Why I’m so scared of failure – and sabertooth tigers

posted in: How to be fearless | 1

It’s not just failure I’m scared of. I’m scared of many things:

  • Criticism
  • Ridicule
  • Put downs
  • Being incompetent
  • Not getting high enough grades
  • Not being good enough…..

But not good enough for what?

Most of us are scared of all of these things.

But there’s a deeper, more primitive fear that underpins all of these fears.

And this primal fear is the fear that we are not good enough for love and belonging

Fear of failure is not fear of failure per se, it’s the fear of what failure may lead to.

Fear of failure is really the fear of social rejection.

For a profoundly social species like humans, social rejection is a very valid terror.

These days, in most countries, the threat of social rejection is ‘merely’ psychological terror. But back in cave-people days, social rejection was fatal.

If your tribe decided you were a worthless failure, they’d chuck you out of the cave. “Sorry, can’t afford to feed you.”

You’d then pitifully, but briefly, wander the Sub-Saharan Desert until you died of a nasty trifecta of starvation, loneliness, and sabertooth tiger.

So, we are terrified of failure in its many guises (criticism, ridicule, being incompetent, rejection) because our brains can’t tell the difference between failure and sabertooth tigers.

Our brains think failure means a horrible painful lonely death. This is why our brains encourage us to avoid anything that could possibly lead to failure.

The subtext of avoidance – whether intimacy avoidance or procrastination – is that if you don’t try, you can’t fail.

Unfortunately, the path to success is littered with the possibility of failure. It’s hard to succeed when you cannot tolerate the possibility of failure or rejection.

The avoidance of failure can be very pervasive. Avoidance can mean procrastination with work and study.

Failure avoidance can include avoidance of intimacy – whether you have a partner or not. After all, if you let people into your heart, and they reject you, then……sabertooth tiger. Better the certain pain of loneliness than to risk the possibility of fatal agonising rejection and sabertooth tigers.

This is serious. Psychological terror is a very real terror. I assure you the cascades of stress hormones – preparing you for fight, flight, or freeze, at the prospect or actuality of failure – are real.

But not everyone is terrified of failure. Not everyone is scared of rejection.

There are people who believe that failure and rejection, while unpleasant, are not devastating. These people know that failure and rejection are not thinly disguised sabertooth tigers.

Dr Brené Brown, who researches shame, vulnerability, courage, and connectedness, has categorised these people as ‘Wholehearted’. Wholehearted people believe that their self-worth – their worthiness of love and belonging – is unconditional.

Their self-worth is inherent and unalterable. It is not dependent on not failing and is not dependent on not being rejected.

Wholehearted people know they can fail. They know they can be rejected. But they also believe, that if these things were to happen – they are still worthy of love and belonging to their tribe.

The Wholehearted believe their tribe is unlikely to reject them if they fail. But they also believe that even if the worst happens and they are kicked out of the cave – they were worthy of not being kicked out.

The Wholehearted believe they are worthy of love even if they aren’t being loved.

Brené Brown also found there was only one difference between Wholehearted people and ‘the others’. And that  was that the Wholehearted believed they were unconditionally worthy of love. The others struggled and hustled for love.

A belief that you are unconditionally worthy of love and belonging, and that failure and rejection cannot diminish your worthiness, is a really useful belief.

It’s a belief that reduces your fear of failure.

And it’s a whole lot easier to succeed if you are willing to fail. It’s a whole lot easier to let love in if you are willing to be rejected.

So how to lose our fear of failure?

We can lose our fear of failure by ‘simply’ believing that we are unconditionally worthy of love, that our worthiness is not diminished by failure or rejection.

However, changing the beliefs that have been drummed into us for decades isn’t easy.

In fact, it’s a practice. A tough practice – moving a belief in your unconditional worthiness from your head to your heart is a roller coaster ride. With a hysterical sabertooth tiger strapped in next to you.

But I’ve been practising. And I assure you that cultivating a belief that I am unconditionally worthy of love is nowhere as tough as living with the belief in my conditional worth – the terrifying belief that my failure or rejection ends in a sabertooth tiger’s stomach.

It’s a tough practice and it’s a constant practice. But it has profoundly changed my life for the better.

As I’m no longer terrified of rejection, it’s so much easier to let people in.

I’ve deepened my healthy friendships, established firmer boundaries with less-healthy relationships, and have finally arrived in a healthy, loving romantic partnership.

I’m no longer terrified of criticism and failure. I don’t like it, but it’s so much easier to succeed.

I’ve dramatically reduced my procrastination. I managed to finish my Ph.D., and  I’m proud of that thesis.

However, there’s a lot of sabretooth tiger in the detail. Through this website I’ll share with you the tactics I’ve used for converting my belief in my conditional worth to one of unconditional worth.

So come along for the ride. It’s worth it. So are you.

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What is the best gift you can ever give someone?
A love letter to Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”

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What do you think? How has fear of rejection and failure affected you? And/or how do you stop it affecting you? I’d love to hear your comments below.

  1. Tara

    Love this post…. especially the historical link – it explains why this type of fear feels so visceral and primeval at times…

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