Fear of Failure

I’ve started a project and it simply cannot fail.

And I’ve developed severe and increasing anxiety over it all, to the point where I haven’t been able to think or function, and whenever I did manage to find some peace, it only lasted about twenty minutes and then the anxiety would swell again.

For about a month I hadn’t really been talking to anyone about it, either. For some reason I was ashamed or embarrassed that I wasn’t in total control of the project, on top of everything and even ahead of schedule. I was becoming emotionally paralyzed, I was falling behind, and I was afraid. Terribly, terribly afraid that when the deadline came, I would have nothing to deliver.

Today, the anxiety was so bad that I decided I needed a new perspective. I figured I’d talk to my Taekwondo instructor, who has a background in the kind of thing I’m doing, who I could ask for a “black belt perspective” on how to manage my mind and deal with the stress. So, I called up the school, hoping I could pop down there and meet with him. But he wasn’t there.

I set up an appointment to talk with him tomorrow, but the anxiety was overwhelming today. I sat down at my computer and sent out a couple of emails to people on the project, and I found myself checking my email for answers every minute or so. And of course they weren’t coming fast enough. They weren’t coming at all. I couldn’t live with myself, constantly clicking on that “get mail” button. I had to get out of the house, and get away from my computer. So I put the leash on the dog and went out for a walk.

As we walked, I tried to figure out what I was going to say to my instructor tomorrow. It turned into an imaginary conversation with him, and this is basically how it went:

Me: “Mr. G, I’ve got this project and here are the details, and I’m not really even in trouble with the project right now. I have time to get it done. But I’m relying on other people who of course I have no control over, who I worry might drop out of the project, or I may not have left enough time to handle problems that may come up, and I’m so overwhelmingly stressed about it, so worried about the “what-ifs” that might prevent me from completing the project that I can’t quiet my mind. I don’t know how to handle the anxiety.”

Mr. G: “Well, what is the worst thing that could happen?”

Me: “Basically in a nutshell, I’m afraid I’ll fail.”

Mr. G: “Taekwondo is all about learning how to handle failure.”

Me: “Yes, but the kind of failure I picture when you talk about failure is an ‘honorable’ kind of failure. There’s two kinds of failure. The kind you talk about in taekwondo is the kind like where you’re running a race, and you trip and fall, and you get back up and finish but you don’t win the race, but the fact that you got up and finished is still honorable.”

“There is dishonorable failure, too. Dishonorable failure is like where you fall off a mountain and you take twenty people with you to their death because you neglected to check your equipment beforehand. Dishonorable failure is like when you turn and run away from something because you’re afraid of it. Dishonorable failure is when you flake out on something and leave a lot of people in the lurch, and cause more problems for them because you didn’t hold up your end of a bargain. That kind of failure is unacceptable.”

“If I don’t get this project done, I will have let a lot of people down. People will have to scramble to fix the mess I’ve left them. Plus, I’ve signed a contract saying I’ll deliver. And then what if I don’t? I can’t handle even the thought of that happening. When I give my word, it is my word, and I couldn’t live with myself if I break it. Not where other people are involved, at least. It’s different if it’s only me that’s affected. But I can’t flake out on other people. I just can’t. How can other people flake out and get away with it? I’m certain that if I did it, then I’d be that Special Case whose failure would be broadcast in The News of the Universe, and I would be universally shunned, and never allowed to take on any more responsibility, and maybe I’d even be stoned.”

Mr. G: “Oh come on now, would that really happen?”

Me: (I pause, thinking, and then a realization):

“Yes sir. Yes, Sir! It would happen, sir! Because I would do it to myself.”

“I would punish myself by never letting myself ever take on this kind of responsibility again. I would separate myself from this industry and I would slink away from the people in it, and I would never ever work in it again. And I would pelt myself with stones, well, metaphorically at least.”

And that’s where I ended this imaginary conversation. Because I had stumbled upon a truth about myself so deep and profound but I never even knew it.

Punishing myself for my own failures, because I felt I deserved the punishment, was no different than falling down in the middle of the race and then refusing to get up and finish.

It was simple, really. I have been so afraid of falling down in the middle of the race, knowing in advance the punishment I would mete out for myself, that I was making myself crazy and shutting myself down. And then I realized what I needed to do. I needed to ask for help. Advice I had already been given, but hadn’t yet taken.

So I went back inside, and I called a friend who had been eager to work with me, who had been helping me with small things already, but I hadn’t figured I could give her any of the big things because I felt guilty throwing my bigger tasks onto someone else. I confessed I thought I may have overextended myself by thinking I could do too many parts of the project myself, and maybe I needed to see if other people could do them, although I hated to ask people to spend their time working on things for me, for free. But to my delight, she had so much to offer: people I could contact, ideas I had not thought of, creative ideas of things I could do differently that would make some things a WHOLE lot easier. And she said she herself fancied one of the bigger pieces of the project, that it would be fun to work on and could she please help me with it.

And then the emails started coming in, and they were positive answers.

And the anxiety lifted, and has — so far — stayed away.  🙂

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3 responses to “Fear of Failure

  1. NAMING the problem can make such a difference. PHEW.

  2. I love this post. 🙂

  3. Thank you for your honesty. I think many, many people can relate to the fear of failure gig … and what you’ve said here is helpful, indeed. Overcoming pride and reaching out. And, whew, I dance with the beast (or the assemblage of smoke and mirrors) that is anxiety … and, again, making that vulnerable phone call usually helps. I reposed the piece you’d commented on (had taken it down because it had felt unfinished). Thank you so much for the encouragement!

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