I was raised with a deep seated fear of failure. Without going into to much story fondling about my childhood, failure was regarded as any behavior outside the conformities of a very repressed society. Standing out and taking risks were more than frowned upon and failure was punished with the ultimate sanction – rejection and withholding affection. As a result (remember, my superpower is stating the obvious), I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that it’s ok to make mistakes, that mistakes are part of the curriculum of life.
Luckily, life has a way of teaching you – whether you’re a willing participant or not – so, despite my best attempts to blend in, to avoid failure, I’ve messed up more than I care to remember. It’s just… you know, I can’t help but feel that if I had embraced failure and not have been such a reluctant student, I might have learnt the lessons and succeeded in ways I can now only imagine.
The first time I became aware that this absolute aversion to failure might not be the best way – or even the only way – of being in the world, was when Mary, a former colleague of mine, resigned to start her own business during a very tough economic time. Because I was operating from this fear based paradigm, I asked her how certain she was that her business would succeed. I remember how shocked I was by her reply that if she fails, she fails – it would only be a stepping stone on her path to success. She also told me that most of the successful people in the world, had several failures under their belt before they finally reached their dreams. I almost got the idea that she was looking forward to failing – because she had already seen what she would do next.
It took me years to finally understand her gay abandon and the way in which she accepted – even embraced – the possibility of failure. Her business did fail, we lost contact and I met other people who also shared her appetite for risk. I ran into Mary at an airport earlier this year. Today she is a massively successful business woman and the lessons she learnt from failing at her first business, – and several others since – still serve her to this day.
Mary knew the secret of Robert F Kennedy and millions of other people who harnessed the power of failure. Kennedy said: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” It pains me to think that I could have reached far greater heights if I had engaged with this fear of failure earlier in my life – but I’m learning… slowly, but I am learning.
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” – Denis Waitley
“When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” – Ellen DeGeneres
Possibly the word most closely associated with failure is fear. I sometimes think that fear of failure is a bigger hurdle to overcome than dealing with the actual act of failing. Fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm. That threat doesn’t have to be real to trigger the fear emotion – very often it is the scenarios our imaginations conjure up that create fear, and when it comes to the imagination, the sky is the limit.
Fear is generated by the ancient, reptilian part of our brain, the amygdala. Martha Beck calls this part of the brain – the one that keeps on sending us “lack or attack” messages – the Inner Lizard. This Inner Lizard comes in very handy when we truly are in imminent physical danger – it literally kept our ancestors alive when they were under attack from a Sabre-Toothed Tiger, by triggereing their fight-or-flight response. The cocktail of hormones secreted once the fear response kicks in, oftentimes enable ordinary humans to perform quite astonishing and heroic acts to save their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. These days we have a decided lack of Sabre-Toothed Tigers so most of our fears are generated not by imminently dangerous external circumstances, but by our minds – our thoughts to be specific.
A big part of my coaching practice is helping people to face their fears. More often than not, examining our fears makes them disappear – the same way shining a torchlight under the bed made the monsters vanish. Other times, when the fear does not quite pass into oblivion, scrutinizing it makes it shrink into a manageable challenge. Of course that is far easier said than done but there are several tools to deal with this Inner Lizard.
One of the ways to deal with fear is questioning it. How realistic is it? What is the worst thing that could happen? Is that really so bad? As an expert in experiencing fear, I’ve come to realize that fear and excitement are felt in the same part of my body. Both of them kind of creates a fluttering in my stomach – and depending on the severity of either the fear or the excitement, the intensity of the flutter increases or decreases.
I cannot for one second claim that this realization is a new discovery. One of my favorite quotes about fear and excitement is attributed to self-help author Peter McWilliams who said that the only difference between fear and excitement is our attitude towards it. Author Robert Heller pointed out that fear is excitement without breath – so if you want to stop fear from stopping you, take a deep breath and jump!
The nature of fear is such that it often stubbornly resists all our efforts to root it out – but once we’ve managed to dislodge it, we can stop it the Inner Lizard from dictating to us and step into freedom. Kris Kristofferson said that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose – and if our fears are the last thing we shed, I fully agree with him.
Freedom from fear is listed as a fundamental human right according to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nobel Peace Price Winner Aung San Suu Kyi says in her book Freedom from Fear that: “Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”
I’d like to think of myself as civilized and thus – understanding that fear is ultimately a choice – I’m choosing to engage with and control my Inner Lizard to stop fear from stopping me. As I (cautiously) throw my fears to the wind, I plan on failing spectacularly in the near future – stay tuned!
“If you’re feeling helpless, help someone. ”
― Aung San Suu Kyi (from Freedom from Fear)