Self-Compassion for the Fear of Failure


In all of my time seeing patients, the greatest obstacle to living a meaningful, optimistic life (outside of a lack of self-compassion) appears to be a fear of failure.  Problems bring folks in.  They want to focus on these problems.  They set goals to focus on these problems. Often, the initial work is getting them to contract to take some action towards these goals.  When they have enough in the tank to be vulnerable enough to identify their greatest obstacle, the common response is a fear of failure.

What does a fear of failure look like?  Well, it is more common and insipid than you would guess.  It manifests in procrastination.  It shows up in maintaining behaviors that lead to dissatisfying results.  It can come in the form of generalized anxiety or perhaps a muddled description of future goals or aspirations.  It can come in the form of frequent criticism or almost bullying of others.  We see it most often as general disappointment in life .

Here are some examples of how people respond to this fear of failure in real time:

·      The store clerk at the art store who is short and rude to you. 

·      The hours you spend surfing online or playing video games without the joy you would feel if you were doing it merely to relax. 

·      General anxiety about meeting new people or going to events where you will see people from your past (likely because you want to avoid the question of what you are doing with your life).

·      Working at say the computer store and criticizing new users for being too dumb to use recently developed applications when your skillset would probably be better tested at a software company. 

Social media does not help us out with this fear for the most part.  You have to work to find content that supports people’s success, but have to do very little find some fail videos.  There are a growing number of television shows and movies about people who slowly decline into what seems to be absolute failure.

Friendship groups and family can also unwittingly support your fear of failure.  We tend to congregate around similarly minded people, so if we have a fear of failure we are likely to find ourselves surrounded by others who share this feeling.  Instead of encouraging ways to overcome this fear, they often encourage and support behaviors that pull you in the opposite direction.  They pick people who are weaker than them in some way to criticize.  They speak often and at length about people’s recent failures (people they know and perhaps celebrities).  They offering a pessimistic picture of the world and human capacity in general (the world is a mess and people are inevitable going to fail). They also gain false empowerment by predicting the failure of others.

As you can see, the fear of failure not only sneaks in our life in surprising ways, but it also is a lot of work to maintain.  Just looking at the list of all of those behaviors you get the sense that this is a lot of work.  I don’t know about you, but there is no way that you are convincing me to work so hard to live an unhappy life.

So, where to start? 

First, acknowledge that anxiety exists.  It is not rare.  Life can go badly sometimes, and evolutionarily speaking it has kept us out of danger probably from being killed by a warring tribe or eaten by some humungous animal.  Thanks, Anxiety!  No killing or getting eaten for me!  However, like all things, when it begins to create suffering for us, it is time to do something about it that will bring us greater well-being and ease. 

Second, we need to address our anxiety content storage.  Now that we know that anxiety exists and it is coming up for us, we also have to accept that it is working to help the body and brain cope with fear of something harmful befalling us in the present.  If this is true, then we know our mind is filled with memories of our own or others perceived failures.  This means it is time to stop watching fail videos and surrounding ourselves with others who talk about other’s failure, and begin to seek out media and supports that talk about success.  Once your brain has more of that than it does storage about failure, the mind will more likely recall success stories when you begin to think about your goals.

Third, the exchange needs to be made.  Like in any hostage situation, we need to negotiate a trade.  In this case, we are offering a goal greater than ourselves and the desire for success in return for the fear of failure.  Ask anyone who has ever competed in anything or had a dream or big goal in mind what happens when someone tries to intentionally deprive them of the goal or the big win.  The most common reaction is to get pissed off and try to attain this goal if only for the purpose of pride.  Pride does not always work, but when it does use it.  Your search for something transcendent like a dream begins to decrease the anxiety and fill you with good feeling the moment you sign on to chase it down.  Of course, there is also some anxiety, but it is buoyed by the potential of well being, and your body’s wisdom that it can worry less because you are moving in the direction of a purpose greater than yourself.

Fourth, don’t go it alone.  Find similar people to yourself that are chasing success in spite of fear, which includes mentors, friends, colleagues, and families.  Develop strong relationships with them.  Success is about relationships, no matter how much success you are having in the moment, moving towards goals with others develops strong bonds that are in their own way meaningful wins.  A friend of mine upon finishing her first boxing match said that it was not the 15 minutes of fighting that made her feel so empowered and more evolved, but rather the relationships she developed during her 3 months of preparation.

Fifth, root for others who are chasing down their dreams to win.  As deeply as our fear of failure is, we feel just as deeply about watching others succeed.  We all love a good underdog story.  We love to hear the success stories of Olympians, people who lost it all who have found a way to be successful, and those who are disempowered by trauma or illness believe beyond hope that they can have a full life again and get that life.  The more you root for others, the more you will realize that there are people who want to root for you.  Shoot!  I’m rooting for you right now!

Sixth, do not fight the fear of failure when it arises.  Notice it. Identify it.  Let it pass.  Then bring kindness to your experience.  This kindness may come in the form of the self-compassion phrases, the slow breathing we have discussed, mindful walking, or simply of writing down or assembling pictures of the life you wish for yourself.  By not demanding this life, we can more easily surrender to the wish. The wish is about wanting well being for yourself, and whether or not you succeed (I believe you will) just wishing yourself a better life is a kind and self-compassionate approach that will pay dividends immediately.  The dividends will be that you acknowledge that you are worth living a good life and that you are willing to make an effort to move in that direction, which are the only things you are actually responsible for in your journey.

Seventh, It’s not all about you.  Most of what happens when we set goals and show up is unpredictable, especially when it comes to transcendent goals.  You form alliances, who show up for you in the most dire situations.  A stranger offers you an idea that helps you resolve a complex obstacle.  An idea that changes your goal pursuit for the better comes in a dream.  Perhaps most importantly, in attempting to accomplish your goal you help a lot of other people in the process.  What if that was the hidden purpose of the goal all along? 

So surrender to the fear of failure.  Acknowledge it.  Name it.  Let it Pass.  Bring Kindness to your experience.  Trade it away for the pursuit of a goal that is transcendent or greater than yourself.  Surround yourself with likeminded influences.  Be emboldened and nourished by those supportive relationships.  You are both the warrior and the caretaker, so sharpen the sword with action plans, and fluff the bed with actions of kindness.  Wishing you much success in your goals and on your journey of kindness.

365 Days of Kindness. Day 32.  In the Books.