Mistakes: To Manage the Fear of Failure in Our Personal and Professional Lives
One of the main characteristics of successful people is the way in which they manage mistakes and failure. Children who grow up with a healthy attitude towards mistakes and who recognize that mistakes are experiences from which to learn are children who are willing to take realistic risks in meeting life’s challenges.
Adults will be better equipped to nurture this attitude in children if they themselves are not burdened by unrealistic fears of making mistakes. Children are astute observers of how their parents and other caregivers respond to setbacks. Day in and day out we serve as models for how to react to mistakes. Given this responsibility, those of us in the position of raising and interacting with children must strive to develop a positive perspective about obstacles and setbacks. Even if we are not raising children, achieving this positive perspective is important for our own emotional and physical well-being.
In reflecting upon my career as a clinical psychologist and therapist I have recognized that a major issue for many of my child and adult patients has been their struggle to cope with actual failure or the fear of possible failure. For example, a woman who turned down a request to speak to a local organization because of her fear that she might look foolish and a man who held back from pursuing a new job even though he was not happy with his current position. He told me, "I may not enjoy my present job but at least I know I can handle it. I hate to admit it but I’m worried that I might screw up in this other job."
This article will be devoted to what each one of us can do in both our personal and professional lives to manage the fear of failure. Once again I will use attribution theory as a guidepost to help explain the assumptions that individuals make about the factors that contribute to successes and setbacks in their lives.
When confident people fail at a task that they judge to be realistically achievable, they attribute their setback to factors that are within their control to change. For example, they assume that if they adopt a different approach or different strategy or expend more energy in practicing the task, they will eventually succeed. In contrast, individuals who lack confidence are apt to feel that they cannot improve, that they are destined to continue to fail. Pessimism rather than optimism dominates their life.
The woman who retreated from an invitation to give a talk believed that she was not capable of making a successful presentation and would be embarrassed if she attempted to do so. Given this belief her style of coping was to avoid the situation rather than face the possibility of feeling humiliated. Similarly, the man who was fearful of changing jobs also retreated from a new challenge, hesitant to leave his comfort zone although his comfort zone provided him little, if any, satisfaction.
While flights from challenges may afford relief, the relief is often brief at best, quickly replaced by feelings of low self-esteem and a heightened sense of failure. I have worked with many adults who as they reflect upon their lives are saddened by the energy they have expended to avoid possible failure rather than engage in new tasks. As one man in his 50s poignantly told me, "I have lived my life behind a fortress of constant safety but at a great cost. I have experienced little enjoyment or satisfaction." His use of the word "fortress" was powerful.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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