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Apr 26, 2020

Mastering the Fear of Failure and Other Disruptive Emotions

A colleague of mine recently advised me to begin sharing my 44 years of observations and insights derived from working with people, first as a Clinical Psychologist and then as an industrial/Organization Psychologist (the past 36 years) as my way of “giving back”. I liked the idea so I thought I would coach a couple of colleagues pro bono, and that would be satisfying. While
I’ve done a bit of that, it felt somewhat limiting. Yesterday, I came up with an idea that struck me as more fulfilling and hopefully beneficial to others.

It is almost commonplace, even as I continue to consult with corporations and advise and coach senior leaders, to assume that highly successful people are not challenged and even demonized by the same fears, anxieties, and other emotions which everyone else experiences. Perhaps their career success has masked some of these emotions, or they have succeeded, in part, due to their ability to harness the emotions and convert them into forces for good, or, as is often the case, they are inclined to submerge these emotions, either consciously or unconsciously, assuming these feelings don’t impact them or others around them.

Anyway, my new approach to “giving back”, based on the advice I received, is to share with you, my colleagues, clients, and friends, some thoughts on a range of emotions, which at the extreme can be debilitating and to a lesser extent can make a good situation bad and a bad situation even worse, and, of course, strategies to deal with these emotions. I have also chosen to focus on those
emotions which have a direct bearing on people’s performance in the workplace. Here is a partial list of these emotions, and in no particular order:

1. Fear of failure
2. Fear of embarrassment
3. Ready disappointment
4. Excessive anger
5. Sensitivity to criticism
6. Fear of rejection
7. Lack of enthusiasm
8. Negativity/pessimism
9. Generalized anxiety/stress
10. Sadness

Note, these are emotions. I could just as easily focus on the behavioral consequences of these emotions (again, in no particular order), such as:

1. Perfectionism
2. Procrastination
3. Inertia
4. Hostility
5. Rejection
6. Withdrawal
7. Isolation
8. Lack of initiative/motivation
9. Temper tantrums
10. Impulsivity/impatience
11. Irritability

As a rule, I prefer to deal with root causes rather than the behavioral consequences of emotions. My orientation has always been based on the view that behaviors are dictated by emotions; and, emotions are based on belief systems, whether conscious or unconscious, which either allows one to accurately assess a situation and thereby cope effectively or leads to the types of undesirable emotions and subsequent behaviors described above.

So, my plan is to write a series of brief, but hopefully impactful, white papers focused on those undesirable emotions which limit our potential or satisfaction even when potential has been realized, explain potential root causes and provide insights on strategies to master these emotions. These articles are not intended to be a substitute for seeking appropriate assistance;
they are written in order to de-mystify these emotions and to help recognize that there are
strategies for gaining mastery.

The Fear of Failure
Fear holds us back. It destroys dreams. It kills productivity and can suck the fun out of life. Why do we fear failure? It’s quite often not failing itself that strikes fear into us, it’s the negative expectations that come along with failing, such as believing one will become destitute or be the laughing stock of those we admire.

The commonly held belief is almost always in the form of a question that implies a negative outcome…such as… what if this didn’t work out or what will others think of me? With such questions, one’s mind floods with all the potential negative outcomes that could arise. As expected, it doesn’t take much to come to the conclusion that the best option is the safest one
and resign oneself to the status quo.

We, humans, are hardwired to focus on the negatives of situations. It’s what psychologists call the ‘negativity bias. By the way, if you happen to be an accountant, engineer, physician, money manager, and so on, you are even more inclined to look for risks and downsides; in fact, you are paid to do so.

The fact that negative information weighs more heavily on the brain was demonstrated in a study where researchers measured the reactions of participants after showing them pictures known to arouse specific feelings: pictures of a sports car or delicious-looking food for positive feelings, a fork or table cloth for neutral, and finally a mutilated face or dead pet for negative feelings. The results showed that seeing a negative image sparked the strongest reaction by all of the participants, proving that our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat or negative imagery and news. It’s why newspapers and news shows report so heavily on negative stories. As ironic as it may be, it’s what we instinctively want to hear.

So, if we’re more heavily affected by negative thoughts brought on by fear, how does this change the way we make decisions on a daily basis? Fear of failure, fear of our own inadequacy, fear of making the wrong decisions, and fear of what others think of us can all affect the decisions we make.

“Fear prompts retreat,” Emory University’s Gregory Berns explained in a New York Times article. “It is the antipode to progress. Just when we need new ideas most, everyone is seized up in fear, trying to prevent losing what we have left.” Berns concludes: “The most concrete thing that neuroscience tells us is that when the fear system (fight-flight syndrome) of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.”

We might not be faced with life-threatening situations on a daily basis, as our ancestors were, but our basic fear instincts still control how we view the potential outcomes of our decisions. So if you’re thinking about embarking on a traveling adventure, you might focus on costs (maybe you could spend that money on more logical things?), not having a job to come home to, or maybe homesickness, instead of all the amazing positives like meeting new people, having memorable experiences, and expanding your worldview.

The same applies to most dreams and goals. Although the positives may outweigh the negatives, in the end, it can be hard to see past the negatives and commit to the decisions we really want to.

Fear shuts us down before we even have a chance to start. And, as noted above, it’s our tendency to focus on negative thoughts/beliefs about potential outcomes which is the root cause of our emotion and subsequent behavior. If someone cuts me off in traffic and I say to myself (belief) “that SOB…he tried to kill me” I will automatically manifest one set of behaviors…such as immediately pursuing the SOB and cutting him off. If I say to myself “he is or may be an SOB, but he could also be rushing someone to the hospital (ok, I couldn’t think of a better example)” then I feel relieved and my behavior is to continue on my way satisfied that I was able to control my emotional and behavioral reactions. We might be evolutionarily predisposed to react instinctively or think irrationally rather than accurately assess the risk when faced with tough decisions, but there are some ways to trick the oldest part of our brain out of making us miss opportunities.

1. Change perceptions of failure

Sir James Dyson is one of the world’s most successful inventors, refers to his life as ‘a life of failure’. He explained, when interviewed, that when he was building the prototype for the first Dyson Hoover there were 5126 failures until he got the one that worked. As highlighted by Dyson’s story, failure isn’t an ending — it’s a part of your story. It’s a natural part of growing. By changing your perception of failure you can learn to stop fearing it. One of the greatest sportsmen of all time was prone to failure, too…

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

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