What do we fear when we fear failure?

Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal, 1873

I am clasping the cold marble of the toilet as if my life depends on it. My knees hurt from kneeling on the hard floor and my whole body shakes and spasms. I am too nauseous to look up and I wish I could empty my stomach, but I haven’t eaten much. The orange juice I drank earlier comes back with a violence that burns my throat and brings tears to my eyes. When I’m finally able to stand, I leave the cubicle to wash my hands and face. The reflection staring back from the neon lighted mirror looks frail, lost and scared. I am about to give a speech in front of two hundred people but contemplating the idea of getting a heart attack and dying so I don’t have to climb up that stage.

I’m afraid that I will forget the words I have carefully prepared, afraid that I might fall flat on my face, afraid that my legs will shake or that I will shit myself. Most of all, I am afraid that people will think I am a stupid person who should go sell potatoes because anything more than that exceeds my abilities. I fix my hair and skirt, breathe and command myself to calm down. I know being nervous is normal and that throwing up before a big speech is not too crazy a reaction for someone who deals with high levels of anxiety on a daily basis. Yet when I open my eyes, the pale twenty-four-year-old woman is gone. Instead, I am looking at a little girl who cracks her knuckles and tries to hold back the sea of tears ready to blow up her eyeballs.

After seeing Swan Lake aged four I began dreaming of being a professional ballerina. Five years later, my mother enrolled me in ballet school so I could pursue my passion. The odds, however, were not in my favour. Despite being talented and loving ballet more than anything, I didn’t possess any of the physical qualities required to make it to the top. I was short, chubby, jumping too low and not lifting my legs high enough. Every day I struggled with my own shortcomings, but also fought the fierce competition around me. There were girls with much better legs, leaner bodies and who could maintain a certain size without having to starve themselves. Yet maybe I wouldn’t have noticed the difference between them and I if it wasn’t for my teacher. She took an almost perverse pleasure in reminding me of my inadequacy each time she entered the ballet studio. Not only did she grab my belly and told me I was too fat to even look in the mirror, kicked me when I made a mistake, or constantly told me I wasn’t going to ever become a ballerina, but she shamed me in front of those who were better. One time when my absent-minded father had forgotten to pick up my backpack before driving me to school, my teacher made me train in my underwear. She then opened the door to the studio and invited boys lurking around in their free period to watch as we trained. She asked me to come forward and work on a pirouette until my toes bled. I couldn’t get it right no matter how hard I tried and in the end, I was kicked up of class. I spent the rest of the day crying in a corner and feeling like a loser.

Enduring the beatings, the harsh words, the pranks mean girls pulled when they put needles in my pointe shoes and even the hardcore dieting was nothing. It was feeling like an outcast who didn’t fit in made that my life a thousand times more miserable than physical pain and humiliation. I desperately wanted to be a ballerina, yet no one believed I could. “You’re not good enough” became a permanent refrain that echoed in my head from the moment I woke up in the morning until I went to bed at night. As it turned out, I wasn’t good enough for ballet. But not because I didn’t work hard enough or wanted it bad enough. I just couldn’t fight the realities of my body — a body that would have never allowed me to be the one, white and perfect swan. I could have been one of the smaller, less radiant swans in the back, but that wasn’t my dream. After ten years of tilting the windmills like a hopeless Don Quijote, I quit ballet. I was afraid to go on because I felt that every step I took was toward my own demise. My journey had been set to fail from the beginning and I needed to cut the rope as long as I still had some control.

Yet ballet school had ripped away my self-confidence, and from age fifteen until my mid-twenties, I struggled to find my path. Having been so immersed in ballet, I didn’t know what else I liked or wanted to do and I thus embarked on a binge of trying countless different things only to abandon them all. I tried writing, I studied International Relations, I became obsessed with fashion, I worked in technology and I started my own business. Each time I buried myself in a new project, however, I did so knowing I won’t be able to accomplish much. Not being good enough was an idea so ingrained in my brain, that it became part of my identity. Even when I tried something entirely new, I did it with the caution of the person who feels unprepared, rather than with the curiosity of an eager novice. I wanted to find my purpose in order to have control and make sure I wouldn’t fail. Ironically, I constantly failed at finding it. None of my jobs or projects provided the answers I was looking for and I quit them one by one, telling myself I couldn’t take any more failure. I spent countless hours Googling “fear or failure” only to receive millions of recipes for how to overcome it. It seemed like the world feared failure more than death itself and everyone was on a quest to break free from its torturous monsters. But no matter how many band-aids I plastered on my fear, the wound was still there and pain surfaced to remind me I wasn’t cured.

Nearly ten years after leaving ballet behind, I started my own business thinking I had finally found “my calling”. I had been working with tech startups for a while and admired all those people who built successful companies and who had it all figured out. Their lives seemed so happily put together and I wanted to be like them. And for one year I managed to be part of that universe. I worked harder than ever before, I stayed up nights drawing plans and coming up with innovative ideas. I built a team, a prototype, a business plan and I met with investors. When I stepped on that stage to present my idea in front of hundreds of them, I feared the spotlight would reveal a child impersonating an adult, and imposter trying to steal their money and support without deserving either. Yet to my surprise, that was all I felt as if my fear of failure had evaporated. Facing the scrutiny didn’t cure the symptom (nothing can permanently cure fear), but it made me realise fear of failure doesn’t exist. Beneath something that society has taught me to call “failure” because it grasps a vast array of feelings, there are many unopened doors that lead to my true fears. The fear of never being good enough at something or finding my path and the fear of not fitting in and of feeling inadequate.

Fear of failure is almost always a fear of losing something — be it control, love, respect or even security and comfort. To me, it was a little bit of everything, but mostly a fear of carrying with me the vulnerability that made me feel like an impostor. Every step of my growing up had felt like a test — the judge watching and nodding with disapproval. And when I failed, I felt exposed. An invisible hand dragged me to the pole of shame, tore off my mask and let everyone see me naked and imperfect. I went back to being a child who couldn’t pirouette and needed to be kicked out. Looking in my teacher’s eyes or in those of investors, I had been seeking the same thing: approval, the hope that they would tell me I was smart and capable and predict a bright future. My identity was too tangled for me to find reassurance within, so instead I felt a burning desire to belong. If until then I had been put in a box labelled “not good enough” and “flawed”, with my business I wanted to prove everyone I belonged in the shiny box where the successful people basked in their own glory. At the time, however, I didn’t realise that I was still allowing others to define me. Instead of truly taking control, I just desperately clung to anything that could — even momentarily — fill that cavernous, wounded space within me. I wanted to ground my displaced self, to get rid of the earlier iterations of myself and become worthy.

Contemporary psychology often associates anxiety and fear with feelings of inferiority, shame inadequacy, extreme sensitivity and lack of self-confidence. To illustrate the connection, in his great book called My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel breaks the concept down into four competing approaches. From the psychoanalytic school of thought came Freud who believed anxiety was a result of repressed thoughts and desires. The cure, he thought, consisted of facing and consciously addressing those internal conflicts through “psychodynamic psychotherapy and the pursuit of insight.” Behaviourists, on the other hand, argued anxiety was nothing more than a conditioned fear response triggered by learning mechanisms that make us fear things that don’t represent real threats. Cognitive behavioural therapy was thus born as a means to treat anxiety by “correcting faulty thinking through exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring”. The biomedical approach took a divergent view and focused on brain structures such as the amygdala and hippocampus in order to prove that anxiety was a biological mechanism. Yet the most comprehensive theory is the experimental perspective that looks at fear and anxiety from an existential point of view. By trying to uncover the meaning of anxiety, it looks beyond the biological mechanisms and deep into the traumas and events that cause someone to doubt their integrity, feel worthless or struggle with self-esteem. Quoting the psychologist who treated Scott for many years, “anxiety hides the threats within ourselves, the existential conflicts regarding time passage, death, losing people and love, failure, humiliation, the struggle to find meaning or the battle for emotional security.” He concluded that what ultimately separates the human experience of fear from that of animals is our “orientation towards the future”.

My own fear of failure was also that- an imaginary, giant clock floating above my head day and night, reminding me I was running out of time to find somewhere I could fit in. The more time passed, the greater my anxiety became, paralysing my brain and pushing me to make hasty decisions. Starting a business had been such a decision and when it didn’t work out — partly because my idea wasn’t so brilliant, partly because I wanted it for all the wrong reasons — I was upset and disappointed. But I also understood that trying to be good at something, to find success and fit in at any cost is the same thing as trying to be the first swan when your legs are too short. Or as trying to squeeze your ass into a pair of skinny jeans two sizes smaller. It’s painful, uncomfortable and unnecessary. Eventually, the top button pops, and you’re left with two choices: either change into something that feels good or keep pretending. Fear turned out to be both obstacle and resort for me. It constantly eats at my brain, making me wonder whether I will ever find my path or feel that I fit in, but it also triggers the desire to look beyond every one of my failures and understand my real needs. For many years I was suspicious that someone will uncover my shortcomings, thus confirming my worthlessness. Truth is, I still feel that way and the feeling only goes away for short periods of time — those that make room for fleeting happiness. Someone once told me that I shouldn’t regard that bunch of things I’ve tried as failures because there are other people who never take a chance and spend their entire life being a miserable accountant. From where I stand, it’s harder to share the same point of view because every roadblock feels like I’m getting further and further from completing the puzzle of who I am. What I am learning along the way, however, is to stop feeling bad for still trying.