Journeying Toward Wholeness

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The Many Faces of Fear of Failure — and How To Get Past Them

November 5th, 2018 · No Comments · fear of failure

A culture like ours, which so prizes and praises accomplishment, has a shadow side; among other things, it appears in our fear of failure.

fear of failure
As depth psychotherapists are acutely aware, the psychological atmosphere that most of us inhabit in North America is charged with tension.  That’s about a sense of opportunity, at times, to be sure, but in our particular contemporary time, many of us have an especially strong sense that our world is full of risk.  For many, this reality can generate a strong sense of fear of failure.  This fear can be so intense that it can pull people into a place where they are frozen into inaction, afraid to attempt anything that moves life forward.

Everyone Experiences Fear of Failure

We’ve all had experiences of failure.  If you’re anything like me, you’re probably had them in some high stakes situations, where you really wanted to succeed.  If you have, you recognize that failure can bring a range of emotions including sorrow, anger or rage, deep regret, a sense of overwhelm, confusion and disorientation, or feelings of frustration and powerlessness, among others.  Two of the most powerful feelings that failure can bring are a sense of self-recrimination, and above all shame.  It is this last, corrosive feeling that is most potently tied to the sense of fear of failure.

To experience shame in a very limited, moderate way is one thing.  To know it at its extreme, for which we use the expression to be ashamed of oneself — that’s quite another.  It’s that kind of shame that is associated with failure in the experience of the fear of failure.

Jungians know that shame of this kind is intimately involved with the part of the personality that Jung called the shadow.  Jung defined the shadow, broadly speaking, as that part of our personality that we do not wish to acknowledge.   Failure can be viewed as an invitation to accept, and love, those parts of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge.

Fear of Failure Can Lead to Disengagement

If fear of failure, and the shame that often underlies it remain unaddressed, they can take a really deep hold in a person’s life. This is particularly true in the aftermath of a person encountering a sizable setback.  Such a setback can  be occupational, romantic, financial, or of some other kind.  The individual may come to avoid challenges, or even avoid the mainstream of life.  He or she may find him- or herself living a very small-scale life — all due to fear of failure.

What’s more, the fear of being a failure can intensify as we age.  As we move past midlife, and into the second half of life, the individual may even be consumed by the sense that he or she has been a failure.  This fear or sense of complete failure can manifest as something truly devastating in the individual’s life.

Fail Better!

Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No Matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.

~ Samuel Beckett

As famed neuroscientist Gregory Berns emphasizes, the paralyzing power of fear of failure is often rooted in the sense of condemnation and shame from others that we anticipate experiencing if we should fail.

What will people think of me if I fail?” — this thought encapsulates much that lies at the core of the fear of shame that mires individuals in the ruts of life.  It paralyses them from trying the things that something deep within them calls to them to try.

C.G. Jung pointed us in another direction, the path of what he called “the law of fidelity to our own being.”  This means trying things that we genuinely feel drawn to, and moving beyond our fear of the condemnation of others, and our self-condemnation.  It means moving to a place where even failure can be seen as growth, and as life-giving — in Samuel Beckett’s words, to fail better.

This is a life-giving place, but it may be a part of the journey towards wholeness that we’re required to travel pretty much on our own.  It’s at this point that truly supportive depth psychotherapist may be of tremendous value.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst

PHOTOS: Michael (a.k.a. moik) McCullough (Creative Commons Licence)
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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