A story about overcoming the fear of failure
Have you ever wanted something so bad that you can’t get it out of your head? Day and night the thought is there at the back of your mind, begging for you to set it free and make it real. A thought that is so prolific in its nagging that it becomes a part of your DNA. It muddies your perspective, and clouds your decisions. But you know, deep down, that you will never have the thing that your mind so desires.
Or, at least, you have let yourself believe that you aren’t good enough to have it.
This was me, for years and years. And what did I covet so fervently? To be slim. To be able to look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘not bad!’. Superficially, I wanted to be able to wear a size 10, to look great in a dress and to stop feeling a jiggle every time I walked. On a deeper level, I wanted to regain control of my own body – to feel like I was the one in charge, not my cravings or my laziness.
Did I think I had the ability to change? Absolutely not. My self-esteem was at rock bottom and I didn’t even know where to start. I’d tried every diet in the book, and nothing I did worked for long. I was so unaware of my own behaviour that I became paralysed by the cycle of failure. I created a web of limiting beliefs so ingrained that I was convinced success was not an option.
This process is debilitating, and multi-level. You don’t simply decide that you aren’t capable of something – you build up a catalogue of doubts over time, spiralling further down into your fear of failure.
Why do we become paralysed by fear of failure?
There are several reasons why we allow ourselves to be overcome by the fear of failure. Getting to the bottom of what is stopping you from trying to change is the first step to freeing yourself from the cycle of fear.
We don’t truly want to change. We may have tried to convince ourselves that we do, but deep down we are pretty happy as we are thank you very much. This often happens when the people around us are telling us we need to change, and we want to placate them. The fact is, until we decide that we want to change for ourselves and not for others, sustainable change is unlikely.
I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine - Bruce Lee, martial artist, actor and philosopher
The key to success here is to establish what it is that we want. And, more importantly, why we want it. This method can be used for any self-analysis, from career choices to the type of house you want to live in. It can also be used to analyse our desires for our bodies and our health.
The first step is to list out all of your assumed desires and assumptions. What are the goals that are ingrained in you? When it comes to your body, you might list things such as, ‘I want to be a size 10’, or, ‘To be accepted I need to be as slim as my friends’. However, don’t limit yourself to your body goals here - expand your thinking to your whole life. Dig deep into your brain, ask it what nags at it day and night.
Now take a step away from your list and fast forward 5 years from now. In order to be truly happy, what are the 3 things you want to have achieved? Think deeply about why these things will make you happy. If you find this difficult, it could be that these desires are not yours but instead are ones imposed upon you by others.
Does reaching and maintaining a healthy weight and body feature in your top 3? What are the drivers of that desired outcome?
I’ll give you an example from my life outside of weight loss. I thought that what I wanted was to achieve great success in the corporate world. I pictured myself as a high flying executive, casing the floor of a large office, being the go-to girl. I strived for years to make this a reality, and had some great success. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I really stopped and thought about this aspiration. I had niggling doubts in my mind that pestered me all day long. Thoughts such as, ‘What good am I doing for the world?’ and, ‘Am I really making a difference here?’.
The idea of succeeding in the corporate world was so deeply ingrained that it took me a long time to see through the fog. The fact is, I was miserable. When I started on the corporate path I didn’t really know who I was. I was a kid, a 17 year old who decided that a degree in Business Management would give me a good grounding - that it would lead to ‘good things’. This decision meant that from day one I was surrounded by people who would validate my assumption that making it big in the corporate world was a fantastic life goal.
The truth is that the corporate world doesn’t suit me at all. What I know now is that my drivers are helping others, driving social change and working with small, inspirational groups of like-minded people. Not so compatible with the world I used to strive to be a part of. Turns out I’d been chasing the wrong dream.
When I did the 5 year exercise for myself, one of my true desires was of course to change my career path, which I am working hard to achieve. A second desire was to feel comfortable in my own skin. At the time I was overweight and unhealthy. It was making me insecure and unhappy. Turns out that these two desires have combined to enable a healthier me and a new career!
When I took the time to think deeper on my desire to feel comfortable in my own skin, I realised that it was more than a superficial aspiration. No one was telling me I needed to change, but I knew that I could strive to be a better version of myself by leading a healthier life. For years I had written off this idea, obsessed with the fact that I would never be supermodel skinny, so there was no point even trying. This leads us into the second reason for fear of failure.
We think that anything less than perfection is failure. Perfectionism is a syndrome that blights many intelligent human beings. It leads to a classic case of under-achievement - if we don’t try, then we can’t fail. We spend our lives striving not for excellence, but for flawlessness. Note that there is a subtle yet important difference between the two - flawlessness denotes no room for error, whereas excellence suggests a superior version of something comparable. Excellence allows for flaws, so long as on balance superiority has been achieved.
The pitfalls and potential failure points here are enormous. If we strive for perfection in our body image, we will fail 100% of the time. This is because there is no such thing as the perfect body. Perfection in body shape and size is infinitely subjective. Even if we hold a version of what we consider to be the perfect body, the chances are we will never have that body - such a body most likely belongs to a person airbrushed to within an inch of their life for magazines. Therefore, not even achievable for the person in question!
Even excellence, however, enables destructive behaviour - if our target for comparison is beyond the reach of our capability, then we are doomed to fail. When it comes to striving for excellence, we must choose our comparison target with great care. The secret to this is to avoid comparing ourselves against other people - this leads us down the same road as striving for perfection. We must instead use someone closer to home as our comparison.
Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself ― William Faulkner, writer and Nobel laureate
Every single one of us can succeed if we focus our energy on being the most excellent version of ourselves. It took me a long time to understand this, but when I did I stopped feeling so afraid of failure. I realised that, with the right efforts, the only way was up. Starting from a baseline where I was unhealthy, eating whatever I liked and rarely exercising, surely I could do better. I could strive for excellence within the parameters of my own body. However, small failures inevitably did blight my path, which leads me to our third stumbling block.
We see failure as a permanent label of our self. When we fail in something in life, it is hard not to take it personally. To see it as a reflection of who we are as a person. We go through this in many aspects of our life, from exams and job interviews to relationships. And the opposite is also true - when we succeed at something we LOVE to take it as a sign that we are a ‘good person’, that our success is innately linked to our selves.
Breaking news; both of these assumptions are false.
Neither failure nor success are a reflection of who you are. They don’t mean you are a good person or a bad person. They are simply a consequence of the efforts you exerted within the confines of a set of circumstances.
Let’s go back to the example of a job interview. You’ve applied for your dream job. You’ve spent hours perfecting your CV and have learned everything there is to know about the company by researching online. You’ve even connected with a former employee to establish the culture and company expectations. You do the interview, and leave feeling like it’s in the bag. The interviewers loved you - you even shared a joke or two! You could have sworn one of them gave you a knowing wink at the end. You’re already practically cracking open the champagne.
Then the phone call comes from the recruitment team - you didn’t get the job. ‘You weren’t quite what we were looking for - but best of luck for the future’.
Your world spins on its head. How on earth has this happened? You couldn’t have done any more to prepare. You thought you had the perfect pitch.
This is the point at which your mind plays a nasty trick on you. It asks, ‘what is so wrong with me that they didn’t want me?’. This question implies that there is something within you, as a human being, which is fundamentally flawed. It implies that your failure to get this dream job is due to the fact that you are not good enough.
But this is the wrong question to ask yourself.
The right question is, ‘what went wrong?’. This allows scope for analysis of the situation from a several different standpoints. A number of things could have gone wrong. Maybe you got some bad advice from the previous employee - they are, after all, a previous employee for a reason. Perhaps they had an internal candidate for the role who was nailed on to get it, but they had to go through the recruitment process to placate HR. Or maybe the ‘dream job’ wasn’t quite the dream job you thought - after all, if it was such a dream, surely you would have got it? If you offered the exact skills and behaviours that they were looking for, it would have been yours for the taking. Considering this line of thought, you would have had to pretend to be someone you’re not to land the role - is that really what you want?
By asking this question, from a non-emotional, pragmatic point of view, you have opened yourself up to learning. Instead of allowing yourself to believe that there is something inherently wrong with you as a person, you have opened your eyes to the possibility that you can change the outcome next time. We can’t change who we are, but we can change how we approach challenges by influencing our efforts or our circumstances.
When we realise we’re more than our work, when we realise we’re allowed to value ourselves more than we value the opinion of others, we stop taking our criticism and our praise so personally. We just start using them to get better - Matt Hearnden, writer
Equally, imagine if you were offered the job. It’s easy to think, ‘Great! I am awesome! What a fabulous human being I am!’ and put the success down to who you are as a person. What if instead you asked, ‘Why did this go so well?’? What if you took the time to dissect the situation and work out what you did that enabled success? This allows to you blueprint your success - to work out the component parts of what occurred and replicate them time after time. How much more successful would you be in the future if you took this approach?
This is a process I learned after several failures to achieve my weight loss goals and make them stick. Time after time I allowed myself to spiral into self-pity, believing I wasn’t good enough. But eventually I learned about the concept of treating failure as a learning experience and began to analyse my situation without the emotional attachment. Guess what? I found success. I had lots of mini failures, which I analysed thoughtfully, and eventually I hit my goal weight and sustained it for good. To keep myself on my toes I don’t attribute this success to myself as a person - instead I put it down to my ability to learn and adapt. This allows me to keep on succeeding.
We cannot go through life collecting failures and successes as though we are collecting stamps. Both failure and success are fleeting - they are replaced as soon as another action takes place. Therefore, failure is only permanent if we stop trying.
In summary, there are several tactics we can use to help us to overcome our fear of failure:
- Take the time to truly understand what it is you want to achieve and, more importantly, why.
- Remember that success is only comparable to the goals you set for yourself. Don’t try to succeed in someone else's game.
- Don’t assume that other people had a linear path to success. Take the time to understand the truth behind their success by researching their story.
- Find your inner child and treat your journey like a game. When we were young we were never afraid of failure, because we hadn’t yet learned the concept. Everything was a game - we enjoyed the thrill of chasing the challenge to find out what we were capable of.
- Treat failure as an opportunity to learn about yourself, not as a reflection of who you are.
- Remember that failure means you took action, and without action there can be no success.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received about overcoming fear of failure? Let us know in the comments below!