Overcoming the Fear of Failing

Do you remember participating in sports tournaments during your childhood? Let’s say, a tennis tournament, in my case. Or do you remember participating in a drawing or poetry contest, or did you ever audition for a musical? If I participated in any competition, my parents would tell me: ‘Remember, it doesn’t matter if you win as long as you try your best and enjoy yourself.’ They taught me that it was important to try my best and enjoy myself, rather than winning. I never felt the pressure to be the absolute best back then, but if we skip a few years forward, that pressure had become as present in my life as the need for sleep.

I have been a perfectionist since I became a teenager. Everything I did could be better and nothing I did was enough. I did not feel comfortable around people because I was afraid I wouldn’t live up to their expectations. I was afraid to join the football team because I didn’t think I was good enough. I stopped writing stories unless I had to because I was afraid they would be bad. I was terrified of failing and it became one of the main reasons for my anxiety. This anxiety had left me dead in my tracks and stopped me from participating with my surroundings. Not only did it hinder me in the instances named above, but during university, at which I studied Creative Writing, I was afraid to speak up during seminar classes. The class often discussed a story or some other relevant topic in writing and I struggled to join in. I worried about whether what I would say would be correct or not, and at the same time, my anxiety had progressed so far that my mind had simply gone blank before I could think of anything to say. (I’m guessing this is some ‘useful’ defence mechanism designed by my brain). As a result, I barely spoke in class and as a result of this, I started feeling unworthy of attending university. I felt like a failure.

Yet, how do you become good at something? By doing it, of course. I didn’t want to give up, but my determination did not ease my anxiety. As by a chance of luck and because of my determination to keep on trying, I ended up in an extra writing workshop outside of my normal university classes. I was absolutely terrified. Why would I, who could not speak up in class, attend an extra workshop in which I’d be exposed to the pressure of sharing my work? As soon as I left my house and was on my way, I felt the urge to turn around and forget about it. Then I made it to the building, saw no one there, waited around for a few minutes and left. This had been a terrible idea but at least it was over now, I thought. Until I ran into someone that I knew who happened to be heading to that same workshop. I was forced back inside with no other chance to escape and soon enough after the lecturer arrived the workshop started.

The class consisted of six people, which really weren’t enough as I couldn’t simply disappear in the background and pretend I wasn’t there. I tried to calm myself down. My earlier attempt to escape had been a little panic attack on its own and my hands were shaking. Luckily, the first task wasn’t too bad. We were asked to write down a list of things in response to a prompt, and then to afterwards put these things into sentences. I wasn’t proud of what I’d written, but at least I’d written something. I calmed down a little until I was suddenly asked a question. If I could read what I’d written out loud and explain why I had written this?

I must have stuttered something, then gone quiet, looked around the room, down at my piece of paper and muttered an excuse to leave. I grabbed my bag and fled the building but even though I now stood under a bright expansive sky, the pounding in my head increased as if a marching band approached and was about to trample me.

I have failed, I thought. I was unable to sit in that class, join in the discussion and read my work out loud. I am unable to function in a group of people. I am unable to function as a writer. I cannot write. I am not normal. Why am I like this?

Afterwards, I thought that at the very least I should send the lecturer an email to apologise for my sudden leave. To my surprise, he wasn’t upset at all and proposed that we’d meet in private to discuss my anxiety. The idea to meet with someone in private terrified me, but I didn’t want to turn down this opportunity. So we met, drank a cup of tea and talked. We repeated this once a week for several weeks and at some point, it suddenly clicked. There is no way that you can fail as long as you try.

This single thought changed all the anxious thoughts that had been in my head. I hadn’t failed the workshop because I had left. I had done well because I had attended the class despite feeling anxious. I suddenly realised that I wasn’t a failure just because I didn’t win gold, which in this case would have been to actively participate, write a brilliant story and read it out loud. The point wasn’t to win and be absolutely brilliant today and every day. The point was to try because as long as you try and don’t give up, you’ll eventually reach a stage in which you can win that gold medal. But if you never try and give up, simply because you are afraid of failure, then you will never reach success.

Naturally, my negative thinking pattern didn’t disappear all at once. I still struggled to speak in class and when I did I’d be unable to put anything across in a coherent way. For a while, it still felt as if I was failing but eventually, I was able to reflect upon this and convince myself that I had done well for trying. When something goes wrong now or isn’t quite as good as I expected it to be, I automatically think that even so, at least I have tried and therefore I have done well. As a result, I graduated University, rather than quit and more importantly, I have become much less anxious.

However, writing is my biggest challenge yet. Even with this ideology in mind, I sometimes struggle to start writing because I’m afraid that whatever I’ll write won’t be good enough. I often have a perfect idea in my head but as soon as I start executing it, it falls apart as I can’t construct the perfect sentences right away. But writing is never perfect and it certainly has never been perfect from the start. Writing is the art of drafting and redrafting until you finally craft something that satisfies you.

Something can only become good if we keep working at it, and we can only work on it if we decide to start. I have learned that it doesn’t matter how well I perform as long as I write and keep going at it. There is no reason to be afraid of failure because I can’t fail as long as I try. Therefore, I will write that first sentence despite the possibility of imperfection. I will keep on writing until I finish my novel despite the fact that half of the draft will be thrown out. I will keep writing because I am no longer afraid of failure.

Written summer 2018

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