Pressing Pause Podcast episode 41 How fear of failure shows up and what to do about it


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Welcome to Pressing Pause, the podcast for overthinkers.

I’m Gabrielle Treanor and I’m here to share with you ideas, inspiration and actions to empower you to spend less time overthinking and worrying and more time enjoying your life.


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Hello and welcome to episode 41. Today I’m talking about that uncomfortable, rather icky feeling where we’re scared of doing something in case we fail.


The tricky thing about the fear of failure is that it shows up in different ways, it wears different disguises, which makes it harder to recognise and do something about. Failing itself isn’t that awful a thing. When we fail at something we might feel disappointment, sadness, regret, or frustration, which don’t feel great but we can deal with them. It’s when failing evokes more challenging feelings that we learn to be fearful of it. Feeling embarrassed and ashamed that we failed, that’s the really horrible feeling that we don’t want and that we may come to dread and because of which we fear the idea of failing at something. 


So what are these disguises that the fear of failure wears? Well, perhaps you worry a lot about what other people will think of you if you get something wrong or mess up in some way. You lower their expectations because you’re scared of what disappointing them could mean. Perhaps you get stuck on how failing at something must mean that you’re not very smart or capable. Maybe you find yourself procrastinating, busying yourself with lots of other tasks but not tackling the one you really need to do. 


And this is all stuff that we may do without realising that what’s behind it is a fear of failure, of getting things wrong, of it not being perfect, of not doing as well as we want to. I think perfectionism and procrastination are the two clearest ways to me that fear of failure shows itself. Not wanting to put something out in the world, or to try something new or to put your hand up unless you’re absolutely categorically convinced that it’s going to go exactly as you want, that it will be a success and you’re 100% right. Or doing work that needs doing, that has relevance and can be seen as important, that fills your time and makes you feel like you’re making headway, but you’re not actually doing the thing. The thing that you know is really important, that you know isn’t going to go away, but it feels hard, unknown, you might not be able to do it well, you might get it wrong, and that’s such a scary thought you keep putting it off.


To make life extra fun/confusing fear of failure is tied into the fear of success. Yes, you’re worried about things going wrong but what if it all went right? What if things went really well and that led to more opportunities/challenges, to changes in your work or life, what could that mean and how would you cope? The fear of success can be just as scary as the fear of failure.


Let me share how this can show up for me to see if it helps makes things clearer. Now, I feel pretty daft telling you this but that’s fear raising its head again so I’ll just keep going.


So, almost every time I sit down to write, whether it’s a podcast episode like this, my weekly email, a feature for a magazine or another commission, a course I’m creating, whatever it is, I’m struck by the fear that this could be the time I fail to do it. This could be the time that the words don’t come, they don’t make sense, no-one likes what I’ve written or say and I have to face the embarrassment and shame of having failed at writing. Of not being as good as I want to be, of disappointing people who expect more from me. 


I’ve written for years and years, my first career of 15 years was spent in the editorial department of magazines and a newspaper. And through the work I do now many people have read the features I’ve written, listened to this podcast, taken my courses and yet the fear that this time I’ll fail still comes up. I don’t know why it is, perhaps my teacher’s criticism when I was doing English A Level struck me deeper than I realised. I don’t know what’s at the root of it and I don’t know how helpful it is to spend time trying to figure it out. On the flipside there’s also the fear of success – what if my writing turns out to be so good that it attracts loads of attention, what if it led to being asked to write for more, bigger publications, or write a book (which, incidentally I totally have the push pull of fear and excitement about). This ‘success’ in quote marks could lead to more people reading my words and a greater chance of them disagreeing with my writing, I could be criticised for what I write or how I write. 


So, this fear of failure and success has me stuck between a rock and a hard place. 


This is where I, or you, face up to the fear and look it directly in the eyes. We ask ourselves, what if I fail? What does that really mean? So for me that would be what if it takes me three times as long to write something than I expected it to because the words are trickling rather than flowing? What if an editor asks me to rewrite an article or I get feedback from readers of my emails or listeners to this podcast that what I shared didn’t strike a chord? So what? It wouldn’t feel good, that’s for sure, I’d be disappointed but is it something I really need to feel ashamed about? I’d survive, my world wouldn’t end, I’d learn from it and I’d try again. These are all what ifs, I don’t know that any of this won’t happen but I also don’t know that it will. 


Where is the evidence that you’ll fail? Perhaps it’s something you’ve never tried before so in which case you have neither evidence that you’ll succeed nor that you’ll fail. Even if you manage to come up with why you think you could fail that doesn’t make it an absolute sure thing. I’m betting that you can find more evidence that suggests you can do it, that you can give whatever it is a go and you’ll be okay, perhaps great. Collect and gather that evidence that you’ve done scary things before, that you’ve tried something new, that you’ve had a go and that you’ve made it through in one piece, perhaps you even triumphed brilliantly. 


The next question to ask ourselves is what if I succeed? What if everything goes wonderfully and doors open up to me and I get opportunities or challenges that feel exciting and scary? Well, for me, I ask myself what am I doing this for in the first place? To help people to worry less, for you to spend less time overthinking and more time feeling calm and enjoying your life. So reaching more people, helping more people, would only be a good thing. I don’t know what the scary or exciting possibilities are because I’m just What If-ing so I’ll trust that if they do present themselves I’ll figure out how to deal with them then. I’ve made it through life this far.


My and your self-worth is not tied up in whether we fail or succeed at each tricky thing we try in life. Instead of gripping on to the worse case scenario as if it’s a certainty, or believing that anything other than total success is failure, we can hold our fear a little more lightly.


And then the final question to ask ourselves as we’re getting stuck on making things absolutely perfect, procrastinating and putting off doing the thing or getting bogged down with what other people might think of us, is what if I do nothing? What if I don’t try, what happens then? 


So, in my case, if I do nothing I don’t write. I do something else with my life that doesn’t involve me writing. Well, actually, that feels pretty horrendous. And kind of impossible. How can I not write? How would I express myself? How would I share what I know to be so valuable that I’ve learned from positive psychology and my own experience, that I know can make the most incredible difference to a person’s life, how can I share that if I don’t write? So, actually, doing nothing, not writing is scarier to me. I dread more the feeling of not writing than the fear of writing badly or of being enormously successful at it. 


I have the evidence that this thing, writing, that invokes the fear of failure and success in me, is something I can do, and do it well, I’ve got the proof. And the thought of the alternative, to not write, feels even worse. So I stop tying myself up in knots and procrastinating and striving for perfection and I write. That doesn’t mean that I won’t have the same fears of failure, of perfectionism, it doesn’t mean that I won’t procrastinate, but it does mean that I can remind myself of this process – of asking what would failure or success really mean, of looking for the evidence I can do it, of loosening the grip on how tightly I hold the fear, of thinking of the result if I do nothing – and put pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. 


So what is it that you’re putting off through procrastination or perfectionism? What are you scared of trying in case you fail? Perhaps it’s auditioning for the local am dram production or taking the lead in a project at work or starting a business or learning to knit or tackling your overthinking? How can you use the process I’ve shared in this episode, ask yourself the questions: what does failure really mean, where’s the evidence I can do this, what happens if I do nothing, to move you forward? Because if it’s something that deep down you want to do, if there’s a little voice inside you saying I know it’s scary but I want to try, that’s the voice to listen to and allow to grow louder. 


As always, share with me what’s come up for you in this episode by emailing gabrielle@gabrielletreanor.com. If you’re looking for more support to help you with feelings of perfectionism, overthinking or overwhelm we can tackle them together. We can forge a path forward for you to feel lighter, calmer, more confident and equipped to thrive in your life.


As your coach I will be with you every step of the way so you don’t have to figure this stuff out on your own. By working one-to-one we can focus on your specific challenges and needs so you can live your life as you truly want to. Go to theoverthinkerscoach.com to find out more and start the conversation. 


And as always you can find the show notes at gabrielletreanor.com/podcast. 


Thanks for listening, until next time, lovely people.


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