To err is human
March 22, 2007 9:11 AM   Subscribe

What are some of the ways I can use to fight my enormous fear of failure?

A bit of background info: I was raised in a house where academic excellence was prized, and although it was said that “it didn’t matter how much I’d get; we’re still going to love you no matter what”, I always had a distinct feeling that the love given was in direct proportion to the marks obtained. So a low score would net you fewer cuddles, if any.
I can still feel the after-effects of this till today. (I have an assessment at work tomorrow, and I’m scared shitless how it’s going to go. Today, I almost didn’t make it to work—I’d worked myself up into such a frenzy. I also have a minor case of Bipolar disorder, for which I’m taking medicine, so I’m not quite sure how that’s affecting me.)

My sincerest thanks to anyone who can give me some practical advice which I can use tomorrow, or a few anecdotes to lessen my shame, and fear.
posted by hadjiboy to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you could take on some minimal risk activities that you're not already good at and not really devote yourself that much to them and see how it goes. If you fail at some of them, well, laugh it off. Such is life. Sometimes we fail. We then laugh and learn. We then move on.

Maybe you could find some type of video game you're not particularly good at, or one that doesn't actually have a winning end point (like Tetris), and when you lose, conscientiously smile and laugh it off. It's not much, but it could at least give you a nice little starting point for not taking failure seriously.
posted by smallerdemon at 9:33 AM on March 22, 2007

I always try to think about "What's the worst that could happen?" And after discounting all the crazy ideas my mind comes up with - a lava flow, a swarm of locusts - what I'm left with is a list of usually manageable 'worsts'. Like it takes a day longer, or I need to get more input from Bob, or I will work harder on X so my assessment is better next year.
posted by FreezBoy at 9:42 AM on March 22, 2007

My dad had a friend in college who went to see a shrink about this, and the doctor recommended that she take a class and fail it to see what happened. Not going to help you tomorrow, but it might not hurt you to do this eventually. There's nothing like failing repeatedly and continuing to live to make you realize failure won't kill you. This has been my freaking year of failure and I have to say, I think if nothing else it's made me less risk-averse. Yes, failing is harsh and for a few days you'll feel angry and upset, and even months and maybe years later it'll smart. But you'll be alive at the end, bud. Coffee will still be delicious, there will still be jolly rides at Disneyland, etc.

Anyway, I'm going to go ahead and say I don't think there's any other way to really get over a fear of failure than to fail, and fail big, either because it was something you really needed or something you really, really wanted. Any more than you can get over a fear of driving without getting behind the goddam wheel and just doing it.

I'm not really one to talk, though; I'm about to get an exam back that I'm really worried about/invested in and I haven't gotten a thing done all morning because I'm so anxious. I know I won't die, but I put way too much into this course to be able to take a bad grade gracefully...
posted by crinklebat at 9:44 AM on March 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

When I am scared of failure, I am usually scared of some catastrophic version of failure that will be totally unmanageable. When in reality, those sorts of totally unmanageable situations arise very rarely. There is almost always something that you can do to minimize the impact of an event, or some way you improve yourself because of it, etc.

I would suggest looking into what sort of catastrophic event you are predicting and what will happen to you if it occurs (e.g., do you fear totally falling apart? do you fear no one will love you?). Either what you fear is impossible in reality, or will be manageable in some way. Then take aim at whatever you identify and show yourself how ridiculous such a fear is or plan how you will minimize the impact, improve yourself if it comes true, etc.
posted by milarepa at 9:45 AM on March 22, 2007

In the long term, practise failing. Try to have a conversation with someone fluent in a language you suck at once a week, and don’t back off when you realise how many mistakes you’re making. Learn something else new and complicated, make mistakes, and note them. Failing at something is a blessing; it’s an opportunity to learn, about yourself, about the extent of your knowledge of the subject at hand, about how you can improve that, and about what actually happens when things go wrong. (Succeeding is more of a blessing, yes, but failing is not without value.)

In the short term—and I don’t know how strict a Muslim you are—I find alcohol helps, both the I-don’t-care-so-much-about-this-thing of being tipsy, and the I’ve-got-a-hangover-and-I’m-grumpy-because-of-it,so-I-definitely-don’t-care-about-this-idiot-company aspect of the morning after. People’s reactions to alcohol vary immensely, though, and maybe this won’t work for you even if you’re interested in drinking.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 9:53 AM on March 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, you are essentially me. I grew up in a similar household, I have the minor bipolar, and I used to be petrified of failure. Luckily (?) I had a very big failure at the age of 17 and it snapped a lot of that fear out of me. I was hysterical at the time, but in hindsight it was very helpful. However, I still have that panicky-oh-god-what-if-I-fail-at-this feeling which is probably fueled by the fact that I'm doing a PhD. What helps me? This may sound ridiculous, but I say to myself: "On your deathbed, are you going to care about this?" And 99% of the time, whatever I am freaking out about just isn't important enough for me to answer "yes". It calms me right down, so maybe a similar kind of question or refrain you could come up with for yourself would be helpful.
posted by meerkatty at 9:55 AM on March 22, 2007

The best way to familiarize yourself with failure, IMO, is to play some sort of sport.

I grew up playing all sorts of team sports and individual sports, tennis, basketball, football, golf, etc. In athletic contests, it doesn't matter how gifted or big or fast you are, you are going to lose from time to time, and the consequences are, what exactly? Nothing at all.

In team sports you learn how to lose because your teammates are fallible, and prone to mistakes, or maybe just not that good and the other team was better. You learn how to lose and fail when it's not your fault.

In individual sports like tennis the other guy just might be better or you had an off game. You learn how to fail, get over it, and get ready for your next match.

Golf is a game where if you fail and hit a bad shot, you have exactly the amount of time it takes to find your ball to forget about it.

Baseball is the king of failure sports. Men who failed 7 out of 10 times have ended up in the Hall of Fame. In an average season, a team will lose 50 to 80 times!

As an adult, I have no fear of failure because of playing sports all my life. To borrow a line from someone, I have failed more times than some of my peers have even tried! So my advice, grab a tennis racket or join a softball league and learn how to fail and move on.
posted by vito90 at 9:55 AM on March 22, 2007

I had a similar, but much milder it seems, background to yourself as far as basing self-worth on academic success. I approve of what smallerdemon said above about failing at minimal risk activities. I took a skiing lesson this winter, failed miserably at it, laughed some, felt humiliated some, but overall it was not a big deal and I'm still glad I did it and can say I survived. Anyway, the point is, getting used to failure can be really good for people like us, to help put things into perspective - the world doesn't end if we fail at something.
posted by matildaben at 9:56 AM on March 22, 2007

Carol Dweck, Mindset

A professor of psychology gives you permission to try and fail, to try again, and ultimately to succeed.
posted by ferdydurke at 10:05 AM on March 22, 2007

I'm a little like you. Failing worries me, sometimes to the point of inaction. One thing I've liked having is another outlet. I volunteer for my college alumni association. My livelihood isn't riding on my efforts, so I feel freer to both take risks, and to say no to things.
posted by Good Brain at 10:18 AM on March 22, 2007

Response by poster: the doctor recommended that she take a class and fail it to see what happened

I’d seen something similar on the Discovery Channel recently, where a doctor brought his patients face-to-face with their fears, and people who were afraid of spiders, flying, heights, were able to conquer their fears.
The woman who’d been afraid of spiders all of her life, was able to get over it in half an hour or so. It took a couple of sessions, step-by-step progress for the other two guys for them to overcome their fears (one was first just shown the aircraft, and in his next visit, finally decided it was his time to go up; and the other was first raised in one of those extendable arms of a fire truck, and then went on to climb the stairs of a tower).
The problem with me is, I have this enormous pressure from my parents, and they just don’t understand how frustrating it is for me.
posted by hadjiboy at 10:22 AM on March 22, 2007

Response by poster: I can’t drink either, since it’s considered too Taboo in my house, but I’d like to fight this thing without the aid of alcohol. I can relate to the sports analogies, since my parents never allowed me to go out much, and as a result of which I never really learnt how to COMPETE with the other kids, which is probably my problem here.
I also have this huge feeling of guilt that I’ll be letting my parents down, but I also partly hold them responsible for the predicament that I’m in right now.
posted by hadjiboy at 10:28 AM on March 22, 2007

I always try to think about "What's the worst that could happen?"

Interesting. That's what I cannot do. If I dwell on the unlikely worst-case, I get anxious and try to come up with contingency plans. So I try not to think of the worst-case scenarios since it's usually a waste..
posted by smackfu at 10:29 AM on March 22, 2007

Others have said it better than I. Read:

Are You A Failure Germaphobe?

Make More Mistakes

posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:37 AM on March 22, 2007

Baseball is the king of failure sports. Men who failed 7 out of 10 times have ended up in the Hall of Fame.

Funny, I was going to use just this analogy. I have a huge fear of failure as well, and thinking about this helps me out a lot.

Think about it: in baseball, .333 is a very good batting average. That means that "good" players 'fail' the vast majority of the time. What can we conclude from this? Well, among other things, that not every example of falling short of perfection is a 'failure,' and that in some situations, a few successes can outweigh a lot of 'failures.' This doeswn't mean that 'failure' is good - just that others, in reviewing the sum total of your achievements and who you are, may place a lot less emphasis on your 'failures' than you (or your parents) do.

I know it sounds trite, and it is. But you asked for something practical to help you in the next day, and maybe this will. When you walk into that performance review, just think "batter up!"
posted by googly at 10:44 AM on March 22, 2007

The problem with me is, I have this enormous pressure from my parents, and they just don’t understand how frustrating it is for me.

Well, I think most parents (especially when paying for their kid's education) don't like it when their kids fail. You're supposedly propagating their genes, they want you to be as fit as possible so you will attract a healthy mate, thus ensuring the continued survival of their genetic information. Plus, they love you and want you to do the best you can in life. But all parents are like this to some degree. The point of the shrink's exercise was I think partly to show this girl that her parents would still love her.

Furthermore, at this point you're a working stiff. It may be hard to say no to them, but you don't have to tell your parents a thing if you don't want to. If they ask, you are allowed to say you would rather talk about something else. If all you were worried about was your parents' esteem, you could downplay how well or poorly you're doing at work or school and concentrate on other things when talking to them. This is coming from within you; these are your high expectations, even if they were instilled in you by your parents. Reading about your horrible fear, I think if your parents vanished off the face of the earth tonight you'd still be terrified about this assessment.

If you knew for sure that failing a class would cure you of your fear of failure forever, would you really hesitate to do it? Knowing what you do about how much it'd improve your quality of life, would you let your parents' opinions affect you? At some point, you have to do what you need to do to get along.

I think getting involved in sport is a great idea. Your parents can have no objection to it; it's exercise, it's good for you, it'll get your heart pumping and your blood flowing and you'll make new connections with new people.
posted by crinklebat at 10:45 AM on March 22, 2007

Two thoughts:

One, can you just flat out ask your parents, "What would you do if I failed? What if I lost this job, or got reprimanded at work? Would you stop loving me? Would you be mad? Would you help me find something else?" Sometimes just putting those fears out on the table, and having a more concrete sense of how things might shake out if you failed, can help.

Two, when you're feeling panicky or scared, just stop and sit and feel it, without judging yourself for it. "Hmmm, I feel stressed, yep, my heart is beating fast. My thoughts are racing. My stomach is clenched up, my breathing is fast and shallow. I feel like my heart is trying to climb up into my throat. How interesting. This is what my mind and body do when I'm stressed." It can help to remember that some of the panic we feel is just purely physical, and if we can identify those reactions and accept them, sometimes our bodies calm down a bit -- they've succeeded in getting our attention and so can back down.

I might then do the same the next time I panicked about parental pressure. "Yep, there goes my heart, feeling closed off and scared. Now my stomach's getting into the act. My hands are clenching. I'm used to this, this is often what happens when I have these thoughts. It's ok that I feel like this, it's just what happens when I think about this. Maybe if I breathe a bit slower and deeper, that racing feeling will stop. Now I'll unclench my hands. Now I feel a bit calmer."

Just recognizing and acknowledging those reactions, rather than getting caught up in them, can help a lot.
posted by occhiblu at 10:57 AM on March 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

Have you thought about writing an assessment of yourself today to help prepare you for tomorrow? Try to be objective and maybe even a shade harder on yourself than is objective. The idea is to face whatever reasonable constructive criticism you might face in your evaluation ahead of time. If you've faced and accepted the full range of (again, reasonable) criticisms that you might encounter in your assessment, it should lessen some of your anxiety. If your supervisor is going to criticize you for something that is not reasonable, then there's nothing you can do about it, and therefore no benefit in dwelling on it. Give yourself a limited amount of time to do this and then distract yourself with something more productive and in your control.

Also, try looking objectively at your past experiences, and ask yourself how many times you've actually failed (real failures, not minor dissapointments), and how many times that failure turned out to have permanent and unresolvable consequences? Chances are that you haven't failed much because you are a conscientious person, and that most of your failures have not lasted.
posted by man on the run at 10:59 AM on March 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great advice above. One little note, and it may be counterintuitive, but it's something I do: think of all the things you already think are lousy or sub-par about yourself, maybe you don't listen as well as you should, or you're forgetful, and then think of all the people who like or love you anyway. You must be okay, after all.

Also, if you fail, most times you'll get to keep trying. (I need to hear this right now as I await my final yes or no from the grad schools) Do you have what it takes to try again? Then think of yourself as flawed, but strong. Not a failure!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:14 AM on March 22, 2007

think of all the things you already think are lousy or sub-par about yourself, maybe you don't listen as well as you should, or you're forgetful, and then think of all the people who like or love you anyway. You must be okay, after all.

I also like to do this about other people. Think of all the people you know who are flawed, but you love and support them anyway. Why would they be any harder on you than you are on them? So they probably love you despite, or because of, your flaws, too.
posted by occhiblu at 11:17 AM on March 22, 2007

It might help to reframe things a little: to be successful one must take risks, and taking risks means some inevitable failures along with the successes. Failures are a normal part of success - if you're not failing some things, you're not taking enough risks. Getting through being embarrassed because you made a mistake is just part of the hard work, along with forcing yourself to revise when you don't feel like it, or whatever.

Of course this isn't true for everyone - people's attitudes to risk are all different - but for some people it's a helpful way to think about it.
posted by emilyw at 11:28 AM on March 22, 2007

I also have this huge feeling of guilt that I’ll be letting my parents down...

Well, remember, you are not your parents. They don't live your life for you. Their terms for living life, for success, for failure, for everyting, may be very different than yours. ...even if you don't know that yet. :)

While I wholeheartedly approve of respecting one's parents (caveat: if they deserve/earn it as parents and people), I also approve of breaking with family ideas of success and failure if they are making you miserable or incapacitating you in your day-to-day life.

I would reiterate that laughing at your own failures in life can be a great experience. It took me a long time to learn to laugh at not only my failures in life, but myself in general. My life is much better for it.

And great suggestions all the way throughout this thread.
posted by smallerdemon at 11:39 AM on March 22, 2007

This is a less-extreme version of practicing failing at something: try learning something completely foreign.

For example: Skiing. Most people find it difficult to learn to ski as an adult, and it involves a lot of falling down, which is very strange to most adults. There's a lot of failure along the way to learning to ski, but once you learn that everyone falls eventually, you won't be so worried about falling. Hey, a lesson! The point here isn't to fail at skiing, the point is that in order to learn and grow, there is a lot of failure along the way that's necessary and OK.

It might be a while before you can take up skiing, but you get the idea. Look for something new to try that's going to take some work on your part.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 11:40 AM on March 22, 2007

Learning to deal with failure and disappointment frees you up to enjoy doing a lot of things you'll really suck at.

Everybody else has really great advice to get there. Personally, I really suck at learning to deal with failure. And it's not exactly enjoyable yet. But other things are.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:41 AM on March 22, 2007

Then go celebrate the event with friends.

Botch up a new dessert recipe and eat it
Make a horrible art work and display it proudly in your office
Iron a shirt with an awful crease in it and wear it out to lunch

Fail with purpose, not because of procrastination or inaction.
In fact, I think I should try some of this tonight myself, it's been a while.
posted by idiotfactory at 12:19 PM on March 22, 2007

There is a lot of good advice here on learning to fail by experience or by asking yourself "what's the worst that could happen?" (i.e. basic Rational Emotive Therapy thought game).

Here's a slightly different approach: since past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, ask yourself honestly "how do these sorts of things usually go?" I, for instance, stress myself out before presentations and evaluations. But, if I sit down and think about it, I almost always excel at both. That realization, for me at least, helps dissolve the anxiety, because it's based on a unrealistic idea about how things are likely to turn out.

Of course, this won't help much with a truly new situation. But if it's anxiety that bothers you, it's probably anxiety about situations you've faced repeatedly in the past, right?
posted by wheat at 12:44 PM on March 22, 2007

Dealing with failure and feeling good around your parents are two different things :)

Parents are just people. If you think they appreciate you more for things like 'succeeding' than for things like being a good person, then you can't necessarily change that. But if you can convince yourself that the latter counts more and the former is essentially a bonus, then maybe you can feel better about failures and learn from them.
And hey, maybe after a few decades your parents will see that you're there for them when they need it, or something, and feel lucky.
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 1:20 PM on March 22, 2007

Plus, as someone who has difficulty with this particular step, I can say: at least you're trying. If you can't be flawless, go for 'Genius of Effort'! :)
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 1:29 PM on March 22, 2007

I have this enormous pressure from my parents, and they just don’t understand how frustrating it is for me.

Everything you say makes me think your question is not "I'm afraid of failure" but more "I'm mad at my parents for not loving me unconditionally."

Tell them off. Or fail in some area that will especially disappoint them. Or ask for more support. Or decide that you don't care if you please them. Somehow free yourself from thinking they'll reject you if you fail at something.
posted by salvia at 5:33 PM on March 22, 2007

I'm in the exact same situation that you are in, including a diagnosis of bipolar at age 12 (I'm now 25).

My parents, especially my Mother, had a parenting style that was equal parts heavy academic pressure & caring/soothing. But the caring part felt fake to me, because I felt like I saw through their comforting when I got upset when I didn't do something perfectly. It was, and still is, a seesaw between heavy pressure and praise from my parents.

As for advice, I'm still working on that. A lot of it is setting small goals and really being mindful of my successes, instead of downplaying any successes and catastrophizing failures.

I recommend the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The author talks about intrinsic motivation-- doing something for the enjoyment of the process, not the outcome. This has been really helpful in reframing my outlook on life.

And when you're ready, try something that you think you will fail at. Think about how you are improving yourself simply by doing. Don't try to block out your fear of failure, in my experience it just makes it worse. Just be mindful of the present moment.

I also recommend finding a good therapist. It's important to vent your still present frustrations/pain from childhood. It is difficult for me to criticize my parents because at first glance it seems like they are doing everything right. I think to myself that it must be my problem, not theirs. I suspect it's similar for you, and a good therapist would help.
posted by digitalis3 at 10:24 PM on March 22, 2007

Response by poster: So a brief update before I get to the replies (sorry for taking so long!).
As it turns out, my fear of failure was a bit more complicated than I thought it was; in addition to my parents, or maybe even more than them, I was afraid of letting my Trainer down (and my peers, who’d come to expect so much of me). So maybe the shame was in my own perception of myself, and when I can’t accomplish what I set out for me, I get disheartened, and that’s what starts the eventual slide backwards. And a job which seemed easy at first, where all that’s required are communication skills, seems so hard after two or three weeks of training, when I get into the nitty-gritty of it; before the job that I currently had (yup, I couldn’t take it anymore, and will probably be quitting and starting over again (soon) hopefully), I was into Customer service for a Departmental Store, and so since I’m not in the Finance field I didn’t like it much. The job that I was in right now, was into tech support, and since I wasn’t from the tech background, felt it was quite hard too. Now, I’ve got another interview lined up, and am just keeping my fingers crossed that this one will be more to my liking. They said it requires effective “People Skills”.
Let’s see what happens:)
posted by hadjiboy at 10:16 AM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: I know it’s a very bad habit I’ve gotten myself into, jumping from job to job, but I plan to break it with this one—god help me.
posted by hadjiboy at 10:18 AM on March 24, 2007

Response by poster: FYI, the Customer Service job was for a Departmental Store Credit Card.
posted by hadjiboy at 10:22 AM on March 24, 2007

hadjiboy, bad jobs can suck the will to live right out of you. (Especially bad customer service jobs!) Certainly don't judge yourself for not being great at things you're not great at, if that makes any sense. I'm really successful at a lot of things, but the second you put me in a customer service role, I'll crumble. So I try not to force myself into positions where I need to do customer service in order to survive, because the few times I tried it, I was nervous and anxious and unhappy the entire time.

It's ok to say, "I can't do this sort of job, especially when other people are counting on me" (as long as you can find something that doesn't make you miserable and still fulfills your obligations to yourself and your family.)

Good luck!
posted by occhiblu at 12:01 PM on March 24, 2007

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