Fear of Failure

Failure is a state of mind. One that controls even the most brilliant, holding them back from reaching their full potential.

Lisa M. Frame
Jul 9, 2013 · 5 min read

I’m paralyzed by fear. More specifically, I’m paralyzed due to my fear of failure and criticism. This fear has led to extreme perfectionism. In a nutshell, I intentionally damage myself and my career because I’m afraid of projects I don’t complete. Does that sound familiar?

If it doesn’t, excellent. If it does, welcome to the club. Let’s call this the ‘fraidy cats club for adults. Where we drink our vodka with small batch tonic and lime or coffee at all hours of the day.

Fear of failure leads us to not completing projects. If we finish and never have another good idea again, we’re failures. If our project bombs, we’re failures. The only thing we hear is F.A.I.L.U.R.E. and it drives us every second of every day.

Failure is defined in several ways:

  1. omission of occurrence or performance
  2. a state of inability to perform a normal function
  3. a fracturing or giving way under stress
  4. lack of success.

All of this leads to synonyms more harsh than the actual word: bankruptcy, decay, deterioration, neglect and negligence.

Failure is a state of mind. One that controls even the most brilliant, holding them back from reaching their full potential. It causes distraction and prevents us from realizing our own self-worth. Supposedly, we get more from our life’s failures than successes. But is this true when you’re not putting anything out for judgment by the masses so you can fail? Can we get the same thing from a strictly fear based failure? No, we cannot. Because we’ve not failed unless we’ve actually completed something.

That means we’re being negligent. We’re causing ourselves, and our gifts, to deteriorate. We are decaying and creating a state of emotional bankruptcy. Constant negligence leads us to even more negative self-thinking. It’s a visceral, vicious cycle, preventing us from reaching the pinnacle. We don’t even make it halfway up the mountain, because we’re too busy down at the bottom, hiding, fettering away our time, pretending.

It’s not that we’re not trying so much as we’re continually working, or ignoring what we’re working on, so as to avoid the inevitable. This gives us excuses for the others in our lives. We can tell them “I’m working really hard on it” or “I’m so close, but still not there.”

I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying. ~ Michael Jordan

By answering the inevitable questions with statements that make us appear to be worker bees, people leave us alone. They don’t ask to see the finished product. Instead, they tell us “we can’t wait to see the finished product.” Even though you know the finished product is never coming, because you’re too busy hiding.

“By the time the fear subsides, it will be too late. By the time you’re not afraid of what you were planning to start/say/do, someone else will have already done it, it will already be said or it will be irrelevant. The reason you’re afraid is that there’s leverage here, something that might happen. Which is exactly the signal you’re looking for.” ~ Susan Biali, M.D.

I’d rather not discuss how many times I’ve been on the receiving end of “too late.” It stings. It’s painful. I’ve missed some amazing opportunities sitting right in my email inbox because of fear. They were served on a silver platter and I couldn’t, and didn’t, respond. Even worse, I’ve had the great ideas, sometimes, years before others. However, fear has held me back. It’s prevented me from pursuing those dreams and I get angry when I see others achieving the successes I felt were mine.

Yet, I direct the anger at myself. It’s cruel, devious, hurtful… I am Voldemort, and instead of Harry Potter, I have to destroy my internal Horcruxes (fear, self-doubt, anger, procrastination, perfectionism), in order to destroy my own worst enemy… me. Like the mythological phoenix, I need to have my burning season, so I can be reborn, refreshed and renewed.

We always experience fear when we’re growing, or going where we dream of. Could this be the reason I’m afraid of sitting down with a blank page and putting new words down for the books and articles that are sitting deep within me? Could it be I’ve listed so many questions and issues for my business partner that we’re both afraid of making our concept work? Or even making the conceptualization a reality?

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. ~Calvin Coolidge

Every one who has had amazing success, that we look upon in admiration, has had to live with fear. They’ve had one thing those of us still living with paralyzing fear don’t seem to have acquired yet — determination and persistence. Maybe we do have it, but our fear is stronger. I’m ashamed I’ve not used my determination and persistence. I’ve not tried. Not like I should. I’m willing to bet that if you’ve been nodding your head reading this, you’ve felt the same emotions, and had the same thoughts.

We all experience fear, unless we’re one of the few who are fearless. I read an article long ago in Time magazine where people had no fear and I thought “how amazing would that be.”

Rationally, I know that fear is a state of feeling, caused in the area of my brain called the amygdala, the brain’s seat of emotion. Meaning fear doesn’t have to be experienced; it can be imagined. Just like I use my imagination to write fiction, I can use my brain to imagine all of the scenarios to create a level of panic and fear that eventually destroys what I’m working on, because I’m too afraid to complete and/or send it. (Most of the time, complete.)

Success doesn’t appear to immunize you against fear, so don’t expect it ever to fully go away. ~Susan Biali, M. D.

Fear of success can hold you back even more than fear of completion. What if the success is too much? What if you can’t handle it? You’re already contemplating and living in fear of something you’ve yet to achieve.

I can’t tell you how to get past fear. I’m working on my issues. However, I can write this to let you know you’re not alone and that we can move past the paralyzing notions preventing us from reaching our potential. Sometimes, we have to give up what we’re working on. There is nothing wrong with that. @Stef shares his take on When to give up and it’s resonated strongly within me, prompting this post. After all, while failure might be part of the process, you can’t say you’ve failed until you’ve completed the process…and that includes clicking send.

    Lisa M. Frame

    Written by

    Wife. Mom. Writer. Traveler. Coffee drinker. Very amateur photographer.