Fear of Failure

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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

 

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.

 

There Is No Ground

Rocky Ground HD Desktop BackgroundI recently read several books written by renowned Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron. In her works, she writes often of being “groundless,” or of living with uncertainty and the realization that there is no real ground underneath our feet. I devoured her works with great interest, knowing that for much of my life I more than anything craved ground under my own feet, and sought in earnest for anything that I could hold on to. My early life was full of chaos and constant change. My parents divorced when I was eight, and then my mother went from being a Jehovah’s Witness to an Episcopalian to a Born Again Christian before I was even 16. My father remarried and brought three more children into the world. We sometimes did not even live in one place for an entire year. I went to four different elementary schools, three different middle schools and two different high schools. In the midst of all these shifts, I desired more and more to have solid ground to stand on, something to count on, something that I knew would always be there, and yet I could not find it. When I was 15, I often found myself up on top of the hill behind our home at the time, praying to whomever might be listening for guidance, direction, and above all else, certainty with regard to where I was headed. I sincerely believed that someone greater than me would finally provide the answers I was seeking.

At 16, I traveled by myself to a town two states away to be with my father for two months. He had recently moved and I’d been missing him dearly. My father had remained a Jehovah’s Witness and I knew there would be an expectation that I would attend the meetings with him while I was there, knowing that there was no way they would leave me in their home alone. So while that was expected, what was unexpected was how in that first meeting I would hear what was indeed music to my confused ears. For most of their followers, the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have all of the answers, and that day, at that meeting, I felt the same way. No more would I have to worry or dwell on the uncertainty of my own future. I quickly made a formal dedication to this way of life and never looked back. For the first time in my short time on earth, I felt I had a purpose in life! This purpose included going to three different meetings each week, preaching 90 hours a month to others, and ultimately serving in the world headquarters of the group in Brooklyn. I believed I knew exactly what each day would bring, and at the end of the repetition of all of this work was the grand prize of someday living in an earthly paradise! My hope was strong, the earth felt firm under my feet, and nothing could knock me off course. Nothing, that is, until I came to realize that what I believed and what I asked others to believe was not the truth that I once thought it was.

I was crushed, I was rocked, I bounced all over like an errant spring. Walking away from my beliefs meant no longer having a purpose, as well as losing my friends and family. There was no certainty about anything and I lived recklessly, as if I had no tomorrow to live for at all. There was no longer any ground beneath my feet, and I was terrified. Within a year of leaving the Witnesses I found another small piece of ground to hold onto when I found my first wife. Her life was ripe with turmoil and emotional disorder, but once again I had a purpose, to help heal her and see her become the person she was meant to be. Ultimately my actions never proved to be enough to help her and I grew despondent. We parted ways, and once again I found myself adrift in loneliness and despair. It would only take another year for me to find someone to latch onto once again.

In the years that followed I brought children into this world. I was never certain if I was doing the right things as a parent and I did not manage my finances well. I lived in constant fear of the groundlessness of the situation I was in, just dying for someone or something to show me the way out. I prayed to God endlessly for direction once again, much as I had done as a teenager. Sometimes things improved for a short while, only to plunge into chaos once again. I rode a fast running train of anxiety all through my adult life, seemingly moving from one disaster to the next, or at least that’s how I viewed it.

It is best to realize that our lives are generally in a state of flux. The stress comes when our lives do not meet our expectations or desires, when we are not flexible or adaptable enough to adjust to the constantly shifting sands that swirl all around us. We don’t have full control over what is happening, as w cannot control the actions of those we are connected with. By resisting the changes we experience, we actually can make the situation worse. How many times have we been told that when driving a car that is skidding off the road due to hazardous conditions that the best course of action is to steer into the skid? In addition, living with a higher level of chaos, disorder and uncertainty may cause us to crave that certainty on a much higher level.  We may stay in jobs that we are not well suited for, with romantic partners we really have no business being with, and follow religions that dictate and direct our every move. In other words, we may remain stuck in a situation out of an irrational fear of not knowing what may lie on the other side. While stuck where we are, we may fervently cling to a hope that things will get better. But if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, no amount of hope is going to change our situation.

Only by accepting our current reality and by acknowledging that there is no real ground under our feet will we be prepared to deal with uncertainty while maintaining inner strength and peace. We must not cling to hope as a crutch or an escape from what is really happening. By doing so we may not make the proper adjustments that will enable us to keep moving forward despite what is happening around us. However, we must realize that life does not owe us a thing. We are not entitled to be rich, or happy, or good looking or healthy. If at any time we don’t have one or any of these things, then our acceptance of the situation will make a huge difference between peace and despair. Life is more like a turbulent river than a calm lake. Make peace with the raging rapids as they move you along from place to place, while doing your best to keep your boat, and your head, above water.