Whenever we do a survey of people on our mailing list, asking them to list the biggest problems they face, the most common answer is always a fear of failure. One common way that fear manifests is through procrastination, which is the third most common problem listed. In other words, people don’t take action because they are afraid to fail.
But what’s wrong with failing? Why does it cause fear? And why would a fear of failing stop us from taking action?
What is fear and what causes it?
Fear is an emotion that results from a perceived threat to one’s survival, which makes fear very useful in letting us know when our very survival is threatened. But, I hear many of you asking, why do we feel fear when we have to give a public talk, or start a new project, or ask someone out on a date? There is no real threat to our survival in these and other similar situations.
These any many other events produce fear because of beliefs and conditionings formed earlier in our lives. Let me explain.
We experience so many things as a threat to our survival, that aren’t really a threat, because of our beliefs and conditionings.
If as a child we form the belief Mistakes and failure are bad, “bad” is whatever mom and dad don’t like. Their annoyance or angry is how we learn that certain things are “bad.” And if we didn’t do what mom and dad wanted, we clearly had made a mistake or failed. We not only learned that certain behaviors are “bad,” because mom and dad were annoyed or angry, we concluded that they were withdrawing from us, which meant If I make a mistake or fail, I’ll be rejected.
As a child we realize, consciously or not, that our survival depends on our parents. So if we do something that gets them upset or angry, there is the sense they are rejecting us, which means we could be abandoned, which means our survival is threatened.
Once we make the association as a child between mistakes and failure and survival, and form the beliefs Mistakes and failure are bad and If I make a mistake or fail, I’ll be rejected, making a mistake or failing—or even the possibility of making a mistake or failing—leads to some degree of fear.
Other beliefs formed earlier in life that can cause fear later in life
As I’ve explained in detail in prior posts, if you form the beliefs I’m not good enough and I’m not important (which a majority of people seem to) as a child, you leave your home for school at about six years of age and start interacting with other adults and many peers. You soon have the sense that you are going to have to make it in the world with all these other people. But because you have concluded you are not good enough or important, you have a sense you will have a hard time making it in the world. That will cause anxiety.
Let me explain why. Physical pain is a symptom of an underlying malfunction of the body. It is a sign of a dysfunctional physical/body state. It is a signal that there’s something wrong with the body, a potential threat to the survival of the body. Mental pain, which is experienced as negative emotion, is a signal there’s something wrong psychologically. It is a signal that we either are being threatened directly or that our efficacy (our ability to deal with threats) is being impaired, which results in a feeling of powerlessness. (See http://www.mortylefkoe.com/why-negative-emotions/# for more information on the source of all negative emotions.
As a result, negative self-esteem beliefs can cause fear because we experience our ability to survive is impaired.
When people form negative self-esteem beliefs and feel anxious, they usually form a “survival strategy,” which is something they think they can do that will make them good enough, important, etc. Some common survival strategies include having others think well of them, being successful, doing things that others can’t do, taking care of people, etc.
But once we say that our “okeyness” is a function of anything outside our control, any time we are unable (or think we might not be able) to achieve what we say makes us okay, we feel anxious. (See an earlier post for more details on survival strategies: http://www.mortylefkoe.com/act-compulsively/#.)
Conditioning also can cause anxiety
I’ve explained in detail how conditioning takes place in earlier posts, but here’s a quick summary: It is possible for stimuli that normally don’t cause feelings to get conditioned to cause feelings. (For more details on stimulus conditioning, please see http://www.mortylefkoe.com/lefkoe-method-part-1/#)
Here’s an example I use with my clients that will make this very clear. Imagine that I handed you an ice cream cone with one hand and made a fist with my other hand and drew it back as if to hit you. What would you probably feel? … Some level of anxiety if you thought you might get hit. Now imagine that the next few times someone handed you an ice cream cone, the same thing happened and you felt anxious each time.
What do you think you would feel the next time you were handed an ice cream cone, even if there was no menacing fist? … Probably anxious. And yet it’s clear that ice cream cones are not inherently scary. If this next time there were no fist, only ice cream, why would you feel anxious? Because the ice cream cone got conditioned to produce fear when it became associated with the fist. Something was scaring you (the fist) and ice cream just happened to be there every time the fist scared you.
If early in life every time we were criticized or we didn’t meet expectations our parents got annoyed or angry with us, their anger produced the fear and these other events (which just happened to be present when something else was causing the fear) got conditioned to cause fear also.
Unfortunately the type of events that many people conditioned to produce fear when they were children occurs with some degree of regularity for adults.
How to deal with your anxiety
One of the most common ways that people deal with their fear is to avoid the situations that seem to cause the fear. As a result people avoid public speaking, procrastinate doing all types of activities, and resist doing anything that might fail. Unfortunately, this “solution” results in people missing out on much of life.
Another common way people deal with their anxiety is to take drugs. There are millions of prescriptions issued every year in the U.S. for anxiety-reducing drugs. Apart from all the potentially serious negative side effects of these drugs, they only deal with the symptom; they do not address (much less eliminate) the source of the anxiety.
If there is a real threat to your survival, deal with the threat as best you can and be happy that the anxiety warned you of the threat. But if most of your anxiety is caused by beliefs and conditionings and is not caused by real threats, eliminate the real sources of your fear.
Despite what many people think, living with anxiety is not part of human nature. It is possible to stop fearing failure. It is possible to stop your procrastination. What are you waiting for?
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