How to Free Yourself from Fear of Failure
Imagine… the sounds and facial expressions of those around you, inspiring a feeling of support and encouragement as you ready yourself. This is it… a moment for which your entire being has learned, developed and prepared.
The tingle of anticipation, excitement and readiness is a signal to your muscles - action.
You rise, gaze forward, take one monumental step ahead and … topple off balance to land on your backside, giggling joyfully as your toddler self bungles another attempt at the mystical act of walking.
Many years later, with walking mastered (for most of us), the same attitude and approach we enjoyed in toddlerhood is rarely repeated. It seems that for some people, the older they get the less likely they are to seek new challenges. Somewhere beyond our earliest years into adulthood we either lose our curiosity and desire, fear discomfort, or we care far too much about what others will think if we get an activity wrong.
Most of us have endured at least one moment in which our mistakes have delivered chastisement, criticism, or worse yet, ridicule from others. And who didn’t raise their younger hand at least once to provide an answer that triggered mocking laughter in our fellow classmates?
Yet without the willingness to take a first step and fall, we would have no scale of difference from which to compare our current abilities to those we’re aiming for. A little like a board game or pub quiz, we may often assume that getting something right or correct the very first time is the important part of trying, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.
Life is rarely a game in which the winner gets it right first time, every time. Rather it’s a series of moments, best enjoyed each step of the way, including when we wobble and stumble.
The ideal way to approach any new task or activity is to adopt a 'beginner's mind' and to remain free of prediction and assumption as to the likely outcome. If we begin a task with a mind full of negative dialogue and images of failure, this will in turn affect our state and ability to perform, which will then hasten the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, that we aim to avoid.
However, knowing that its good to not know (or think) before we engage with new tasks is one thing, actually emptying our minds to be free of thoughts is another task altogether. Rarely are such Zen or ‘flow’ states accessed upon command. Similar to happiness, these states come unexpectedly for most of us, and only when we leave all notion of success or failure to one side, so as to exist purely in the present for a moment or two.
A more accessible way to change our fear of mistakes is to change our language. As an example, instead of stating that I made a ‘mistake’ or ‘error’ I could use a more productive description, such as, I am probing my current ability boundaries.
By renaming in this way, we can appreciate how our fear of mistakes is actually a barrier to the deepening of our current knowledge and abilities. Mistakes are simply how we learn to be better at what we do. If we resisted attributing meaning every time we erred, we could extract the useful lesson from an event and move on to our next task.
However, this is not to say that we should all rush out to intentionally make mistakes (except maybe in a pastime such as language learning where such boundary expansion can come with utter delight and humor). The important point is that we don’t allow fear of getting something wrong to limit how we live in each moment, and instead remain open to all feedback from the world.
Being open to many new and challenging experiences ensures that we live in perpetual growth rather than contraction. “A life spent making mistakes, is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing,” said George Bernard Shaw.
It may be comforting to consider this: regardless of how fearful you currently are of new experiences and potential mistakes; you are and always have been an expert in learning, adapting and making the most from your boundary probing.
If this were not true, you’d still be crawling on all fours and wearing nappies.