Fear is someone most of the world is forced to meet at one point in their life, and I am certainly no stranger to Fear. Over the years, we have become rather well-acquainted, Fear and I. We met in kindergarten during my first spelling test and grew closer and closer as I got older. We did everything together. When I gave a first-grade show-and-tell presentation, Fear was there. When I had my first crush in third grade, Fear was there. When I walked into my first day of high school, Fear was there. Even last week, when I took a simple biology test, Fear was there. Right by my side.
Now, Fear is clingy and overbearing and at times more than I can handle, but she also motivates me and pushes me to work harder. Fear reminds me how much I would hate to lose and how much I have to lose: she drives me to be the best that I can be. But then Fear introduced me to her lesser-liked cousin, Failure. Oh, Failure and I truly never got along. She terrified me. She taunted me and teased me and tried to make cry. She knocked the wind out of me, and when my lungs finally remembered how much they liked oxygen, she stole my breath away once more. Failure is a bully. She takes and she takes and she takes because she does not know how to give.
No one has ever given Failure the time of day and asked why she is there. No one has ever embraced Failure. She has only learned to take from the lives of others. But with the very few friends that she has grown close to from frequent encounters, she knows that she can be herself. That she can be critical and harsh and unreasonable, but that she is valuable. She teaches her friends about themselves. She shows up when needed and makes people think. Failure and I have yet to really befriend one another, but I have met her several times, and I think I am finally considering getting to know her. I usually hide from Failure, but I know that is no way to make friends.
The truth is very few people are strangers to all of the anxious feelings that surround fears and failures. We fear feeling we have not achieved what we wanted, or worse yet, we fear that when we achieve what we have spent our entire lives dreaming about, we will not be able to sustain it, and everything we worked so hard for will come crashing down at our feet. This is the root of my personal experience with anxiety and perfectionism: wanting and knowing I am able to succeed but fearing that something or someone, perhaps even myself, will stand in the way of “success.” Success is a relative term, and so is failure for that matter; however, we pretend the whole world has the same definitions. We pretend that the whole world is watching and waiting for us to be something or someone more, something or someone better. The reality is that this fear of failure prevents us from recognizing that the person that we are right now is enough.
The fear of failure plaguing our globe is known as “atychiphobia” and is often linked to “atelophobia,” or the fear of imperfection. Atychiphobia and atelophobia are considered spectrum phobias/disorders in that their severity ranges from extreme or severe to dull or mild. At some point or another, we have all been faced with a task, whether a test or a job interview or a sports competition, and wanted to perform well. We all have experienced nerves prior to these big events and wanted everything to fall seamlessly into place. Chances are they did not, but what differentiates the severe forms of atychiphobia and atelophobia from mild forms is that this fear of failure or imperfection consumes the sufferer’s waking mind, as well as heavily impacts their day-to-day functioning and well-being.
In ancient Greek mythology, there was a brilliant king named Sisyphus of Corinth that attempted to outsmart Zeus. When Sisyphus failed to do so, Zeus sent him to Hades, where Sisyphus was tasked with pushing an enormous boulder up an extremely steep hill for the rest of eternity. One day, after tirelessly attempting to get the boulder up the mountain, Sisyphus was finally successful. Until he took his hands off the boulder, and it rolled down the backside of the hill. Sisyphus began the never-ending struggle of pushing the rock to the top, reveling in victory for a second, then starting over on the opposite side of the mountain. Zeus made this Sisyphus’ task because success was impossible―Sisyphus was destined to fail.
Sometimes, we feel like Sisyphus; we feel as though we are purposelessly pushing a boulder up a mountain just so that the boulder will roll down the other side before we get the chance to enjoy our successes. However, if we can learn to revel in the process of pushing this rock up the hill, then we can learn to be happy and enjoy life. We will always be presented with challenges. We will usually find a way to overcome these challenges, and the second that we do, we are faced with more adversity. This is just the process of life. We must grow to understand that our power as people is in changing our perspective. If we look back on our lives and applaud ourselves by saying, “look how far we’ve come,” instead of looking to the future and judging ourselves by saying, “look how far we’ve got to go,” we will find peace of mind. Once we can look in the mirror every day and feel content with who we are in the moment, we will no longer fear failure, because we will know that failure is simply refusing to revel in the small successes.
A favorite TED Talk topic, a frequent New York Times op-ed, and a consistent feature in Forbes magazine, the science behind failure shows that failing and moving on from failure is paramount to the growth process. Despite failure’s integral impact on becoming a more “successful” person in general, people often assume that success always comes without any adversity. Yet everyone struggles, especially the people that end up being the most successful. Regardless of how a fear of failure has manifested itself, overcoming it is about altering one’s perspective.
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Babur, Oset. “Talking About Failure Is Crucial for Growth. Here's How to Do It Right.” New York Times, August 17, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/17/smarter-living/talking-about-failure-is-crucial-for-growth-heres-how-to-do-it-right.html.
Knudson, Tellman. “Why We All Have Fear of Failure.” PsychCentral, July 8, 2018. https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-we-all-have-fear-of-failure/.
Loder, Vanessa. “How To Conquer The Fear Of Failure - 5 Proven Strategies.” Forbes, October 30, 2014. https://www.forbes.com/sites/vanessaloder/2014/10/30/how-to-move-beyond-the-fear-of-failure-5-proven-strategies/#e1dab1e1b780.
Tsaousides, Theo . “Why Fear of Failure Can Keep You Stuck.” Psychology Today, December 27, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/smashing-the-brainblocks/201712/why-fear-failure-can-keep-you-stuck.
Winch, Guy. “10 Signs That You Might Have Fear of Failure.” Pscyhology Today, June 18, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201306/10-signs-you-might-have-fear-failure.
Megan Kelleher is a rising senior at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California. Megan's hobbies include playing water polo, thrift-shopping, collecting postcards, and baking. She has a strong passion for writing and hopes to become an international journalist one day.
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