of birthday cake, I’d later feel shameful about my actions, and deeply fearful of my father finding out. Unfortunately, it wasn’t only fear of not following my father’s wishes that undermined my healthy emotional growth. He was deeply critical of every move I made. He was constantly following me around, asking me why I did things a certain way. Why did I leave a dish in the sink. Why did I not shut a door. Why did I leave a toilet seat up. On and on. Sometimes he’d remark on something I’d done and call me an “idiot.” I believed I wasn’t ever good enough for him, and felt I couldn’t do anything right.

It was extraordinarily difficult to manage my feelings of frustration and anger. I had no outlet for such emotions; my father certainly wouldn’t hear of it, and I feared his belt if I said too much. Then my parents separated and divorced, and it quickly became a matter of either pleasing my father OR my mother, as my father remained a Jehovah’s Witness, while my mother left the religion and sought to indulge my sister and I in the world my father fought so hard to keep us out of. She celebrated every Holiday, while my father chastised me for participating in these celebrations, going so far as to say I would “die at Armageddon” -the day when Jehovah was going to destroy all those who refused to do his will. It became painfully obvious I couldn’t do anything that was ever going to make BOTH my parents happy at the SAME time. It’s no wonder that by the age of ten I had invented my own superhero-The Everything Kid-who was able to do anything or be anything. As The Everything Kid, I could be well liked, I was perfect (made no mistakes), and was “super human.”

Well how did I turn out? I stayed in my Everything Kid costume for much of my adult life. Easily fulfilling “people-pleasing” roles, I consistently put the happiness of others before my own. I made hasty, and poor decisions. I was constantly anxious and in a rush, often saying to myself “I should be X (fill in the blanks) by now.” My main goal was to prove my value, my worth, and that I could be the “best” at whatever it was I was doing. Anything less than that was failure. Not only was I afraid of failing at something, I was afraid that others would think I was a failure, even if I was successful, as surely they could see through to the real me. I sought out the external rewards and praise that I didn’t get from either of my parents. I’d do anything if it meant validation and something to give me a sense of self-worth, even if that meant settling with partners I was ill-suited for or staying in jobs I was over-qualified for.

Fairly often, I found myself in impossible situations in my home and work life, as well as numerous financial crises. I’d stick with whatever I was doing though, even if it wasn’t the path that made the most sense to outside observers, to show I was capable of overcoming anything. One of my favorite sayings was “throw me in a tank full of piranhas for an hour and I’ll be the only one left.” But alas, staying in tough situations too long caused me to lose time, money and chances at healthy relationships.

I’m sure many of us lived with highly critical or unsupportive parents who sought to undermine us or humiliate us at every turn. What I’ve found is that our parents’ voices become our voices, as the negative thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves persist. This pervasive inner voice can lead to the following:

  • Self-Sabotage: We endure such high levels of anxiety or fear of failure that we become frozen, like deer in the headlights, and aren’t able to complete the tasks in front of us, or don’t do them well.
  • Low Self-Esteem: Our self-confidence ebbs or is at times non-existent. We feel we aren’t “good enough” or “smart enough” for partners or jobs and so “settle” for less than we are suitable for.
  • Perfectionism: We fear failing so deeply that we only attempt or try to do things we are able to do perfectly. We won’t engage in the tougher challenges, or take the risks that are associated with greater rewards.

Not silencing this critical voice within can often lead us to approach life’s challenges by “playing not to lose” instead of “playing to win.” We may become motivated to avoid any chance of failure, so as to avoid any feelings of disappointment, loss or frustration. That would be unfortunate, as failing can actually teach us lessons we can take with us when it’s time to meet the next challenge. I know it is easier said then done, but we can choose to be afraid or we can choose to not be afraid. If you’ve lived your whole life with a fear of failure then it’s time you owned up to it and did something about it. Start by finding a good cognitive therapist. It will be a process that may take years, but once you move from Fear of Failure to Freedom from Fear, you’ll know it was all worth it.

For more on this topic, please read this excellent post by Guy Winch, PhD: “10 Signs That You Might Have Fear of Failure…and 2 ways to overcome it and succeed.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201306/ten-signs-you-might-have-fear-failure

 

Deep In The Woods

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Photo by Anton Atanasov on Pexels.com

I’m much too far from home. In too deep to turn back. Unable to find the exit or the clear path forward. Forced to make choices now that I don’t want to make, because I made choices carelessly so long ago.

Fuck.

There is no safety net. There is no one to take me in. I’m on my own. If there was any kind of God watching, he or she left me to my own devices somewhere along the way. I didn’t notice.

Shit.

I want to give in, give up, give out-but I have nothing left to give. I continue in spite of myself. I don’t even care what path I’m on as long as it is a path and I’m not subjected to the torture of well-hidden rocks and switchbacks. I. Am. All. Alone. It feels good and it hurts all at the same time. There is no pressure now other than what I put upon myself. BUT! I am a motherfucker and I can torture and punish like no one else.

I know better. I have meditated. But the deeper I go inside the more questions I’m driven to ask. Who made me? Can I be unmade? Can the unsettled be quieted? I need a moment of peace. Can I unlearn patterns learned and deeply embedded? Can I re-imagine my approach and change my course?

I walk faster, sun setting, pulse racing, palms sweating. Tightened breath coming in heaving gasps. When the sun has been vanquished I see nothing. I know my hands are in front of my face yet I can’t see them. I can only feel. I feel deeply. That is my curse, that is my gift. No one sees what I feel. No one feels what I see.

There are new sounds all around me. Things that crave the darkness and mock my presence. I’m no longer afraid. Let them take me. I don’t care at all. I’m beyond being afraid of death. This is not what scares me. What scares me is the world moving forward without me. I want to be remembered. I don’t want to be forgotten.

I see a sliver of moonlight through the trees. I make out a bat fluttering above. This is good, I can define shapes once again. I’ve moved from pitch blackness to shadows and stars. There are so many. There is a rock moving around one of those stars, and surely as that rock orbits that foreign sun, there is another like me, at once both lost and at home, deep in the woods.

And I take comfort in this.

Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow

avian-1853120_1920While visiting with a relative last month, we spotted a tiny baby rabbit eating grass in the wide open meadow behind the relative’s home. Naturally, we were enthralled with the peaceful sight of this young creature blissfully eating its time away on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and couldn’t fathom anything that would interrupt its routine. Every few minutes or so, we’d glance out the window and continue to observe this little bunny going about the business of sustaining itself, all the while mentioning how cute it was, and how lucky our relative was to have such great views of wildlife from her window.

After a while, our conversation deepened and we stopped looking out the window. At some point, I got up to use the restroom, and on my way back, went to look out the window again. This time what grabbed my attention was the giant red tailed hawk standing proudly in the meadow. It would take my brain about ten seconds to make the connection and register what had happened. In a stunning example of the circle of life, the hawk was now enjoying a meal in the meadow–the rabbit was no more.

After the reality of it set in, I asked many questions to myself. In the moment the hawk came down from its likely perch in the treetops at the edge of the meadow, did the rabbit have any idea of its eminent doom? When in fact the hawk’s talons sunk deeply into the supple flesh of the rabbit’s back, did it know that the end of it’s life was near? As the end did come, did it struggle out of a sense of loss of the life it enjoyed, or was it only some primitive, programmed mechanism that caused it to fight against the hawk until it could fight no more?

This rabbit was likely much too young to understand the danger the hawk represented. Perhaps rabbits much older and wiser had witnessed their kin getting carried away by some bird of prey, and equated such birds with danger. I realized that most of the other rabbits in the neighborhood, especially the larger ones, were more likely to be found under bushes or at the edge of the border between forest and grass than out in the open.

In our own lives as humans, there is a healthy fear that motivates us to desire to protect ourselves and those we love. From experience or other ways of learning, we’ve come to know the various threats to our existence. Unlike rabbits and other life forms, we tend to dwell on those threats, and often allow our concern for them to overshadow our enjoyment of our daily routine. Certainly for those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, like myself, we may see “hawks” wherever we go, imagining one is coming to devour us at any time. This fear can manifest itself in more severe forms of anxiety, such as panic attacks and severe physical ailments. I’ve been there on numerous occasions.

On the ride back from our relative’s home, I discussed with my wife how as humans we are almost “afflicted” with an ability to concern ourselves with suffering or even the idea that we may suffer. This whole notion of the anticipation of suffering, I believe, can get in the way of truly living a full life. Especially when we’ve survived terrible conditions, we know something bad can happen, and so may take necessary and logical precautions to ensure our own survival, but when we get to the point that we consistently believe something bad will happen, we lose perspective and the ability to make good decisions.

I don’t believe the rabbit had any way of anticipating the suffering it would briefly endure at the claws of the hawk. While it likely fought for its own survival, and the process of dying was physically painful, its not likely that it experienced any emotional pain brought on by thoughts of leaving the world it had known. In the end, it was able to fully let go, as it had no attachments to painful thoughts about what its end meant.

I’ve tried to reflect on what I witnessed that day, and apply the lesson in my own life. I need to learn to respond differently to events that trigger the “fight or flight” response in me, such as when my boss unexpectedly calls me into his office for a meeting, with my expecting to be relieved of my job. Or worrying about being unable to pay a bill on time. If I could learn to be like the rabbit, and let go of my attachment to the anticipation of suffering and the painful thoughts that accompany this anticipation, I’d likely have less physical symptoms such as stomach upset, tossing and turning at night, and rapid heart rate.

For now, I accept I have much work to do. When captivated by fear, I know I need to step back and consider what it is I am fearful of and why I am fearful of it. It’s not easy, and I still occasionally experience anxiety at a fever pitch. I’ve learned to forgive myself for feeling this way, knowing that the trauma I endured as a child has interfered with my emotional response in my adult life. I will continue to work toward full acceptance of the impermanence of life and the idea that whatever I am enjoying at the moment, whether it is my job, my home, or even my life, is subject to coming to an end at any time. Through a practice of acceptance of the ever changing nature of life perhaps I can come to a place where I live without anxiety, and fully live in the present. That is my goal.

Thank you little rabbit, and thank you proud hawk. Like so many things that cross our path each day, you both served to teach me a valuable lesson. May we all understand and learn from the lessons that life teaches us each day.

There Is No One To Blame

180505203354-01-hawaii-kilauea-volcano-0505-exlarge-169No matter where you are in the world, you’d be hard pressed not to be aware of the dire situation on the largest Hawaiian Island aptly named, “The Big Island.” As a basic study of geologic history will reveal, the Hawaiian Islands were formed by what is known as a “hot spot,” where magma that forms in the Earth’s mantle rises through a crack in the earth’s crust. As the top layer of the earth, the “plate,” slowly moves over the hot spot, lava erupts through the plate to form what is at first an underwater volcano, eventually rising up to become a land mass above the ocean’s surface, upon which lush, paradise like conditions may form, a process which occurs over many millions of years.

Today, the people of the largest of the Hawaiian Islands are in grave danger as the volcanic activity there is now wildly unpredictable. Much of the entire island could be lost if a major eruption of the Kilauea Volcano occurs. There is also concern that other locations along the “Ring of Fire,” where several tectonic plates meet and seismic and volcanic activity is common, are in danger of seeing major earthquakes or volcanic activity. Many areas within the United States West Coast are in this zone.

Should we take this activity as a “Sign of the End” of the present world? Has God roused up this volcanic activity to teach humans a lesson about his power? There are some preaching that what is happening is showing us to be that much closer to something, depending on what you believe. The Second Coming of Jesus, God’s Great Day of Judgements, Armageddon, etc. Is this really so? Did you know that 70 million years ago there were Hawaiian Islands that no longer exist today, far to the West of the present day islands’ location, proof that tectonic plates are continually moving over the Earth’s crust?

If you have a narrow view of the world, and have been shielded from the evidence–the geologic record that is there for us to review–it would be easy to believe that there is some supreme being “pulling the strings,” causing earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts or whatever else afflicts humankind from time to time, working to instill fear in us so we do whatever is asked by his so called “earthly representatives.” As for me, I prefer to let the record of the Earth’s history stand as a testament that these actions of “natural violence” are nothing more than a byproduct of living in the natural world. The truth, the real truth most religious organizations don’t want you to acknowledge, is there is truly NO ONE TO BLAME for these outcomes. Volcanoes, earthquakes, cancers, disease and death have occurred for billions of years and will likely occur for billions of years more, until our Sun finally burns out (all good things must come to an end).

So don’t live your life like the world is going to end tomorrow. It might, but it likely won’t, not for a very long time. Love your families, use your personal freedom responsibly, and live your life to the fullest! Stop hating or shunning those who don’t share your beliefs. If the earth’s going to be around another billion of years or so, in the grand scheme of things, those actions are worthless, and a waste of the short, precious time we have left to live on the highly volatile rock we call Earth. (Photo Courtesy of the United States Geological Survey)

Meet Life Where It Is Right Now

barn-lightning-bolt-storm-99577.jpegIt’s inevitable that our journey on the footpath of our life will find us encountering unanticipated obstacles, detours and outright blockades. No matter how careful our own personal choices, there are things that occur which are absolutely outside of our control. What matters most is how we respond to the unexpected, and what choices we make in connection with that response. This is what makes all the difference.

I’ve struggled to understand why we at times encounter extreme difficulty, and have sought to trace the source of adversity back to an individual or collective choice. Let me be clear from the onset, I don’t believe that any God or God-like being or force manipulates human activity. No God would “take” children from us, inasmuch as he or she wouldn’t “bless” us with children with disabilities. These events are simply part of the natural course of life. Cells and genes develop significant deviations that can cause major disabilities, even cancers and death. There is no “one” responsible for these possibilities. These are naturally occurring byproducts of living in the natural world.

At home, we’ve been tested recently through our efforts to successfully raise a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and Schizophrenia. The challenges are many and varied, whether it be helping her cope with the academic setting at school, or even just trying to help her fall asleep despite having major delusions that someone is going to hurt her. It’s becoming increasingly evident with each passing day that the least restrictive environment the public school setting provides may not be the best place to facilitate her long-term success, and we now have to consider a full-time residential program.

Of course we’re not happy to consider the possibility of our adolescent daughter leaving our home, if even on a five-day basis, especially considering that many outcomes are still unknown. Will she be able to finish high school and go on to college? Will she be able to obtain gainful and meaningful employment? Will she be able to live confidently as an independent adult, able to navigate the unexpected on her own? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions right now. There is no certainty, there is no ground.

What is easy to do in situations like this is wish that our daughter didn’t have to have such a difficult path, or to hope that given a little more time she’ll be able to find success in her current environment. We have our own needs for normalcy, for family togetherness, for a peace that seems elusive right now. But our daughter’s needs are greater than our own, and if we fail to give her what she needs right now, in this moment, her future may be even more uncertain than it seems today. So we have to learn to let go of what we want or hope for, of our own idea of normal, and meet our daughter where she is, to ensure she is provided with the best care and support possible.

This approach can be generalized to all challenges we face. Who’d stand unprotected in a violent thunderstorm, simply wishing and hoping for it to pass, instead of seeking shelter? Likewise, by holding on to an “ideal” of the life we wanted for our daughter, instead of fully recognizing who she is, we may putting off our greatest chance of ensuring her future success and self-protection from the storms she is likely to face later on. It’s by no means easy to accept the struggles that we or our daughter are going thorough, but we can’t change who she is. What we can do is change how we’re responding to her needs. In doing so, we may also be teaching her how to respond to her own challenges, both those within her and those in the world she must live in.

Although it may feel impossible, if we meet every situation and every individual where they are right now, will full acceptance, we may find ourselves more easily making the choices that need to be made.

 

 

 

 

The Staircase

Dream SpeechOn this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., I’m reminded of one of his many famous quotes, particularly this: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” While I’d heard this sentence before, I first became aware, I mean fully aware, of its meaning when someone very close to me shared it with me in one of my darkest moments nine years ago. I couldn’t see beyond the difficult nature of my present moment and didn’t see how my life could or would ever improve. My finances were in disarray, my job was coming to an end, I was selling my house at a steep loss, and I was going through a divorce, all at the same time. I didn’t know how I’d pay my bills, feed my children or even put gas in my car. I felt like I was in a deep tunnel with no source of light, with no idea where it ended or where it began.

I was so focused on the negative circumstances surrounding me. I was overwhelmed and anxious. Consumed with worry and the mental gymnastics that accompany that state, I wasn’t able to engage myself in any meaningful action to improve my life. I was frozen by my own fear, stuck and unable to decide what to do. It was when I honestly shared all this with someone that loves me that these words of Dr. King were spoken to me, words that still ring true in my life to this day. In my experience, no aspect of life can be taken for granted. Jobs will be taken away. Homes will be lost. People we love will leave us, either voluntarily or involuntarily. It is our response to these events that makes the difference in how we function on a day to day basis, and our response is shaped by our perspective. If we choose to see nothing but the staircase, the whole big picture of our lives, we may find ourselves collapsing under the weight of it. If we instead focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and just take that meaningful first step toward our future, with faith in our own ability, we may find it easier to move forward.

As a child, I was subjected to the disparaging voices of many adults. These became the soundtrack playing in my head, ultimately turning into the negative self-talk that dogged me for much of my adult life. I’ve had to learn to re-frame the conversations I have with myself. Reciting quotes like the one above as my own mantra (the statements we repeat to ourselves), has helped me to do just that. Now, I’m not going to tell anyone this is easy to do. I understand it takes hard work and dedication to harness our own thoughts about ourselves and our lives. But it is worth it. Just take that first step.

 

Searching for the Opiate: How My Parents Became Jehovah’s Witnesses

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Karl Marx once said that religion is “the opium of the people,” and I fully understand. It is a most difficult process to get to the root of the problem, to the core of who we are and even why we are, and to contend with potentially poisonous and distorted emotions. Some individuals choose the easy way out when dealing with bodily aches and pains, taking pain pills instead of utilizing diet, exercise and other healthy regimens to treat, or prevent, the underlying cause of their pain. There are more than a few paths we can follow to mask our pain. A religion, for example, may give us a sense of well being, a belief that someone more powerful is in control, has a plan for us, and will ultimately fix whatever inside of us we perceive to be broken. These beliefs may help us deal with the symptoms of our suffering, but don’t typically enable us to look critically at what’s going on inside each of us, at what’s ultimately driving our thoughts, actions and behaviors.

Many religions or spiritual philosophies preach life after death in heaven as the ultimate goal and reward for living through the common or uncommon trials and tribulations of life. Other spiritual paths may teach a belief in reincarnation, where one is blessed or cursed, depending on how one sees it, to live again and again on the way to one’s highest self. In my early life, I held to a belief that there is a God, who in his due time, will select a few to be saved when he violently destroys the vast majority of people in a fiery “Armageddon.” Those who’ve been judged worthy by this “most loving” God will survive this traumatic period to live on a paradise earth, restored to the splendor of the original Garden of Eden, where after one thousand years Satan the Devil himself will be released as a final test to mankind. Then, and only then, those who pass this test will be allowed to live forever on this paradise earth, where sickness and death have perished, and meat-eating carnivores will crave flesh no more.

According to the information published on the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there are over eight million active followers throughout the globe. Current estimates put the population of the entire world at about 7.6 Continue reading “Searching for the Opiate: How My Parents Became Jehovah’s Witnesses”