Three strategies to face the fear of failure

One of my favorite things on the internet – and given the amount of time I spent there, this means a lot – is Reshma Saujani’s #FailureFriday series. Every week, the Girls Who Code founder, CEO, and bestselling author shares a way that she has totally screwed up. Sometimes it’s forgetting to put money in her kids’ backpack for a school fee. Sometimes it’s losing her internet connection when she was interviewing Hillary Clinton and Lin Manuel Miranda. It’s always real and it’s always validating. 

Seeing other’s blunders in action is powerful for me. Despite seeing the messiness of humanness every day in my office, I can still fall into the familiar trap of seeing others as having their shit together while I’m just spilling my coffee all over the place. Normalizing – and even celebrating failure – can take the sting out of it. 

It doesn’t, however, always take the fear out of it. Even when I tell myself it’s okay to screw up because we all do it, I’d much prefer to get to avoid that experience. So I can get into that mode of operating from a fear of failure if I’m not really tuned in and practicing some specific skills. 

Observe the fear in action. 

The thing about a fear of failure is that it can be really sneaky, and isn’t always recognizable for what it is. For example, I find my own fear often hides in staying far too busy to do the thing that’s eliciting fear. If I always have to respond to my urgently overflowing inbox, I don’t actually have to address the fact that I’m nervous about preparing for that big workshop or doubting my ability to have that tough conversation. Occupying ourselves with less important but more time-sensitive tasks is a big way that we mask our fear of failure. 

For some, the fear of failure manifests as frustration with or even blame toward others. If you’re too busy to help me with this, then I don’t have to look at the fact that I’m afraid of doing it on my own. Or I might not have to face my fear of not living up to your expectations if I can convince myself that you’re just being unreasonable. 

Get compassionate and curious instead of critical. 

As soon as we start to apply judgment about ourselves to our fear of failure, we’ve gotten into what we call “dirty pain.” Clean pain is the fear itself. Dirty pain is the negative emotions we pile atop the fear (“Why am I such a coward?”) that amplifies the distress and makes it harder to address the primary feeling. 

Think about this: if you had a young child who was afraid of meeting a new person, you wouldn’t berate or belittle that child for feeling anxiety. You wouldn’t tell them to suck it up or just ignore their fear. You’d likely approach that child with kindness and curiosity. You’d help them understand what they were feeling, validate that this is normal, and perhaps inquire to learn more about what’s specifically making them afraid. 

This might sound like this: “I see that you’re feeling afraid, and I’ve been there before too. It’s hard to not know what to expect. We all have a hard time with that. Tell me more about what you fear might happen. We will work through it together” 

Now consider if you could use this approach with your own fear. Talk to yourself in the way that a gentle, loving parent would. Even if you haven’t had the experience of having one in your own life, you have the opportunity to be that for yourself. 

Once we can shift from judgment to curiosity, we open a whole new world of exploration. Inside that world lie the keys to moving through the fear itself. 

Consider what value facing the fear holds for you. 

Human beings are motivated creatures, but only when we are motivated by something. If we are going to face a fear, it’s only because we know that there’s something really amazing on the other side of that fear. 

But in the midst of our anxiety, we often lose focus on what it is that moving through the fear holds for us. When that happens, it’s easy to turn back, make excuses, get distracted, and avoid. 

It helps to really crystallize what’s on the other side of the fear, both in our minds and, I’d suggest, on something tangible that we can see (such as writing about it or creating a visual representation). If launching our business will offer us a sense of independence, pride, and schedule flexibility, let’s center that instead of getting so caught in the fear of everything falling apart. If we are afraid of telling our partner how we really feel, let’s make visible our values of vulnerability and connection. 

Fear is natural – protective even – but it’s not what we want in the driver’s seat of our lives. When we can get clear on how we respond to fear, approach it with compassion and curiosity, and center our values, we are unstoppable.

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