Too afraid to look
February 9, 2010 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Is there a word for a condition in which a person is so afraid of success or failure that she does things like 1) Not check phone messages, 2) doesn't open mail, e-mail, etc.?

This is me. For the umpteenth time I've missed an opportunity because I was too afraid to open an e-mail. I was taking a class last semester (paid for by my job) and thought I got a D or worse, which meant not being able to move forward in my particular program. When I got an e-mail from someone from the school, I just "knew" it was bad news, so I didn't open it..or the following e-mail. A month later I decide to open it and it turns out I didn't fail the class and I should have been reporting to the new classes for this semester. Now it's too late...and now I'm back to square one, where I’ve found myself way too many times-- left behind, stagnant, afraid to move even though I hate where I am. You'd think that as much as I've complained and cried over the years about my life being unfair, I would have rectified this and made things so much easier. But alas, this madness continues.

There is something wrong with me. I don't know what it is. My gut tells me it is a severe fear of rejection on all levels. This has played itself out on so many levels. It's cost me closeness in friendships, job leads, you name it.

I know the consensus will be "get thee to the therapist" and maybe I will. But I just wonder if you have any ideas on what is wrong with me and how I can resolve this defeating habit once and for all so that I may have some kind of resemblance of a satisfying life.

Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 90 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, definitely get yourself to a therapist. Generally, I think the result is self-sabotage, but based on my own personal experience doing the exact same thing, my understanding is that this is on the anxiety spectrum. The advice I got was based on systematic desensitization, which might be something for you to consider before you get in to see a therapist. Good luck.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:09 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh god yes. My quick diagnosis: perfectionism. Also, don't think of there being something 'wrong' with you. You most likely have a particular personality makeup which lends you to being highly sensitive and, again, perfectionistic. Therapy, yes, but not necessarily to 'fix you'; instead to teach you ways to cope with these feelings and strategies for managing your life so that they don't overwhelm you or cause you to get stuck. A good therapist will show you not only how to do this, but how to think about the situation with an entirely different point of view: one that is not so shaming.

Finally, you are not alone. This is incredibly common. I'm sure I'm far from the first Mefite who read this question (or will read it) and had that instant feeling of identification; I know exactly what you mean. Be kind to yourself, and reach out for help.
posted by jokeefe at 4:15 PM on February 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yeah, this is me too, pretty accurately.

I think it's pretty similar to this. I know exactly what you mean though. Feel free to memail me if you want to talk.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be a big help. It involves a lot of thinking about and analyzing mental habits you've developed (that you might not even realize you have) and coming up with ways to break those habits.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 4:17 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Been there, done that.

Which is not to say that your situation is boring. But rather that I have been there. And oh hell I have done that.

As in, to the point of burning bridges and not going to grad school because of it [and probably other similar things]. And, to be honest, to the point of waking up on bridges 5 km away, about to jump. That is the extreme end of the situation, after I let it get control of me and shut down for longer than I'd care to admit.

Talk therapy worked reasonably well for me. Although it's hard to tell if it was the therapy or the jolt of this waking up; I quit my job, moved out of the town for a few months, and went into therapy - luckily I'd already been accepted to law school at that point and could afford to do so. But I think the therapy helped.

jokeefe explained already what the therapy is for. I'm just chiming in with a 'me too'. The therapy won't actually stop you from having these feelings. I worry about emails and phone calls every day, every time I see my mail client light up. I've gotten maybe 500 emails since I did the therapy. 500 times, I've gritted my teeth and clicked. 500 times, it turned out to be just fine. And that includes marks that I thought I bombed.

Short form: you're not alone. Therapy will help you learn how to live with these feelings. It's doable.
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:23 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sure I'm far from the first Mefite who read this question (or will read it) and had that instant feeling of identification

Yep; this is absolutely me as well. I am terrified of answering the phone. Medication has helped somewhat.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:24 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me, that kind of behavior had to do with anxiety and perfectionism, for sure. I once had something like six months' worth of mail to open for a small project I was doing for which people paid me small amounts--very stressful. Especially the increasingly angry mail as I finally worked through the pile.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy really did help me; I just don't do stuff like that anymore and haven't in years. One technique of CBT that really helped me is this notion that when you do things like not open the mail, you're just reinforcing your own idea that there's something really scary in the mail. So you learn to firmly do the things so as to not reinforce those ideas, and to instead build the idea that "I don't always like everything that's in the mail, but I can deal with it." So you'll learn to think, "This e-mail might have bad news about that class I was taking, and that would be really disappointing, but I could deal with it."

Oh, that reminds me of another piece of it for me: this sense that emotions could be so overwhelming I couldn't cope. I think this was associated with the anxiety. One of the things I had to learn as I recovered from anxiety was to accurately name other emotions: disappointment, excitement, fear, nervousness, sadness. And that led to being able to deal with them better.
posted by not that girl at 4:30 PM on February 9, 2010 [13 favorites]

it seems kind of strange to me that there are so many of us.

therapy, medication (anti-anxiety), cognitive behavioural therapy exercises (like the "irrational beliefs" checklist or "what's the worst that could happen?"), and just pushing through are what generally end up working for me, but it doesn't mean i don't end up with piles of unopened mail and a message light that blinks for weeks.

keep challenging yourself on this - whatever it's called, it won't always be good news and will sometimes be something more stressful, but things only get worse if they sit. oh, gods, do they only get worse.
posted by batmonkey at 4:30 PM on February 9, 2010

nthing the me too folks...

I find that I do this when I'm feeling under-confident or overwhelmed by work.
Of course, it always makes things worse or more work in the long run.

I'll break out of it for a long period and feel really good about staying on top of everything, but the cycle still manages to occasionally creep up on me again.

I wish I had some fabulous advice, but the best I've got is how good it feels to break out of it.
posted by terpia at 4:43 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is such a thing as fear of failure. And another thing called fear of success. If you opened that email and passed that class, you'd have to take the next one and pass that one, too. And your employer might start having expectations of your performance and level of responsibilty and you'd have to perform well there, too. People who sabotage opportunites or relationships are afraid of the responsibility of maintaining successful situations. I don't know if this is you or not, but it's something for you to think about. (And maybe others upthread, too...)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 4:50 PM on February 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have problems like this too. So does my business partner. So we do things like check each other's phone messages and email that have piled up.
posted by Melsky at 4:59 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Could your resistance and anxiety be because you don't actually want to be in the program? Just asking, because I experienced this after building a business I thought I wanted, and then a few years later developed inability to follow through on referrals, phone calls, you name it. In working through some stuff i realized that in fact I was burned out and unconsciously sabotaging the business. Some times our rational minds tell us 'you'd be a fool to not take this opportunity', but subconscious thinks otherwise. And then it spirals downward...

I found that spending some effort really articulating to myself what I wanted and what I was unhappy about made a world of difference. I still sometimes have trouble following through, but now I have sort of a mental checklist/questionnaire I ask myself to help articulate what's getting in my way (is it fear of rejection, fear of responsibility, or just plain old I don't want this) Then I can use the appropriate mental wrangling/CBT technique, ala what notthatgirl described.
posted by snowymorninblues at 5:15 PM on February 9, 2010

One thought I try to keep in mind is that bad news isn't always all bad. The old saying is "it's an ill wind that blows no good." Say you fail a class... maybe it wasn't a good fit for your abilities. The sooner you can accept each failure and move on, the faster you'll get to a place where you are clicking with the subject matter and the people and so on. Fear of success is trickier. For me it comes down to a question of whether I really want to do something that I may be "good" at, but doesn't really fulfill me.

I second snowymorninblues in the activity of self articulation. Find a place where you won't be disturbed and won't disturb anyone else and talk it out to yourself. Really feel the fears that you are apt to feel. Breathe through them, let them just flow over you. You may begin to see them in a different light. Running away from your fears, like not opening those emails is one of the least performing tactics, as you have found.
posted by telstar at 5:37 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Me too. I don't want to repeat what everyone said above, but I have a little practical advice. Sometimes when I struggle to check my email, I call my sister. She's the only one I've ever really opened up to about this problem (besides a therapist), and in the process of telling her all my fears I learned that she has the same problem. So we have a rule that we can always call each other and say, "Hey sis, can you just stay on the line while I do this really hard thing? I'm kind of freaking out!" Then she'll ramble about her day, I'll enter my password, click!, and then shut my eyes tight until I'm ready to open them. Then I get this huge rush of relief and she'll say, "That feels better now, right? And remember, no matter what those emails say, even if someone says you're horrible or you're awesome- remember that I love you no matter what." And in that moment I realize that my worth cannot be defined by whether or not I finish my thesis, or what my job status is, or if I was too scared to turn in an assignment. I'm a perfectionist because disappointing people horrifies me so much that I become paralyzed. Having her acceptance of my imperfection has freed me from a lot of that fear and has actually made me better at loving my imperfect self, and therefore encourages me to try scary things knowing I won't necessarily do it right.

Anyway, tl;dr- find someone to confide in who can support you. Therapy has been great for me, and medication too, but having a listening ear at critical moments has been more valuable than anything else. Good luck, and please feel free to memail if you need a kind ear.
posted by Mouse Army at 5:59 PM on February 9, 2010 [23 favorites]

Self-sabotage was the first thing that popped into my head. I too have avoidance tendencies, though not to the level as you or others have described here. I like what ThatCanadianGirl said (and not because I am a fellow countrywoman, ha :D) - because that was my thinking too. If I open that email, it means I have to follow up on it. It means I have to do something next. Maybe if I don't open that voice or email message, no one will notice or care and I won't have to do anything and have responsibility and possibly fail at something [that's fear of failure]. I won't have to respond to anything. I won't know if people don't like me [that's fear of rejection]. I can't possibly be noticed or cared about, so why even bother [that's very low self-worth]? That's what went through my head - sad, isn't it!

So, I really had to believe in myself. I had to take responsibility for my actions, know what I wanted, and believe that I could handle whatever the result would be. I noticed that things are never as you think they are - they're either better (which is the case 99% of the time), or worse. I've opened emails where it didn't occur to me to dread them, but something pretty bad was in them, and dealt with it (of course I felt like crap, but even dreading a what-turned-out-to-be-awful email wouldn't have helped anyway).

It also sounds like you're afraid of change. You say you complain about where you are. Only you can change that. Change is hard and scary! It's easy to complain, avoid, miss the opportunity, then go back to square one because that's where you're most comfortable. The cycle repeats itself. It sounds like you're just reacting to everything while having a self-paralysis and preventing yourself from moving on, growing, being proactive and taking the opportunities you [don't think you] deserve. Therapy provides a safe place where you can talk all this stuff out and realize for yourself what's going on with you.
posted by foxjacket at 6:08 PM on February 9, 2010 [5 favorites]

I've has the 'I'm scared to open this' thing going on and I have found 3 things that helped, concretely (Short term. Long term, therapy is good.):

1) Find a friend who will open it for you and read it and tell you if it is as bad as you think it is. It has never been as bad as I thought it was.

2) Remember that anticipation is always worse than dealing with it.

3) Remembering that there is no such thing as failing life. If you pick yourself back up, there's another path.

Memail me if you want more.
posted by eleanna at 6:41 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Could this be a type of paranoia?
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 6:56 PM on February 9, 2010

Yeah, it's an anxiety thing. I sometimes get scared of emails and (for some reason ESPECIALLY) voicemails - and when I'm scared of them I feel a kind of crazy logic, like I'd rather have it be a Schrodinger's Voicemail than actually listen and find out that the cat is dead. I figure that my anxiety is already at, say, 50 - and I could listen and good news would put me at -50 and bad news would put me at 150 (so to speak) so, clearly, better to avoid? It's not better to avoid, though - as you know. I've learned that confirmation of something I'm worried about is actually much easier to deal with than not knowing - and often, news is good! (Or at least benign). Anyway, that's how I deal with it - but I wanted to add my voice to the chorus telling you that it's not an uncommon fear / way of (badly) coping with fear.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:44 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

When you see that therapist, I think a good thing to ask about might be avoidant personality disorder.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:51 PM on February 9, 2010

I have so much trouble listening to voicemail (for some reason the delay of waiting to hear what the person is about to say ratchets my anxiety through the roof) that my voicemail message flat-out says that I don't listen to voicemail.

They send me a gmail, and since it has preview I have seen enough of it that I can't help but read the rest.

So you're not alone with that issue.
posted by winna at 10:18 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yikes, yeah, those AvPD checklists scream my name. I have a really hard time asking people for help and I'll go days and days trying to troubleshoot problems I'm having and wasting valuable time because of it. My email not so much, but voicemail - definitely. Visual voicemail on my iPhone only made it worse because now I can pick and screen calls and not listen to the ones I don't want to.
posted by june made him a gemini at 11:43 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I managed to somehow get a degree despite refusing to read any of the feedback on my assignments. I'd just glance at the grade and stuff the whole thing in the recycling box without reading any of the comments. And now.... I'm still nervous about this kind of thing. Say, booking a restaurant dinner. What if I call and there are no bookings available? What if I ring and book and then we are the only people in the restaurant?

And now my husband and I have released an iPhone app and I'm learning to deal with reading reviews and support emails - with my eyes kind of squeezed closed.
For me... it's an anxiety thing crossed with a perfectionism thing. Plus the fear of success battling it out with fear of failure, or rejection... well that's how it plays out for me. Gots me some Prozac in late December and things are somewhat improved.
posted by slightlybewildered at 11:48 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I do the same thing and it greatly - and negatively - impacts my life.

It's not that I'm a perfectionist, exactly, or even that I'm afraid of failure. I'm terribly afraid of disappointing people, to the point where I'd rather sit there and worry myself into anxiety than look at a posted grade online, or open an email from a professor.

For me, it's mostly that if I don't try my very fucking hardest, I have plausible deniability to myself. Oh, I didn't get published because I didn't try 100%, NOT because I'm not good enough. It's self sabotage for self protection, and it's a miserable way to live.

The only thing that I've found works for me is NOT letting my brain catch up to my gut. I see the email and I click to open it before it registers that it's something I should be worried about. It's a split second thing, I get ahead of my issues and bypass them that way. It's hard, my heart pounds, my palms sweat, but I usually figure that once the email is open I've lost my chance to ignore it.
posted by lydhre at 7:14 AM on February 10, 2010 [8 favorites]

My goodness, Lydhre. That is a perfect description about disappointing people and plausible deniability. I didn't mention the windows solitaire late into the nights before those assignments were due. At least I know I'm not alone. What with that and the blurting.
posted by slightlybewildered at 11:41 AM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, adding to the multitudes, me too. (can we start an email, letter, phone exchange here?)
posted by Vaike at 9:22 PM on February 10, 2010

Hi, just popping in while finishing up a report at 5am...I'm sure it will be just brilliant, as soon as I get done "refreshing my brain" on MeFi. Now, what was I doing...oh yeah, avoiding thinking about what I'm writing. Not to be all mystic and goofy, but there's a personality scheme called the Enneagram that describes nine major personality types. You sound like you, like me and probably many others on this page, are a one. Perfectionistic, extraordinarily sensitive to criticism, truly believing that only the very highest standards are good enough and that the whole world is like that incredibly harsh judge in your head, which is sometimes on the money but mostly just points out how every last motherloving thing you do is an example of one of the many ways you fall short. The reason we avoid these "simple" tasks is that we see our lives as a dialogue between two extremes: unassailable perfection or utter failure.

You've received some great practical advice here, especially about having a supportive confidant, so I'll contribute some impractical advice. This pattern only got better for me when I started learning more about how this personality type works - again, not due to some mystical discovery process, not that there's anything wrong with that, but more just because once I could see what I was doing, I had an easier time telling the judge in my head to f**k off.

I'm sure there are plenty of other good systems for getting a clear look at your personality type and the particular tools it gives you for beating yourself over the head, but the Enneagram's the one I happened to look at and that I find useful. You can check out more about it here if you're so inclined.

Good luck, and you know that voice in your head telling you even right now that you're not doing or being what you should be? Tell it from me to f**k off.
posted by Betsy Vane at 2:14 AM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another for the therapy. Been working with CBT, which has helped a lot. I still fuck up, but I'm getting better.
posted by Hactar at 11:59 PM on February 11, 2010

The word you're looking for is "depression".
posted by talldean at 1:35 PM on February 20, 2010

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