In a mental health crisis? Call Samaritans helpline on 116 123 (UK, Free, 24/7)
Need more information or help organising mental healthcare? Call MIND’s infoline on 0300 123 3393 (UK, 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays)
Starting a company (or indeed pursuing any authentic interest or kick-starting a project in life) carries with it the risk of failure. We know this, and the more emotionally intelligent among us can acknowledge the discomfort of failure as an inevitable and important opportunity to learn. But for us more skittish (and entirely normal) beings, when it comes to finally buckling down and taking the first step, we’re paralysed by an unsettling feeling that can be tricky to overcome.
In a bid to persuade herself to persevere with the very article you’re currently reading, this author is going to try and break down a fear of failure and jot down some steps to overcome it, in order to overcome it. A ‘resilience inception’, if you will..
What does Failure mean to you?
Why do we fear failure? For many of us, undertaking a new project involves some risk to our financial security or current circumstances, and the possibility of our venture failing might jeopardise our ability to afford bills, creature comforts, or (god forbid) rent. In which case, fear is a completely understandable response to the risk of failure.
But what if our ambitions don’t put our livelihoods at immediate risk?
Failing, in and of itself, is probably not the issue here. More likely, we fear social humiliation, judgement from our peers (or from ourselves) if we were to fail. We are anxious at the terrifying possibility that those little voices in our heads that tell us that our businesses don’t deserve to succeed, our articles don’t deserve to be read, and our passions don’t deserve to be indulged - and so we just shouldn’t bother and get back to our 9 to 5 - might be proved right. In this instance, our failure is taken as evidence that we lack as individuals. That we really aren’t “good enough” after all. And so shame sets in.
What is Shame?
Shame is a pervasive and cruel emotion. It is in many ways the mother of emotions, described by good old Mark R. Zaslav in Shame-Related States of Mind in Psychotherapy, as ‘global and pervasive sense of the self as bad, defective, or deficient’ (the ‘just-not-good-enoughs’), and the ‘devalued self being scrutinized and found wanting in the eyes of a devaluing other’ (the ‘I’ve-failed-I’m-a-failure-I-knew-it-everyone-hates-me).
The tricky part about identifying and overcoming shame? Intheir book Shame in the Therapy Hour, Ronda L. Dearing and June Price Tangney point out that people don’t tend to express shame directly, as it tends to latch onto accompanying emotions such as anger, disgust, etc.. Instead, it’s manifested in defensive emotional reactions, hidden within social anxiety, self-loathing, reactive anger or hostility, despair, contempt, superiority, envy and the urge to destroy the envied, shame-based depression, and suicidal thinking.
So yeah, shame is a pretty big deal. And if you write up a plan of action to accompany your goals, think through every step, and then on sitting down to implement it you find yourself scrolling YouTube for 3 hours before getting up and eating yet another chocolate digestive and avoiding your own success. Then, well, likelihood is shame is peering over your shoulder reminding you how humiliating failure is and how you’re not prepared and probably never will be.
Steps to Tame the Shame
1. Redefine Failure
The trick to overcoming this fear of humiliation and the shame associated with failing is to understand that failing isn’t a final judgement call on who we are as individuals (unless, of course, your venture imploded because you murdered your accountant or something), but a necessarily uncomfortable lesson.
We will all fail at some point, so re-framing failure as opportunity is a trick to ensure that life’s harsh lessons don’t completely floor us. This resilience is brilliantly demonstrated by billionaire Founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely, who shares that her father encouraged her to celebrate failings and fall-backs, challenged her to redefine failure as not trying, rather than the actual outcome of her undertakings.
2. Accept you don’t matter ( - and that’s a good thing!!)
For, I hope, all of us, we matter inordinately large amounts to our loved ones and to the people we interact with in our everyday lives. But to the world, the universe and everything, we don’t - and this can be curiously liberating to acknowledge.
Brushing off any perceived judgement from others can be done with a swift sweep of humility. Curiously, while the niggling voices of negativity in our heads are often brought on by low self-esteem and a low opinion of ourselves, we can remedy them with a healthy acceptance that we are all wonderfully insignificant.
In the grip of an existential career crisis over a halloumi wrap at London Bridge station, I lamented to my sister that the world simply did not need another author, or singer, or entrepreneur, so why should I even bother?
To my inner child’s bruised ego, she agreed.
The world doesn’t need anything (apart from perhaps a means to clear the plastic from our oceans and pollution from our atmosphere). But, she pointed out, that is every reason why we should pursue the wonderfully crazy ideas that bring us joy even at the risk of failure, because if we are all equally insignificant, then we are all equally deserving of the lives we imagine for ourselves - no matter how grand or humble, and they are not reserved for only a select few. (Although, granted, we don’t all have the same means or opportunity - but that’s for another time).
3. Don’t give a f*ck
As pointed out above, shame is a serious and destructive emotion, and is intrinsically linked with how we think others perceive us. Suddenly, the crude advice ‘just don’t give a f*ck’ seems wonderfully astute.
But how do we stop caring what others think?
Approaching situations and pursuing our goals without being, as philosopher and generally chill dude, Alain de Botton puts it, ‘too attached to our own dignity’, and so ‘become anxious around any situation that might seem to threaten it’, can liberate us. If we can’t at least silence the shame monster that makes us scared of making a fool of ourselves, then we cannormalise our failings by accepting that everyone makes fool of themselves and fails at some point, and so it would be silly to place so much importance on what others might think if we failed.