In defense of failure

October 7, 2013

Every day we run into little roadblocks, some of them so small or expected that we write them off as par for the course. This is how life is. My dad will always talk to me like I’m still a kid. I’ll never be able to quit my day job and do something I love instead. I will always sound like an idiot when I try to speak French.

But beneath those ready excuses lies the real reason we’re not changing the situation: We’re afraid to try.

Like J. Alfred Prufrock in the T.S. Eliot poem, we often “do not dare” — whether to “disturb the universe” or to “eat a peach.” Psychologists identify it as a fear of failure, called atychiphobia, from the Greek phóbos, meaning “fear” and atyches meaning “unfortunate.” Simply put, it’s the fear that we lack the competence to succeed.

This fear-based thinking can apply to anyone and anything. There are the more obvious situations, like starting a new business or getting married. But in our day-to-day, fear stops us from things like initiating a difficult conversation, accepting an invitation, trying new foods, liking our new boss, asking for help, paying bills, working out at the gym, trying a different route, taking French lessons.

All of these examples are stuck moments because they are narrowing our lives. When we devise an excuse to mask the fear — I don’t have time now, he doesn’t like me, I can’t afford it — we trick ourselves into believing that the world is more limiting than it actually is. And as a result, it becomes so — for us.

We can’t cure fear but we can find ways to stop getting stuck by it.

1. Admit that you’re afraid. The first step is to recognize the excuses. Then we can figure out exactly what we’re afraid of failing at.  With your stuck moment in mind, check yourself against these five signs that fear may be lurking beneath your reasons:

• Do you have an all-or-nothing attitude? If you can’t make it perfect, do you justify not trying at all?

• Do you psych yourself out by imagining all the stuff that could go wrong, ignoring the possibilities of what might go right?

• Do you resist what’s new? What is your gut reaction to changing a habit or routine? Can you figure out why?

• Do you busy yourself with small stuff as a way to keep other, perhaps more valuable or important, tasks at the bottom of your to-do list?

• Do you let negative emotion shut you down? Do you allow residual guilt or shame from past “failures” do the decision-making for you?

Then get really honest with yourself. Knowing what’s holding you back is half (or more) of the battle. The “Tell Me Why” tool in the Unstuck app is designed to help us get to the core of any stuck moment (you can download the free Unstuck iPad app here). And by recording your thoughts in the app, you can refer back to them the next time you’re in a similar situation.

If you don’t have the app handy, the tool works like this. Ask yourself why you’re not doing something. Then ask, why is that? Ask and answer “why is that?” three more times. Your last answer should reveal the real reason.

2. Free your imagination. Just for this moment, let go of all the excuses, the guilt, the sea of details, so you can visualize what it would be liked if you dared to do it.

Think about where it puts you five years from now, or just next Tuesday. While you’re at it, pay attention to how you’re feeling — happy and free; content; exhilarated; proud; relieved. Hold onto those feelings. This is the pivotal moment when the satisfaction you know you’ll receive starts to outweigh the fear you imagine.

Actively remind yourself of the reward. Let it roll around in your brain. Celebrate how this will make your life better. Create a mantra, if that helps, to marginalize the fear. Soon, there will be no holding you back. You’ll have to master French, or go down trying.

3. Prepare to go for it. You’ve identified your fear, and you’ve put it in its place by focusing on the best possible outcome. Now create an environment that is conducive to your success.

• Take baby steps. The trick is to make a task list of mini-steps toward your larger goal. Each time you check one off, you succeed.

• Test in safe waters. If you want to be a better baker, try out your creations on close friends who will give you honest feedback. If you’re gearing up make an important request, practice your negotiating skills in a low-risk situation. Think of it as gradual resistance training to strengthen your muscles.

• Stay motivated. Talk to people with experience and expertise. Likely, you’ll discover that someone you assumed was gifted from birth with public speaking know-how used to tremble with stage fright. These kinds of tales are more common than you may think. For instance, Wallace Stevens, might never have become a great American poet if he hadn’t entered a poetry contest at age 35.

• Keep it real. Magical thinking is when we try to achieve the impossible by wishin’ and prayin’ and hopin’. Realistic thinking about time, money, logistics, constraints, and so on allows us to set achievable goals and use the resulting sense of accomplishment to push ourselves further.

Now — what will you dare to try first?

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #13: Is fear getting in your way?

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