Quite often we don’t act on something, or agree to do something, because we think that we’re doomed to fail. The problem with this inaction is that once we start to fear attempting something it soon becomes the norm and we never step outside our comfort zone, moving from day to day in what can only be described as a rut, sticking to the comfortable and familiar.
The issue with this “safe” method of sticking with tried and tested routines is that we never extend ourselves and learn what our true capabilities are. Testing our boundaries – both mental and physical – shapes us into the unique human beings we are. I think that the old adage “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” (Fredrick Nietzsche) is very true in this case; we learn from the mistakes we make whether it be that we need to practice something more or realise that what we did isn’t for you – without trying you’ll never know what you can achieve.
Why Should You Listen To What I Have To Say?
I’ve had my fair share of failure. In fact I’ve missed out on a lot of opportunities in life because I was afraid of the outcome – I wouldn’t apply for a job in case I was rejected, I wouldn’t go and see a friend at their house in case I made a fool of myself and couldn’t leave, I wouldn’t go to an event in case I couldn’t find a parking spot/the entrance/a bathroom… the list goes on.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to understand that it’s actually my fear that drives me. Fear is a tool that can be used to push me to try new things rather than something that makes me stick my head in the sand in order to ignore what’s going on.
I wouldn’t say that I’m completely fear free now, I still have moments where I don’t feel sure of myself enough to attempt something – and you most definitely won’t be seeing me in an elevator soon! – but that is now such a small part of my life I feel I have basically conquered my fears – at least my emotional ones. And anyway, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, there is no harm in trying but there is harm in not taking any action at all.
So, now that you’ve seen that I’m not the perfect person you all thought I was (!), and before we go into our 17 tips on how you can use and conquer your fear so you can be more confident in trying new things (or being better at old things), let’s take a look at the reasons behind what causes fear and why you may shy away from some tasks or situations.
What Is Fear Anyway?
When we think of fear it’s usually in the sense of being near something or someone that causes a “fight or flight” response. This means that our autonomous “Caveman” brain kicks in and controls our basic emotions. You’ll have experienced this when you see a spider running towards you out of the corner of your eye, ridden a roller coaster or watched a horror film. So what happens to you physiologically?
In these cases, your inner caveman will kick in forcing adrenaline to surge through your veins, your heart will start to beat up to three times as fast sending the adrenaline through your system. Your blood pressure rises and your muscles receive more blood and oxygen enabling you to run faster (or lift more). Your brain works more quickly thanks to the increased blood flow and your pupils dilate allowing you to see better. All in all, you’ve just become pretty much a “super human”, so why do we fear the fear response so much?
There is a downside however. Feeling the sense of fear too often – and the physical effects that go along with it – can cause a variety of health problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, sleep problems and an increased risk of illness amongst other things. Not only that, prolonged feelings of fear can trigger psychological problems such as depression and manifest themselves as “Generalised Anxiety Disorder” where you see every little thing as a threat. This then causes distress and leads to paralysis that stops you achieving anything and living a fulfilling life.
Of course, the above problems that fear can cause are at the extreme end of the spectrum but they do show that, if you’re not careful, fear of failing can rule your life having a negative impact on many aspects.
How Do We Define Failure?
The problem with labelling failure is that it’s an extremely personal feeling. What may seem like an abject failure to me may just be a minor blip for you. My major crowning glory for the day might be something you achieve easily. Failure – and by it’s connection, success – is very subjective.
Before we begin a new project, task, habit or even relationship we mentally come up with a desired outcome. This could be extremely obvious – for example you may be visualising a specifically desired outcome like the book The Secret (affiliate link) teaches you to do – or it could be figured out completely subconsciously. Either way somewhere in your brain sits a little equation that looks at the task, its possible endings and your desired outcome.
Failure is deemed to occur when you don’t achieve this desired outcome even if you miss it by a small margin.
Why Is The Fear Of Failure So Bad?
If we try something and don’t succeed we may never attempt the same (or similar) task again. If this is the case then we may never achieve anything.
Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at perfecting the filament in his light bulb. A reporter asked him “How does it feel to fail 1,000 times?” To which Thomas Edison replied “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Imagine what we would be missing out on if people had given up at the first sign of difficulty. If Edison had stopped development of his light bulb filament after even attempt number 100 I would be writing this article by candle light. Heck, I wouldn’t even be writing it at all as the Computers may not even have been developed!
Just because you fail doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have tried or that what you attempted was a mistake in any way; It simply means that, like Edison, you need to try a different approach, combination or maybe it just means that what you were attempting wasn’t the right course of action for your desired outcome.
Why Do We Fail?
There are many ways in which we may not achieve our desired outcomes – this does not mean however that what we were attempting was a complete failure.
Some reasons we may miss our desired outcomes are:
- Fear of the “New” or “Unfamiliar” – We may not do something (or finish something) because we’re not familiar with the concepts, or deem it to “challenging”
- We’re not confident enough – We may feel we’ve not had enough practice, or because we couldn’t do it before we feel that we won’t be able to do it this time.
- We fail ourselves – This could be putting things off due to procrastination (which is usually linked to another cause of fear), anxiety, self-doubt or perfectionism.
How To Embrace Your Fear And Achieve Your Goals
Fear of failure causes inaction and stops us even attempting to try anything we feel we may not be good at. In order to embrace our fear and try new challenges we need to:
- Understand all possible outcomes – If we know what may occur given any set of circumstances we can build in contingencies around this, or non-fail outcomes dependant on the scenario we find ourselves in.
- Always have a backup plan – If things go wrong you need to have an alternative plan of action. This allows you to modify your desired outcomes so that even a perceived “loss” isn’t technically a failure.
- What’s the worst that can happen? – It may seem pessimistic to imagine the worst case scenario but the argument is that if you think of this then anything else is a bonus!
- Change your overall outlook – Negativity breeds negativity. If you think positively, and put a positive spin on things then this can have a dramatic effect on how you perceive the outcome of an event. Even if your task doesn’t end in the way you envisioned it, you should be able to see the benefits in the outcome you have achieved – every cloud has a silver lining and all that!
- Accept that you’re not perfect – Nobody’s perfect, not even Beyoncé! Understand that just because things didn’t end up the way you wanted it’s not necessarily a direct reflection on you it’s simply just one of those things that can be worked on.
- It’s all a learning curve – Everyone needs some form of feedback in their lives and failing helps you give yourself feedback on your strengths and weaknesses.
- Learn to simplify – Maybe you’re trying to be overly complex or too clever for your own good! If you fail, next time around try a simpler solution, sometimes it’s the best way of achieving your goal.
- You can’t win all the time – No one is 100% infallible so you need to accept that you can’t “win” them all. There will be some occasions where you fail so use the other techniques on this list to learn from these moments.
- You are allowed to move on – It may feel like failing is the end of the world but it’s not. Pick yourself up, hold you head up high and move on to your next task.
- Stop thinking of the “worse case scenario” – Whilst it is good to look at all the possible outcomes (as we saw in point 1) you shouldn’t dwell on the worst possible ending too much. This will paralyse you and you won’t be able to act. Just accept that this “may” happen and it isn’t a forgone conclusion – no outcome is set in stone.
- Learn from your mistakes – Try to understand why you didn’t achieve your desired outcomes. This will help you avoid the same pitfalls the next time around.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice – As the poet John Donne said quite eloquently “No man is an island”. Don’t be afraid to ask the opinion of friends an colleagues or even the internet. There will be people who have been through similar situations who can give advice on what to look out for.
- Don’t dwell on past mistakes – What’s done is done, we can’t change the past so try not to think about it too much. By all mean use it to inform future decisions as long as you learn from it rather than fear it.
- Take responsibility – It’s too easy to pass the blame for our failures on to someone (or something) else. We need to learn to accept our role in the failure and not pass the buck, the excuse “The dog ate my homework” only goes so far!.
- Have moveable goals – Nothing is set in stone so allow for flexibility in what you want to achieve based on current events.
- Understand you can say “No” – Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it – or have to do it. Learn that it’s not a failure to decline something for a good reason but…
- Consider the repercussions of saying “No” – If you say “No” too many times you may not be asked to do something again. Not only will you be missing out on important events, it will breed resentment with your friends who will feel that there’s no point seeking your involvement in future.
What do you think?
Are you driven or held back by fear? Should we ultimately give in to fear or embrace it an use it as an empowering tool? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.