I’ve been pondering this question for a while now. What causes us to fear failure? Is it the fear of failure itself or something else? Now, thinking on it further, failure in itself seems harmless. In the moments that things haven’t worked out, I have never been affected. However, in the moments after, when the consequences begin to sink in, I find myself lost in a myriad of emotions. One of these emotions is definitely fear and for me, it’s related to judgment.
Now, for anyone who knows me, you’ll recognise that I’m my harshest critic. Yet, this isn’t driven by a personal need to do well. I’m motivated by wanting people to be proud of what I’ve done. People whose opinions matter to me. I hate the thought of them knowing I haven’t been successful. I’m a total people pleaser. And there’s a secondary effect. I believe my people pleasing approach pushes me toward a need for perfection. For me to be successful, I need to achieve the outcome perfectly and then the people whose opinions matter to me will be proud of my achievement. So, my success is about what other people think of me (not just what I have done).
How did this all come about?
I don’t believe we were born with a fear of failure. Or even a need for approval. If that was the case would we have ever learnt anything? Especially given that we would have failed hundreds, even thousands of times simply progressing from baby to toddler. I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t experienced this fear. So, is there a common reason, or do we all develop this response for different reasons?
I suspect there are commonalities during our childhoods, particularly related to how our parents and significant adults (aunts, uncles, family friends, teachers etc) behaved. Perhaps when we did something wrong we received negative feedback. Maybe some verbal messages, or maybe we simply interpreted their body language. It’s possible that this negative feedback didn’t feel good as it came from the people responsible for our survival when we were babies. So, to avoid this feeling, maybe we learnt to behave in ways that led to positive responses and a good feeling. And maybe we became good at eliciting those positive responses so we could feel good as much as possible.
I’m not suggesting this is true for everyone, as we all had different experiences. I’m just saying this may have been what happened to some of us.
What if we take this a little further into our lives? Beyond the world that our parents created and into school? Here we were taught to get the “right” answer as defined by a significant adult in our lives, our teachers. In essence, without knowing it, we are likely to have (further) developed the driver to please people. Our teachers helped us define what it meant to be successful. It meant good grades, recognition, and opportunities. And this continued throughout our education. We were consistently taught to succeed, yet rarely, if ever, taught to fail.
So, if success feels good, and failure feels bad. And we’re taught to succeed, but not how to fail. What options do we really have? Except to seek success and do anything possible to avoid failure.