A bird flying high in the sky

Is a Fear of Failure Clipping your Wings?

I return home this afternoon to find a honey-coloured postcard at the centre of my dining table. I pick it up, reading the bold font advertising the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Prizes. My partner has circled the third category down, Creative Non-fiction, in red Sharpy and wrote: THIS ONE! xx. I break into a big smile and text him Ha Ha! and  heart emoji, to which he says, I’m not kidding, promise?!

The next day I set my alarm for seven AM with every intention of writing. Though, when I pull back my blinds the day is so sunny, so still, I feel I absolutely must go out walking. I return an hour and a half later and cook a big, slow breakfast to fuel all the work I am about to do. Cleaning up, I retrieve a fresh sponge from underneath the sink and find it a mess. There is a small brown pellet I am sure is a rodent dropping, so I clean the whole thing out immaculately. I make a second coffee and, finally, sit down at my laptop.

I open my emails, three tabs for each of my three addresses. There is one email from Gourmet Traveller advertising a new recipe collection full of spring salads. The picture of the roast vegetable one looks particularly delicious! I reason that if I get it on soon, it will be ready in perfect time for when I’m hungry for lunch. The salad takes longer than anticipated and I have to re-clean the kitchen.

By the time I sit down again, two and a half hours later, I feel tired and lacking in inspiration. I decide I will read a chapter of a book to get me in a creative headspace. Reclined on my bed, half-way through the chapter, my sister calls asking if I’d like to grab a beer. Of course, I say, but just one, I’ve got lots to do! One beer becomes two and then I’m sitting at her table for dinner. I will do it tomorrow, I think, tomorrow! Does this sound familiar?

There is harm in perceiving achievement as a reflection of worth 

I recognise my behaviour is consistent with something I learnt in my psychology degree: The Self Worth Theory of Motivation.  The theory explains that we are inclined to equate competency and achievement with our own self-worth. Specifically, we avoid trying as a way of protecting our self-worth due to the possibility of failure. This failure threatens one of our most fundamental psychological needs: to be perceived as competent, capable, and worthy.

The origins of this mode of thinking are not surprising. Highly selective environments like schools, universities, sporting institutions are the perfect habitat for breeding failure-avoidant strategies. This includes pretty much any environment where we are being evaluated or are competing with one another. We’re also likely to avoid failure if we’re exposed to situations when reward and recognition is extremely limited. Situations where the likelihood of failure is significant. Like a writing prize that awards one winner and is open to the whole of Melbourne.

It’s also extremely relevant to situations that mean a lot to us, that we’re invested in and love. Situations where the idea of failing at tennis, maths, art or performing threatens to destabilise your identity. It’s the self-held (and culturally insinuated) belief that you are what you do and what you achieve. It’s believing your performance is equivalent to your ability and thereby, worth, in the eyes of others, yourself and as a human being on this planet.

We procrastinate to shield ourselves from potential failure 

This way of thinking, leads to several kinds of avoidance and defensive strategies. All of which attempt to prevent or avoid failure but ironically, always result in failure anyway for not having tried. The most common type is the one I exhibited in the above situation and that my friends refer to as the big P: procrastination, also known as ‘self-handicapping’. This involves reducing the effort you bring to a task or blatantly refusing to practise for an upcoming task. Procrastination is a popular practice that jeopardises our performance or attainment of a goal.

Writing this out today, I can see it plainly contradicts the scientific claim that we humans are rational animals. There are many memes circling the internet about procrastination as it is such a relatable and popular avoidance strategy. We therefore might think of procrastination as an unavoidable outcome of the modern world. However it’s important to recognise its function, which is protecting your self-esteem from potential failure.

Another defence we might use against possible failure is defensive pessimism. Defensive pessimism involves cynical thinking about an upcoming task. You might have defensive expectations about the outcomes of the task and therefore set less-ambitions and safer goals. Or you may approach a task with defensive reflectivity and overthink all possible outcomes prior to starting it, potentially wasting a lot of precious time and energy on “what if’s”. Whether it is through procrastination, defensive pessimism, expectations or reflectivity, the avoidance that follows is completely counterintuitive!

The question is, is a fear of failure or anxiety holding you back? And if it is, what do you do?

How do you approach tasks that are of high value to you?

According to the Quadripolar Model of Self-Worth theory, there are four ways a person will approach a task of importance. This depends on a combination of an individuals orientation towards success and their wish to avoid failure:

  1. Success Oriented
    • You are highly success oriented and do not engage in failure avoidance behaviours
    • You recognise the intrinsic value of effort and are not driven by a need to protect one’s self-worth. In this way, you take risks, try new things, and give unapologetic effort to the task at hand
  2. Failure Avoiders
    • You are low in success orientation and high in avoiding failure
    • You tend to focus on the avoidance of failure to protect your self-perceptions of ability
    • You perceive likelihood of failure to be high and your ability to achieve to be low
  3. Overstrivers
    • You are high in both the success orientation and the failure avoidant dimensions
    • You are very sensitive to the notion of failing as you possess doubts about your ability. In your eyes, failure would lead to a confirmation of your perceived lack of ability
    • This is a deceptive and rather ugly one, perhaps one I tend to fall into. You feel the need to avoid failure to protect your ability that matters greatly to your identity.
  4. Failure Accepters
    • You are low in both success orientation and failure avoidant dimensions
    • You unfortunately tend to believe you’re not capable enough and assume you’ll fail if you try
    • You may surrender to the idea of failure and therefore not engage in new tasks or challenges

If you identify with the behaviours of the Overstriver, Failure Avoider or Failure Acceptor, fear not! There are ways to improve your self-worth circuitry and undo your avoidant-defensive habits. You must first dispel the myth that it is raw talent and innate ability alone that arrives one at achievement or success. We can be inclined to interpret our ability based on intelligence and undervalue the role of diligence.

Interestingly, our diligence is only considered as important as our ability when the goal is to acquire knowledge. Therefore, if we’re focused on learning and growing we have the opportunity to become less stifled by performance anxiety. So, rather than thinking about a task as something that will be judged or evaluated by others, think of it as a learning curve.

Make your motivation about the mastery of the knowledge/skill/task rather than about showing off to others. It’s a lot easier to start a task that isn’t about an end-result of being in a high paying job or to impress your parents. I can see the university I attend making use of this knowledge by utilising non-competitive learning strategies by asking us to think about what it is we are learning, why it interests us and how it applies to the world we live in.

I had a think about this in the context of the writing prize and previous writing prizes I delayed submitting. In the weeks leading up to the Lord Mayor Prize, I did something different from my usual procrastination. I kept reminding myself that I write firstly, because it brings me joy. Secondly, I want to engage in the writing community. And thirdly, I believe I have something to say that someone might benefit from. I actively disengaged from potential outcomes and separated myself and my self-worth from the notion of failure.

In this way, the process of doing the task, writing the words, became bigger than the ideal outcome of winning the prize. My urge to procrastinate subsided and I began to make progress on the task with less resistance.

Effort is a double-edged sword. While I could’ve walked the path of protecting my self-worth through avoidance, I would’ve been met with guilt, dissatisfaction, anxiety and hopelessness along the way. You can only succeed if you try. You are still a wonderful person if you fail. And you are actually all the more wonderful for having tried.

To learn more about self-worth theory and overcoming procrastination watch this Tedx talk by Nic Voge.

Or if you’re struggling with similar issues like anxiety at work or indecision, you may also like to read Small Steps Towards How to Improve Anxiety at Work and Maybe…but what if…I just don’t know. We also have a team of psychologists who can help you overcome your anxiety with therapies such as CBT for Anxiety, as well as treatment for depression and low self-esteem. You can also get started here on coping better with anxiety and the most practical and first step to depression recovery.