Mistakes: To Manage the Fear of Failure in Our Personal and Professional Lives (page 4)
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.
What can we do to venture forth from any fortress we may have created and overcome the fear of failure? I believe there are several reasonable steps we can take or guidelines we can follow. While at first glance these steps may appear easy to achieve, they require thought and effort. Change takes time, especially if we are accustomed to remaining in our comfort zones and avoiding challenges. Let’s look at some of these guidelines. As the name guideline implies, they are not cast in stone and should be used in ways that are most in accord with your personality.
Take a Snapshot of Your Life from a Helicopter. In my clinical practice I often suggest to patients the usefulness of taking a "helicopter" perspective of their lives as an exercise to help them to assess and define the issues they have faced and continue to face. I ask my patients to imagine that they are in a helicopter from which they can survey their past, their present, and where they would like to be in the future. From this perspective I recommend that they consider a number of questions, including the following ones pertaining to mistakes and failure (as you read them, think about the answers you would give):
Do you find yourself avoiding situations for fear that you might make mistakes? Has this behavior occurred on many occasions? When was the last time it happened?
What activities do you especially avoid? What activities are you least likely to avoid? What distinguishes these two kinds of activities?
How do you feel when you have avoided engaging in a certain task? How do you feel when you have not avoided a difficult task even if you were not successful?
What is one of the worst mistakes you have made? What happened after you made that mistake?
Responses to these questions provide a portrait of the role that mistakes and setbacks play in a person’s life. As some individuals reflected upon their answers they were dismayed and embarrassed by how often they retreated from situations that they judged had a strong possibility of producing a negative outcome. In contrast, others have been pleasantly surprised by the frequency with which they had confronted challenges. In addition, answering these questions assisted many people to become increasingly aware of those activities that are most problematic for them and those activities that bring them satisfaction.
As an example, one woman feared going to social events since she felt she had "nothing to say and everyone else seemed more knowledgeable." She told me, "I feel that if I open my mouth to comment on current events, people will see how shallow I am." Initially she also reported that she was hesitant to engage in almost any activity in which risk was involved and which left her vulnerable to being judged.
Yet, in our discussions I discovered that she loved to bake different kinds of cake and had no hesitation bringing them to parties. When I said that some people would be anxious about others "judging" their cakes, she answered, "But that’s different, I feel confident about my cakes." As she said this, it was as if a light went on inside her and she observed with a smile, "I guess there are some things that I am more confident about and less worried about making mistakes and looking foolish."
Helicopter views can be very revealing of our strengths and vulnerabilities and set the stage for changing our mindset about setbacks.
Don’t Jump into 10 Feet of Water if You Can’t Swim but You Can Start by Getting Your Ankles Wet. Once we have taken a helicopter view of both our past and present it is time to shift our focus to the future. Make a list of several things you would like to see changed in your life. Begin by selecting one of them that is important to you but that you have avoided and now wish to face. The selection of just one thing to change in your current life is what Bill O’Hanlon advocates in his thoughtful book "Do One Thing Different."
Once you have chosen the one thing to change, your next task is to define realistic expectations and goals for that change. For instance, the woman who was fearful of going to social gatherings set as her goal going to one such event during the next month, while the woman who refused an offer to speak at a local organization set as her goal calling that organization and offering to make a presentation. A man who was hesitant to go dancing with his wife because he felt "klutzy" set as his goal dancing with her at a friend’s wedding.
While to some these may seem like small, even insignificant, goals, for the people involved they often represent major steps towards overcoming the fear of failure and looking foolish. I advocate small, realistic, achievable goals since each success serves as the foundation for future success. A basic mistake that many individuals make is to turn what should be a long-term goal into a short-term goal and expect unrealistic rapid change. When the change does not occur it often leaves people feeling more defeated and more afraid of taking risks for fear of continued failure.
Prepare and Rehearse. Upon defining your goal you want to maximize your chances for success. During this process, you may require some assistance from a friend, relative, or in some instances, a counselor. Basically, when we alter a "negative script" in our lives and replace it with a "positive script" we must not only have the goal in mind but also the preparation necessary to reach that goal. Just as actors rehearse a new script many times to learn their lines, so too is practice necessary in "real-life" to learn a new, more satisfying script.
The woman who was hesitant to attend social gatherings for fear she could not "keep up with the conversation about current events" discovered that reading a weekly magazine such as Newsweek or Time as well as the daily newspaper allowed her to become as well-versed in what was transpiring in the world as most other people. In therapy, we role-played discussions that might occur during social events. She also engaged in conversations with two trusted friends before moving, as she said, to "the big time."
The woman who turned down an invitation to speak at a local organization prepared her talk. She taped and listened to it. Upon hearing herself, her first reaction was to retract her offer to speak. However, she persisted, received feedback from her husband, and did a splendid job. She said, "That wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be."
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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