How to Reckon with the Fear of Failure
Updated: Nov 24, 2022
For starters, no part of you is weak, wrong, broken, or defective for fearing failure on a visceral level. This is not about bullying yourself with a short-term strategy of "why am I like this?! It's not that deep. I just need to do it." Instead, it's an invitation to try something different: taking a bottom up approach or a from-the-body-up approach. In this article, I invite you to flip the mainstream narrative of 'mindset first' and to start from-the-body-up to mindset instead.
Why? Because we're working with incredibly powerful and ancient hardware, our nervous system, in modern times. We're no longer running away from tigers. Instead, we're running away from something as ominous, yet visceral as 'failure'. Yes, mindset is powerful and vital for transformation. And. Mindset alone can't help the body fully understand why you're not running away from a challenge that makes its cortisol and adrenaline levels rise.
How do we take a from-the-body-up approach? We work on developing interoception. What's that? Interoception is our awareness of the body's inner sensations and cues. How does interoception help us reckon with the fear of failure, though? The more we understand what fear feels like for our body, the more we can befriend the body and support it to expand *its* comfort zone. So, what's the new goal instead of bullying ourselves? Encouraging our body to feel as physically safe as possible during challenge and building the nervous system's capacity to adapt to change. That's how we develop nervous system flexibility.
How do we get started? Here are 3 questions to consider:
1. What does fear of failure feel like in my body?
When you catch yourself 'spiraling', I invite you to try the following: grab your phone and set a timer for 2 minutes. Then, place your head in line with your heart and your heart in line with your pelvis. You can do this seated, laying down, or standing with your eyes closed, dimmed, or open. Go with what feels most comfortable to you in that moment. For 2 minutes, your only 'homework' is to notice the space between your nose and your upper lip, as well as the sensations in your body. For 2 minutes, you'll gather data from your greatest teacher with as much non-judgement as possible.
For example, for me, fear sounds like my jaw clicking, tastes like metal, looks like my joints freezing in place, and feels like wire in my chest. Has this happened when I've been in 'real' physical danger? Yes. Did it happen earlier this week in front of my computer in the *literal* safety of my own home while working on an email? Also, yes.
2. How might I help my body feel physically safe as I navigate challenges, like potential failure?
Once you've gathered info about how fear shows up for your body, I invite you to adapt your environment to bring your body comfort. Depending on the situation, visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic comforts will help the body realize that this challenge does not pose physical danger. Visual comforts can include: placing symbolic imagery at your work station or hopping on video call with a loved one. Auditory comforts can include: listening to your favourite album or calling a loved one. Kinesthetic comforts can include: tapping your feet on the floor or hugging a loved one/pet.
On the one hand, these examples can seem too small and too distant from sending that job application, booking that doctor's appointment, or repairing that relationship. On the other, our bodies are the tool we use to face failure-risking challenges, which bring meaning to our lives.
So as not to overwhelm your system, I invite you to pick one area of your life and one small comfort to build on over time. Failure can sometimes be inevitable, but being devastated by it is not. Consistently practicing how to help the body feel physically safe in the midst of challenges big and small makes the extraordinary possible.
3. How might I access support?
If interoception is vital for self-regulation, then connection through safe relationships is vital to make the above efforts sustainable. Ableism, sexism, racism, ageism, queer-phobia, trans-phobia, xenophobia, fat-phobia, classism, and other oppressive structures have us convinced that we succeed and fail alone.
That is both neurobiologically incorrect and unsustainable long-term. Our nervous systems need safe relationships with others' nervous systems to both thrive in success and learn through failure.
Final Q: What might change for you if you take 2 mins to tune into how the body is feeling once a day for the next week?
For coaching support on befriending your nervous system instead of fighting it as you face challenges, you can book a coffee chat with me here