Fear of failure

by Annelise Mitchell September 25, 2016

Fear of failure

I hate rejection. Being looked down upon. Having people say, tut, tut, and shaking their head in disapproval. It is painful, and there are no other words for it.

Terribly painful.

Feelings of shame are the worst. Brene Brown highlights this. She points out shame is the most devastating of all human emotions. It is the primary emotion that leads to self-destruction. When we feel shame, we want to withdraw and hide away from the world. These feelings, if sustained long enough can lead to feelings of despair, and much, much worse.

It’s horrible.

To avoid this terrible feeling throughout my life, I would do anything.

Anything, you ask?

Yep, anything.

If it meant doing what was expected of me, I did it. Behaving exactly how people wanted me to behave. Go to school, get good grades, get a good job, get a good house, keep a clean house, and be a good contributing member of the community.

I remember hearing growing up, over and over again, don’t ever give people a reason to talk about you. It is best to NOT be seen or heard.

This would be topped off by a barrage of negative comments about people who were labelled as society’s “losers.” People who didn’t take the conventional pathway. Uncles and aunties who ended up homeless, on the street, rejected from “everyone” around them. Absolute losers.

I quickly learnt that putting myself in situations where I could lose my belongings or reputation was dire. I would be rejected, and looked down upon for the rest of my life!

I understood that these well-meaning, and some not-so-well-meaning adults, were trying to keep me safe, or at least themselves. What I didn’t know for a very long time was that it was their own fears that were talking. They were terribly frightened.

And so was I. Whenever I thought about doing something that was challenging, and carried with it the very real risk of not succeeding, I would freeze from the anxiety. To avoid feelings of not succeeding, being a potential social outcast, and the dreaded… having people say tut, tut, I would pursue the sure thing. The thing that I knew that if I gave it my all, I had no possibility of failure.

This behaviour was definitely not sustainable, and I encountered my greatest obstacle when I realised that the career that I was working towards I could no longer bear. I would speak to people who had supposedly achieved success in their career, but were dreadfully unhappy. In many cases, they were also bitter, resentful and alone.

I wondered why they put up with being so miserable. Why didn’t they pursue vocations that were more fulfilling and less stressful? Why were they staying in situations that were no longer sustainable?

I realised that what kept these people doing the same thing day-in-and-day-out was a deep, pervading fear of failure. If they did do something else, they may fail. There was no guarantee of success. Life is uncertain, they would say. There is no-one who can say these are the exact steps you need to take to achieve success, especially when dreaming of taking less conventional pathways.

The road less travelled…

What was worse? They would risk become a laughing stock of the community. They could lose their house, their status, their family and friends, and end up an alcoholic or druggo because of the shame and regret.

Or would they? I now know that it is their fears that paint these defeatist scenarios.

Why do some people not take the chance?

They are scared.

They don’t want to feel like a failure. What if they took a chance, and it all capsizes and then they fall flat on their face? What if they are the laughing stock of the community? Not to mention all the whispers and looks of sympathy. Arghh, no thank you, they proudly declare.

It is not just failing that invokes so much dread. It is other people’s reactions to our misfortune that we dread the most. As social animals, we want to feel included and accepted, not looked down upon. Very often, when we do dare to do things for ourselves, it involves us moving away from where we currently are. That we feel we deserve better than where we currently are.

We also don’t want to stand out. Standing out involves the risk that people will notice us, and what’s worse, comment. Have something to say about what we are doing. If we create something, whatever it is, these people will say stuff. They may say that the like it, but what if they say they don’t? On the Internet, there are people that will say much worse. Can we handle that type of rejection?

I think I can. At least, I hope I can. I hope you can.

How do we move beyond this fear?

It takes courage. The courage of a knight, who although he is still afraid, ventures fourth, valiantly, and with dignity. He knows that he has the strength to endure whatever is ahead, and that through gaining knowledge and skills, he will be the one left standing, no matter what.

This knight will also listen to his or her inner voice. Not the inner voice of fear, or the voice of resistance, but the voice that has been drowned out for so long. The voice that gave expression to our creativity when we were young, and that enabled us to contribute what was unique within us.

Finally, he will look to all those who had ventured the same or very similar path. What did they do when they came across stumbling blocks? Did they turn around and run and hide? Of course they did not. We wouldn’t be reading about them if they did. They would be like those timid souls who neither know victory or defeat. They may not fail in the short term, but in the long term, I would say that a life held back because of their fears is the greatest failure of all.

Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell


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