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Dr John Tholen of Focused Positivity On Becoming Free From The Fear Of Failure

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

When we are not handicapped by fear of failure, we can rationally evaluate the potential merits and drawbacks of each potential opportunity we encounter — and invest optimal energy and attention in succeeding at whatever endeavors we decide to pursue.

The Fear of Failure is one of the most common restraints that holds people back from pursuing great ideas. Imagine if we could become totally free from the fear of failure. Imagine what we could then manifest and create. In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Becoming Free From the Fear of Failure.” As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. John Tholen, cognitive psychologist and author or Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind.

Before retiring from clinical practice in 2017, Dr. Tholen, was a California Licensed Psychologist for 37 years and a Qualified Medical Evaluator for 22 years. He possesses MA and PhD degrees in Clinical Psychology from the University of Miami, as well as MSPH and BA degrees from UCLA. Focused Positivity (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2021), his second published book, has been honored as a Finalist in the Mental Health category of the 2021 International Book Awards, has been praised by every reviewer, and is available through all major book retailers, including amazon.com, the publisher (rowman.com), and the website focusedpositivity.net.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

I have been very fortunate to have grown up in a stable middle class Southern California family and to have had a mother who nurtured both my academic strengths and the assumption that I would be successful. I enjoyed college so much that after receiving an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a MS in Public Health from UCLA, I returned to the University of Miami, where I earned MS and PhD degrees in Clinical Psychology. After training at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, a Veterans Administration medical center, two state hospitals, and the Orange County Mental Health Department, in 1980 I became a Licensed Psychologist and started my independent practice, which eventually became Shoreline Mental Health & Psychology Inc., of which I am President and was Chief Psychologist until my retirement in 2017. Focused Positivity is my second book as I earlier published Winning the Disability Challenge (New Horizon Press, 2008).

I was 32 when I made the best decision of my life in marrying Sandy, who at that time was employed as a School Nurse. Sandy subsequently earned an MS in Nursing, became a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, completed law school, and eventually became a partner in a prestigious LA firm. We also somehow managed to raise two wonderful sons — each of whom now has their own wonderful family — and with whom we love spending time.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

After reading the complete works of Conan Doyle and John Steinbeck by age 13, I developed the ambition to be a professional writer. For the next five years I focused on Journalism, attending Northwestern University’s High School Journalism Institute, serving as editor of my high school newspaper, and writing a teen column of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. At Northwestern, however, the famous writers who addressed us were unanimous on one point: A career in Journalism was likely to be disappointing, with high levels of demand and competition combined with limited financial opportunity. I, therefore, put writing “on the back burner” and instead pursued training in Clinical Psychology, a subject of interest to almost everyone and one I thought likely to result in a satisfying profession (as well as a perspective that might be of use if I decided to again take up writing).

Although my history is one that might be interpreted as giving in to “fear of failure,” I find that it made most sense for me to pursue an endeavor from which I expected success rather than a more glamorous ambition less likely to match my temperament and fulfill my desire to build a family life. In any event, writing medical-legal reports became a major part — and one the reasons for the success — of my psychology career. And in recent years I have been “plotting a second curve” writing about positive psychology and self-help techniques, an activity that keeps me informed, mentally sharp, and endlessly engaged.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I attribute much of my professional success to (1) a natural interest in people, (2) an ability to appreciate the perspective of others, and (3) my longstanding desire to make people laugh and share their laughter. I was able to quickly form “a therapeutic alliance” with my clients because they could tell I was genuinely interested in learning about them and seeing the world from their perspective. I also spent many of my professional hours leading therapeutic groups in which I took advantage of every opportunity to infuse humor into the process while remaining sensitive to my patient’s diversity in emotional fragility and attitude. This meant that I was often the object of my jokes.

Although we like to believe that we are somehow responsible for developing our admirable personality traits, research has shown that behavior patterns that reflect what we think of as will-power, self-discipline, resilience, or even courage result from the good fortune to having been exposed to affirming early life experiences or introduced to an effective change strategy as an adult. In other words, what we consider personal strengths are learned rather than inherited. This distinction is critical because it means that any of us — including those of us who have failed to pursue our goals as productively as we might have because of the belief that we lack some inherent quality necessary to succeed — can learn to create the “illusion” of personal strength by finding and employing good strategy.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the concept of becoming free from failure. Let’s zoom in a bit. From your experience, why exactly are people so afraid of failure? Why is failure so frightening to us?

We have few natural fears — of falling, loud noises, major physical injury, and strangers. Our other fears are learned, either from observation, adverse experience, or what we have read or been told — and they are often unjustified. Perhaps our most common learned fear is of failure — dread that failing at something we consider important would confirm a painful belief or suspicion about ourselves, products our worst childhood experiences. These are dysfunctional ideas — causing distress without inspiring constructive action — such as:

Failure will prove that I’m a worthless loser.

I’m too weak to survive another failure.

Making another mistake would prove that I’m completely incompetent.

I won’t be able to stand it if my performance isn’t perfect — or at least superior.

If I don’t succeed this time, it’ll mean that I’ll never succeed.

If people find out that I failed, they’ll lose all respect for me.

Adverse beliefs about ourselves — self-prejudices — are created by factors beyond our control, a complex interaction between our inherited biology and our early life experience. When we have biological disadvantages or are exposed to childhood misfortune, our immature minds question our adequacy and worth, and our self-esteem and self-confidence are damaged. Even just witnessing violent or self-destructive behavior — let alone being abused or neglected — can have negative effects on adult self-esteem, increase our susceptibility to feelings of failure, and create an unreasonable fear of failing.

What are the downsides of being afraid of failure? How can it limit people?

Although it seems that our feelings and motivations result directly from the events and circumstances we encounter in life, they are instead reactions to our self-talk — the internal monologue that streams through our waking consciousness, interpreting whatever we experience and creating our perspective (also called “mindset” or “script”). When we have been programmed to fear failure, our spontaneous thoughts tend to be dysfunctional — causing distress without inspiring self-assertion. And when dysfunctional thoughts are allowed to occupy the focus of our attention, they invade our self-talk, disrupt our peace of mind, and inhibit assertive action — even though such thoughts are almost always incomplete, unreasonable, or completely wrong.

Fear of failure can cause us to automatically doubt ourselves, hesitate to take even reasonable risks for fear that failing would painfully confirm our inadequacy, and fail to take advantage of opportunities. Even when we make the decision to pursue an endeavor, fear of failure can be a haunting distraction that undermines our resolve and increases the chances it will be a “self-fulfilling prophesy.”

In contrast, can you help articulate a few ways how becoming free from the free of failure can help improve our lives?

When we are not handicapped by fear of failure, we can rationally evaluate the potential merits and drawbacks of each potential opportunity we encounter — and invest optimal energy and attention in succeeding at whatever endeavors we decide to pursue.

We would love to hear your story about your experience dealing with failure. Would you be able to share a story about that with us?

I have had the good fortune to be taught that pursuing success through multiple channels provides a greater hope that one — or possibly a few — will work out. I remember attending a David Burns seminar on Cognitive Therapy many years ago when he shocked the audience of therapists by declaring, “Your job is to fail as fast as possible!” He proceeded to explain that he would be presenting 37 different techniques for altering a patient’s irrational thoughts and that the most effective approach to treatment would be to quickly failing at each technique until an effective one was reached.

How did you rebound and recover after that? What did you learn from this whole episode? What advice would you give to others based on that story?

During my more than 40 years practicing cognitive psychotherapy, I treated thousands of clients whose lives had been negatively impacted by fear of failure. After retiring I wrote Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) in which I present a strategy that can empowering anyone to manage the dysfunctional thoughts that underlie fear of failure.

Focused positivity strategy is the most efficient form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the only evidenced-based system of psychological change (Frontiers | Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Is the Current Gold Standard of Psychotherapy | Psychiatry (frontiersin.org)). By following the simple steps of focused positivity, anyone troubled by fear of failure can learn to shift their focus of attention away from the dysfunctional thoughts that underlie the fear of failure and toward more balanced and reasonable (functional) alternative ideas likely to reassure, inspire hope, and motivate self-assertion.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that everyone can take to become free from the fear of failure”? Please share a story or an example for each.

We can improve both our outcomes and our state of mind by identifying — and shifting our attention to — balanced and reasonable (functional) alternative ideas and visual images that are likely to reassure, inspire hope, and/or motivate self-assertion. This is focused positivity strategy:

  1. Becoming more mindful of our thoughts by recording and examining them whenever we experience distress or inhibition about asserting ourselves,
  2. Identifying dysfunctional thoughts — those that cause distress without inspiring corrective steps — that have become the focus of our attention and are causing our distress and spoiling our motivation,
  3. Collecting more reasonable, balanced, and functional alternatives that reassure, inspire hope, or motivate constructive action,
  4. Collecting corresponding visual images of potential successful outcomes, and
  5. Systematically refocusing our attention away from the dysfunctional thoughts and toward the functional alternatives and success-related images.

When we find ourselves inhibited by fear of failure, we are likely to benefit from refocusing our attention to functional thoughts such as:

  • Although I’ve had the misfortune of “inheriting” self-doubt, I can improve both my outcomes and feelings by challenging the fear of failure it has created with more balanced, complete, reasonable, and mature alternatives.
  • By rejecting unreasonable fears and gradually taking on reasonable risks, I’ll enhance both my confidence and my range of self-assertion.
  • “Failures” are a normal and inevitable part of life and growth — and can never define me if I refuse to allow it.
  • Anyone who isn’t failing now and then isn’t taking enough risks to have a chance for real success.
  • No failure can define me if I consider it an informative “setback” and continue striving to do the next right thing.
  • There are no failures, only discoveries.
  • Failure can only prove that I’m human.
  • Displaying integrity and compassion shows more about a person than does always succeeding.
  • If I look at the “big picture” of my life, this disappointment won’t hold me back.
  • If I consider this unwanted result just a learning experience that can serve as a guide as I move forward, I’ll be able to persist until I find “success.”
  • Every outcome that allows me to move forward is a “success” — no matter how disappointing it may initially be.
  • There are no failures, only discoveries.

Notwithstanding the “sticks and stones” saying, words do hurt us when they comprise dysfunctional thoughts about ourselves and are left unchallenged. Reframing a negative thought about ourselves is the best path toward improving self-esteem and fearing failure less.

The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.” Based on your experience, have you found this quote to be true? What do you think Aristotle really meant?

Although there may be many more ways we can fail, I believe that we are much more likely to succeed by defining success as broadly as possible. It is almost impossible to succeed in every way possible. Despite his many successes — and becoming the richest many on Earth — Elon Musk is viewed by many as a “failure” due to his cultural and personal insensitivities.

Success is a relative term. One therapeutic technique used to build self-esteem is to have the client make and review two lists — one of every success encountered in life, no matter how small, and a second of every obstacle that life has put in their way. The client is then encouraged to be self-compassionate, assigning credit for the successes they have managed despite the obstacles.

I think the quote by Aristotle relates to this therapy method as one way it can be read is “Give yourself a break; it can be so hard to succeed.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

If I could inspire a movement, it would be one aimed at motivating people to honor the motivations of our right brain hemisphere — seeing that we are fundamentally alike and how the world would benefit by thinking of others as like us, like our parents, and like our children.

Although there is considerable connection and redundancy, the two sides of our brains — the left and right “hemispheres” — relate to the world in fundamentally different ways. Research evidence indicates that our right brain collects information about the external world from the perceptions of our senses — mainly what we see and hear — and passes it on to the left brain. The left brain then uses that data to construct a model of reality, a “virtual” world that it uses to guide our efforts to fulfill our material and organizational needs. The goal of the left brain is to employ our language and physical capacities to secure food, wealth, and useful property — often by manipulating others. The left hemisphere is acquisitive and competitive and divides people into categories to simplify and control them. Although critical for our survival, the left brain is also responsible for our arrogance, paranoia, and exploitation of others; it invents narratives to justify our unreasonable and selfish actions.

The right hemisphere, on the other hand, “sees” the bigger picture. It understands historical and situational context, emotional relationships, moral values, empathy, artistic expression, and feelings that transcend material objects (e.g., spirituality, religion, community, love, etc.). The goals of our right brain include connecting us — and sharing positive feelings — with others, building a sense of commonality, and appreciating natural and artistic beauty. Unlike the left brain, the right cares about people and things other than just ourselves. It sees the ways in which we are similar and united and is responsible for our humility, compassion, and sense of community.

As different as they are, each brain hemisphere is essential and dependent on the other. Motivation from the left brain ensures that we seek food and shelter — and is even responsible for the scientific research that enables us to understand how the brain functions. Right brain motivation, on the other hand, leads us to seek the gratification that comes from enjoying friends, sharing affection with loved ones, and our involvement in community, music, literature, and spirituality — themes the world could use more of.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

I am not optimistic about persuading anyone in a position of authority to think or act differently. Although we tend to mistakenly think that our opinions and decisions are based upon rational analysis of evidence, they are far more likely to reflect the ideas of our closest associates and what we recently heard — whether true or not — that most alarmed us. To paraphrase what Jonathon Swift wrote about 300 years ago: You can’t reason someone out of a opinion they were never reasoned into. Furthermore, with the extreme division — and radical violence — we now see in our country and the world, it seems that a person would have to be seriously disturbed to pursue a position of authority.

I’m more hopeful that common people — like you and I — might make a difference by simple acts of kindness and decency. It costs little to smile, nod, or wave; yet many such gestures might help restore some of our fading social capital.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The webpage for my book can be found at focusedpositivity.net and my blog at thepathtopeaceofmind,com. My Face Book, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts are all named focusedpositivity.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and to cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified wellness coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), stage 3 cancer survivor, podcaster, writer, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC.

Savio pens a weekly newsletter at thehumanresolve.com where he delves into secrets from living smarter to feeding your “three brains” — head 🧠, heart 💓, and gut 🤰 — in hopes of connecting the dots to those sticky parts in our nature that matter.

He has been featured on Fox News, and has collaborated with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, Food Network, WW, and Bloomberg. His mission is to offer clients, listeners, and viewers alike tangible takeaways in living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle.

Savio lives in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York and continues to follow his boundless curiosity. He hopes to one day live out a childhood fantasy and explore outer space.

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Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente

Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), #1 Best-selling Author, Syndicated Columnist, Podcaster, and Stage 3 Cancer Survivor