I’ve been meaning to write, really. I’ve been making periodic declarations to my friends that I shall write again! Soon! [Thumps fist on invisible table] All I have to do is find the hole that my do-nothing muse has been cowering in. At times I do stumble upon her, and I whine, “Meeeoooz-ah! My friends are WAITING for you! What are you doing here covered in a sheen of Dorito dust-ah?!” Annoyed, she rolls her eyes at me but lobs a few ideas my way to shut me up. I take copious notes, excited to finally be almost-writing again. I decide that I need to do research to improve my chances of sounding smart. It’s usually during this “research” phase that I am bedazzled by shiny internet bling. My muse convinces me to take the click bait so she can take a nap. I fall for it every time. Before you know it, four seasons have come and gone, and all I have to show for it are 10 half-written posts and a sense of awe at how many human bodies have been flung off of merry-go-rounds… seemingly on purpose.
Sometimes I tell myself that I don’t write because there’s nothing I can think of that hasn’t already been written more eloquently elsewhere. This who-do-I-think-I-am hurdle is a powerful one given its undeniable truth. To overcome it, I simply remind myself that I write because it brings me joy to create something and connect with others in the process. That all sounds great until my ego chimes in. Ego insists that if writing must be done, it better be good. People better leave with tears of gratitude strewn down their faces because, against all odds, their search engine lead them to this magical yet undiscovered place. I tell my ego to be realistic, and we come to a compromise – New goal = not sucking.
At this point a fear of failure descends upon me like a fog. It’s a familiar foe, but its presence in this area of my life is particularly vexing considering the low stakes of blogging. Neurotic inner dialogue:
Fear Fog: We’ve narrowly evaded humiliation for more than a year now. Don’t ruin this not-totally-sucking streak by writing now.
Sarah: Leave me alone. I’m just writing silly things for a tiny audience of friends for funsies.
Fear Fog: Oh really? Remember when you heard Jon Ronson describe the public shaming of Justine Sacco? She tweeted a stupid joke, and her whole life was ruined.
Sarah: But all my jokes are stupid!
Fear Fog: Exactly. Best to entirely scrub yourself from the internet. Oh wait, that’s impossible. Your idiocy is well-documented and forever cemented into digital history.
Sarah: Baaahhh! Never write again!
Terrifying as it is, public shaming isn’t where the core of my fear lies. Actually, I don’t visualize any specific consequence to writing a regrettable blog post. It’s more like a vague feeling that doing so would reveal an inherent and deep lack in myself. That’s how fear of failure operates. It ties self-worth too closely to performance. It summons shame when a more appropriate response would be guilt. Brené Brown describes it beautifully:
Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
Years ago, someone read my blog and tweeted that I am “unlikable and unstable.” He manifested this shame by berating my character instead of my work. Weirdly, I was more offended by the insult to my likability than my general stability. I’d be down to be the lovable crazy lady. Isn’t that Sarah funny and sweet? Just make sure she takes her meds so she doesn’t poop on the dresser again. (Note: Another sign that you struggle with fear of failure is “excessive worry about what other people think.” Sigh.)
Unless you’re a raging narcissist, you’re also familiar with this fear. Potential causes of excessive fear of failure include genetics, demanding parents, receiving the wrong kind of praise, or experiencing a traumatic failure in the past.
Assuming I have a pristine set of genes, I searched my past to examine why my brain places boring stupid blog and Ebola virus at equivalent threat levels. Because I had a good childhood, looking back to find evidence of wrongdoing feels like nitpicking. But nitpick I shall.
My parents had high expectations of me. They praised me when I was successful and were disappointed when I wasn’t. (#neverthelessshepersisted). My pea brain must’ve interpreted these reactions as the giving or withholding of love. Thus, I equated success with love and failure with being unloved.
In their defense, I’m sure I’d be fucked up in a different way if their attitude was, “that Sarah person will go a medium distance,” or “reach for the stars overhead bin!” Also, it bears noting that their approach did drive me to succeed. I have the plastic to prove it:
I was a tennis champ. I excelled in school. I’ve held jobs and stuff. I’ve achieved things, dammit. These achievements were the result of growing up in a stable, supportive environment plus some talent and hard work. I rolled some lucky cosmic dice on the first two, but it was the specter of failure whipping at my heels that compelled me to work hard. Avoiding negative outcomes is far more motivating to me than pursuing positive ones. It feels as though I’m always running away and rarely running towards.
In terms of this blog, the failure to publish has no consequences to run away from. Were I to be punished for my sloth, I would stop waiting for that mythical muse. Yet there are some risks associated with writing from mild embarrassment to Justine-Sacco level ruin. It’s safer to catch up on Stranger Things.
By preventing action, fear of failure creates cowards. Ironically, this makes you more likely to fail. Or at least stagnate, afraid to try new or challenging pursuits because they carry the risk of failure. Growing requires some element of risk, and yes, some failing along the way.
Am I doomed to fearful paralysis forever? Perhaps not. Here’s some advice I’ve found to combat fear of failure and its evil spawn, procrastination and perfectionism:
- Stop ruminating: If you find yourself in the fear fog, ruminating on a real or potential failure, distract yourself. It takes as little as two minutes to successfully interrupt counterproductive rumination.
- Engage in realistic self-compassion: Be nice but don’t BS yourself. It’s better to tell yourself something like, “I’m pretty good at this. Remember that time when Person told me so?” rather than, “I’m winner of the world! I bet I could be president even!” (Ok fine, it worked once. Ok fine, it apparently works A LOT). This adorable video illustrates how to fight your inner critic.
- Feel the pain and do it anyway: When the anxiety arises, feel it but take a step towards your goal anyway. Note that acid did not rain upon you from above, as expected.
- The Artist’s Way: This classic book is a great guide for overcoming creative blocks. (Warning: Many will read phrases like “inner connection to the Great Creator” or “spiritual electricity” and dismiss this as hooey-goop. It is, but there’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from the goop if you soldier through it.)
In sum: Go forth and be brave, love monkeys. Go ahead and suck at things until you gradually suck less at them! Let’s all not-suck or kinda-suck-but-who-cares together!