When we fear failure, we really fear rejection

by Annelise Mitchell May 28, 2016

When we fear failure, we really fear rejection

When I was little, being rejected came with a sting. My first major rejection came all too young, and then, as if I was doomed to suffer rejection for many years to come, I would experience it again and again during my childhood.

I know I am not alone. Everyone experiences the feeling of not belonging, or the threat of it. It is devastating, like we are nothing, we don’t exist, and worse, we are unworthy.

Most painful of all these… is being looked down upon. Having people say, tut, tut, and shaking their head in disapproval.

Terribly painful.

And, no doubt you know, feelings of shame are the worst. Brene Brown highlights this. She points out how 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 will 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.

Why did I do this?

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

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 they were voicing. They were terribly frightened.

And so was I. Whenever I thought about doing something that was creative or challenging, and carried with it the very real risk of not succeeding, I would freeze from the anxiety. To avoid this feeling, 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. And definitely would not lead to feelings of rejection!

Alas, this behaviour was definitely not sustainable, and I encountered my greatest obstacle when I realised that what I thought would keep me safe, and free from rejection, was leading me to misery and despair.

How did I know this?

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. They had pursued paths that were guaranteed, the tried and tested.

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 being rejected, especially from friends and family. 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 your goals, especially when dreaming of taking less conventional pathways.

The road less travelled…

What was worse? They would risk being rejected if they pursued their own path. Their friends, family, society would look down upon them, voice their discontent and do everything in their power to share their fears of failure. After all, they took the conventional path for the same reason. They fear rejection too.

It is these 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 our declaring that we are doing something for ourselves. 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 they 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 know we can.

How can we move beyond our fear of rejection?

It will take courage. I like to use the metaphor of the warrior. A warrior is not limited to the battlefield of war. Life is very much a battlefield, with its ups and downs, its times of peace and prosperity, intermingled with times of conflict and turmoil. These cannot be avoided, no matter how safe we try to keep ourselves.

We need to become as courageous as brave warriors if we are to share our truths with the world.

A warrior, 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.

To become this warrior, we must also listen to our inner voice. Not the inner voice of fear, or the voice of resistance, but the voice that has been drowned out for far too long. The voice that gave expression to our creativity when we were young, and that enabled us to contribute what was unique within us. You remember it, you have just focused on what others believe is important to them, and believe that you have forgotten. It is there. Let it breath again.

Finally, this warrior will look to all those who had ventured before him. What did they do when they came across barriers and threats to their safety? Did they turn around and run and hide? Of course, they wanted to, but they did not. We wouldn’t know about them if they did. They would be like those timid souls who neither know victory or defeat. They may not be rejected 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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