The fiction in failure and why we fear it
"Failure really is just success in progress.” Einstein
Dictionaries state that failure is the absence of success and I find that definition problematic. For me, success is part of a process and not merely an end result. When working towards a goal, it is both inevitable and necessary that there are a series of missteps, mistakes and adjustments which will form the stepping-stones towards a final outcome. Failure is not the absence of success but integral to it.
Why failing is fruitful
Look through history and you will see many people whose failures either led to success or motivated them to keep striving for their goals. Thomas Eddison, one of the most famous inventors in history, once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times - I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
Basketball superstar Michael Jordan has always made sure that people are aware that his success didn’t come from natural talent, but through hard work and many failures, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The award-winning actress Viola Davis, famous for one of my favourite series How To Get Away With Murder, recently shared her outlook on failure:
"Nobody tells you about failure...People always talk about winning, vision boards, getting what you want. People also don't talk about fear. It's always keeping fear at bay. Squelching it. Throwing it away. I've embraced fear and failure as a part of my success.”
For me, failure is fundamental and the negative attitudes that are associated with it are not only unfounded but can even be harmful. The danger with the concept of failure is that it can become internalised as ‘I am a failure’. A self-concept that can become toxic and self-limiting.
Why failing doesn’t make you a failure
To determine someone as a failure there has to be judgement. For there to be judgement there needs to be a benchmark or a measure. By labelling either yourself or someone else as a failure, you are making a criticism not of a person’s actions, but of their self.
Nobody is qualified to make that distinction and yet we often behave like that is the case. When you believe that you can be a failure, the reality of making mistakes can be very frightening.
We fear failure because we believe that it makes us ‘less than’ or ‘not good enough’ in the eyes of others.
Why failure hurts
When we fear failure, we become fixated on the possibility that our efforts could lead to a disappointing outcome. However, the real problems aren’t related to the task itself but are caused by strong negative emotions that are stirred up during the process. By avoiding failure, we are actively protecting ourselves from these negative and uncomfortable emotions which include:
- lack of self-worth
None of these emotions are pleasant and it is no wonder that we want to avoid feeling them. However, it is this avoidance that can limit our personal growth, stopping us from taking on new challenges, building new relationships and achieving the self-fulfilment we desire to be truly content. In the same way that we have learned to attach these emotions to failure, we can learn to let them go.
How to overcome the fear of failure
1. Teach yourself something new
Teach yourself something that you have never done, something that you know will be challenging, but not impossible. Try not to choose something that you know you will be good at. By choosing something that is difficult, yet within your reach, you are guaranteeing that you will begin a process of failure.
As you learn, you will begin to accept these small failures as a growth process and see the small improvements that come from perseverance and re-evaluation. The failure will become manageable and acceptable, and you will be less likely to internalise this failure as self-criticism.
Be mindful of the language you use as you learn: instead of telling yourself you ‘messed that up’, praise yourself for your efforts, notice the learning that you have made and encourage yourself to find a new approach. See the positives and notice the growth from where you started.
2. Explore how you learnt that it was wrong to fail
This is something that can be particularly effective to do in counselling. Maybe your fear of failure was formed because you had protective parents who were nervous about letting you try anything risky? Or perhaps, you had parents who set unrealistic expectations of you that felt you never really measured up? How we felt in our formative years is closely linked to how we view ourselves now, and beliefs formed at an early age can have a big influence on the way we live our lives today.
The exciting thing is, that no matter how old we are, we can teach ourselves new ways to approach new challenges and opportunities. We no longer need to stand in the way of our own growth and fulfilment. By learning to feel comfortable with failure, we can start the process of being comfortable with who we are right now.
If you would like some help to recognise your successes, please get in touch; I would love to help you.