Three signs you’re afraid to fail

Are you afraid to fail? Would you even know if you were? We speak about the fear of failure in other people (usually in reference to students), but can we see it in ourselves? Perhaps you've found that dream job but agonised over whether or not to apply for it; you've got all the qualifications and skills the advert lists as essential, so there is no real reason to hold back. Oh, but you lack some of the desirable qualities and if there is another applicant with those skills then you won't even get an interview. You fill in part of the application form (the easy stuff) and put it to one side. You make a mental note to complete the application when you 'have time' and get on with the day-to-day. The deadline passes and you don't apply, deciding that you're quite content in your current role and the application process is just too time-consuming, perhaps even telling yourself that it just wasn't meant to be. We can try to describe this process in terms of freezing, procrastination and half-stepping.

  • 1. Freezing is the feeling of indecision or over-caution, seeing the job advertisement, the brief moment of excitement followed by the should 1 or shouldn't I? moment. Where we go from this point is influenced by a number of factors, including previous failures, how confident we are at completing the task at hand (and additional future components such as job interview) and how skilled we are at failing (and confidence to recover). We might even recover from our fear of failure and complete the job application, only to withdraw it when we're offered an interview, freezing on the verge of falling.
  • 2. Procrastination was covered in depth in Chapter 7, but generally refers to putting off the task or finding something else to do (or pretending to do it). We know what needs to be done and we know how to do it, yet, despite this, we put it off.
  • 3. When we half-step we try half-heartedly, that is, we make some effort but nowhere near enough to complete the goal. It's the filling in of the easy information on the application form (name, address, education) but never getting to the nitty-gritty such as the personal statement. The only likely result of half-stepping is failure because the effort and the determination are absent.

Now that we know that we are scared of failing, we can begin to deconstruct the fear and plan more adaptive ways of coping with it. Some ways have already been described in earlier chapters, including goal setting, habit formation, planning and time management. All of these help us to prepare, set clear guidelines and identify possible routes towards our goal. There are other strategies that are more directly related to the fear and anxiety associated with the prospect of fear.

Stop, accept, refresh, continue

The way we interpret our physical experiences can influence our performance in positive and negative ways. The stress response isn't just a way of preparing us for fight or flight, it also tells us that we are anxious; the bigger the effect, the more acutely we feel the anxiety. Indeed, one of the older theories of anxiety (known as the James-Lang theory, after its two main proponents) reverses the current widely held view of anxiety. James-Lang theory suggests that bodily experiences lead to anxiety, rather than feelings of anxiety causing our body to react. When our heart beats faster, our blood pressure rises, we sweat more and all the other symptoms of stress, our body is telling us that we need to feel anxious. This is an interesting way of looking at stress and anxiety and might have some useful applications. Whatever it is that triggers the stress response, whether it be our thoughts about a situation or our bodily responses, it sets in motion an anxiety loop, as one response feeds off another. Perhaps I'm nervous about an upcoming event; I fret about the event and as the moment draws closer I elicit the classic symptoms of anxiety. I then detect these bodily changes and these remind me of how nervous I am, which then increases the symptoms even further; my expectations are feeding my bodily symptoms, which, in turn, increase my cognitive appraisal of the situation - my heart is beating really fast and I have that empty feeling in my stomach, therefore, I must be anxious. What I really need to do is break this cycle and take back control of both my psychological and biological systems.

US climber Lynn Hill has found that she can break this cycle by becoming more aware of what her body is doing (or employing metacognitive strategies) and, in effect, re-booting the system. She would originally use the technique when she found a particularly challenging climb overwhelming, but has begun to use the approach even in her daily life (Van Voorst, 2017, Chapter 12). The technique she uses has four distinct yet interrelated stages: Stop, Accept, Refresh (your mind), Continue.

Stage 1: Stop. Take a breath and pause. Think about the situation and attempt to distinguish objective reality from your subjective interpretation. Is the outcome you dread likely to happen? How equipped are you to deal with any setbacks that might arise? In all likelihood your subjective interpretation of events is irrational, illogical and runs counter to the evidence available. Remember that the objective facts and subjective beliefs are not necessarily the same.

Stage 2: Accept. Recognise the current situation and accept the feelings that come from it without resistance, for example, 'I'm scared, but I don't want to feel like this, I don't want to fail and I don't like feeling that failure is such a big deal'. Understand that your goal is achievable and only feels like it isn't because of the way you are thinking. Think about why these feelings arose in the first place, were they caused by something insignificant (because they often are).

Stage 3: Refresh. Discard the damaging attributions (the perceived causes of the distress) and recognise that they have resulted in tunnel vision: seeing the situation in absolutes with only a single possible outcome. If you have been ruminating on negative phrases (7 can't do this, I'm too stupid to succeed'), reinterpret them in the light of new information ('I've done this before, I can do it again, I have prepared for this').

Stage 4: Continue. With a different outlook and an understanding of why these emotions emerged in the first place, continue on your journey.

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