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