Fear of failing or fear of falling?

Fear of failure often prevents us from beginning our journey towards goal achievement. We might feel that we aren't clever enough or worthy enough to succeed and these self-doubts linger in our mind as we ruminate on them, making them ever more real (at least to us). But what is it that keeps us going when we do place the first foot on that road? Chapter 4 looked at the role of conscientiousness, persistence and commitment (with a side order of grit), but is this really enough to keep us on track? Once we begin climbing, do we then give up because we fear the fall?

We, therefore, need to think about which type of fear is preventing us from reaching our goal; is it that we are afraid to make the attempt in the first place because we doubt our ability to succeed, or is that we are enthusiastic about giving it a go but worry that things won't work out and we'll be forced to abandon our efforts before we have reached our goal? The first option in related to self-efficacy (Chapter 11), our belief that we can accomplish the task - that we have some kind of control over the situation. The second is perhaps a little more complex because it involves the prospect of our own disappointment and potential ridicule from others. Beginning our journey and then having to turn back could lead to some form of negative social evaluation that runs counter to our basic human need to be accepted into the group. According to clinical psychologist and climber Rebecca Williams, 'fear reminds us that things do not work out the way we planned and that we can fail' (Van Voorst, 2017, p. 152). The idea of failure is an uncomfortable one so we are naturally inclined to avoid fearful experiences. This is equally true whether we fear failing or fear falling, the difference being that, once we begin, the repercussions of giving up often appear worse than those of not starting at all. There is some sort of risk in everything we do, from crossing the street to climbing the highest mountain; to avoid failure, all we need do is nothing.

But doing nothing can also take its toll. The worry of not accomplishing the things we wanted to in our lives, of not being our true selves, not having a go at all those things we wanted to do or, indeed, the bitter-sweet feeling of concealing our love, can lead to a nagging, emotional draining feeling of not having lived. This is more of an existential crisis than a practical one, but it's easy to see how fear can limit our feelings of wellbeing and fulfilment. Climber and sports coach Don McGrath, along with psychologist Jeff Ellison, developed a fear-analysis model for use with climbers, but it's just as relevant in all manner of life circumstances, including education and personal development. The model provides a way of looking at the costs and benefits of engaging in goal pursuit and of not engaging. The model centres on four dimensions:

  • 1. The possibility of failing
  • 2. The consequences of failing
  • 3. The importance of reaching a goal
  • 4. The cost of giving up.
  • (McGrath & Ellison, 2014)

The first factor asks that we be realistic about how likely we are to succeed or fail. In climbing terms, this would relate to how confident we feel in our ability to scale a particular rock face. This confidence is based on similar previous climbs, our skill as a climber and the availability of resources. In educational terms it might include a student's confidence in their current knowledge base (does the student know the content well enough to complete the task?) and wider non-subject specific skills, such as time-management, motivation and conscientiousness. Remember that goals should challenge but be achievable, if the pre-requisite knowledge and skills are absent, then the goal cannot challenge or stand any chance of success.

The consequences of failing (factor 2) can be both general and highly personal. Failing can impact feelings of self-esteem and self-efficacy, increasing our fear of failure and our reluctance to engage in similar tasks in the future. We might also be concerned about how others might view us, even though this is more to do with our own perception of how others might view us with regards to the imagined audience (Chapter 11). Finally, there will most certainly be an emotional component with experiences of guilt, disappointment and other complex feelings. The way we perceive our ability to cope with this is also an important elements to take into consideration, so we need to address issues related to composure and emotion regulation.

Factors 3 and 4 are perhaps more complex. Some goals are more important than others, but the importance we place on them depends on a number of elements. For example, I might set a goal to eat more healthily. This goal is important to my long-term health and wellbeing and there are bound to be obstacles placed in my way. It's doubtful that there is much fear involved and I'm confident that once I manage to form healthy eating habits there is less chance of failure. There would still be an emotional cost to failing (however I decide to measure this failure) and there may also be other emotional tolls, but this kind of goal isn't the same as if I decided to cycle

The failure matrix

Figure 9.1 The failure matrix

from one end of the UK to the other for charity or to climb the highest rock face in the Yosemite National Park. What about a student raising their hand to answer a question posed by the teacher? Does this seemingly simple task involve a fear of failing (in which case the student might never raise their hand) or a fear of falling (a student who always gets the question right but fears that even one wrong answer could result in a fall from grace). This cost-benefit analysis is illustrated in the failure matrix (Figure 9.1), whereby we decide on a course of action based on the impact it has on our selfesteem, notice the option posing the least threat is simply to do nothing. This is why goal setting is important and why breaking down goals into sub-goals is necessary, not only to make larger goals more manageable, but also to reduce risk.

But there is also a cost to not trying in the first place, albeit one that might not be visible to an external audience. Many students will know the answer to the question a teacher might pose, yet only a small number will volunteer it. Some might do nothing, some might say they don't know when they do and some might even write the answer down but not raise their hand, keeping their answer entirely to themselves. Those who know the answer but keep quiet, face the added emotional cost of not taking the risk in the first place. This curious behaviour would imply that preparation doesn't necessarily reduce fear of failure in certain circumstances. It's even more complex when attributed to teenagers whose risk-taking behaviour within classroom settings is often in direct contradiction to their behaviour beyond it.

There is a cost to facing or not facing our fears and we weigh up the pros and cons of each possible decision based on projected outcomes. We also link these outcomes to goal pursuit (how important is the risk to the achievement of our short- and long-term goals). If the risk is considered too high and not vital to our longer term goals, we might well decide the risk is not worth taking.

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