The fear of failure.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why some people — including someone who was once very close to me — don’t achieve the things they purportedly want to in life. I’m talking about people who have dreams or goals and don’t work toward reaching them.

As anyone who knows me or reads my blog knows, I’m not like this. I’ve been called an “overachiever” (meant as an insult, if you can believe that) and a “Renaissance woman” (which I assume wasn’t referring to my Renaissance painting full figure). I set a goal and do what’s necessary to achieve it. Sometimes I fail but, more often, I don’t. The point is, I do what it takes — or at least try to — to make things happen.

Being like this puts me at a disadvantage when trying to understand people who aren’t like this. People who claim to have dreams and goals but then do very little or even nothing to make them happen. It’s almost as if they believe that just telling others what they want to achieve is enough. They don’t follow through — and they often don’t seem to have a problem with it. Or, worse yet, they blame others for holding them back — when, in reality, the only person holding them back is themselves.

Learned Helplessness

I was talking to a friend about this yesterday and how it relates specifically to a certain person no longer in my life. This friend was also in a relationship with a man like this — a man who never managed to achieve anything he supposedly wanted to achieve. Instead, her guy relied on her to help him through life, like an emotional and financial crutch. She said the condition he suffered from was learned helplessness and suggested that my guy had the same problem.

I looked it up on Wikipedia:

Learned helplessness is the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

This didn’t sound right to me. The person I was trying to understand did fail to help himself when there were opportunities to do so, but the rest of the description just didn’t fit. I thought for a while longer about what was likely holding him back and I realized that it was probably a fear of failure.

Fear of Failure

Wikipedia has an entry for that, too. It’s called Atychiphobia:

Atychiphobia (from the Greek phóbos, meaning “fear” or “morbid fear” and atyches meaning “unfortunate”) is the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure. As with many phobias, atychiphobia often leads to a constricted lifestyle, and is particularly devastating for its effects on a person’s willingness to attempt certain activities.

A person afflicted with atychiphobia considers the possibility of failure so intense that they choose not to take the risk. Often this person will subconsciously undermine their own efforts so that they no longer have to continue to try. Because effort is proportionate to the achievement of personal goals and fulfillment, this unwillingness to try that arises from the perceived inequality between the possibilities of success and failure holds the atychiphobic back from a life of meaning and the realization of potential.

By definition, the anxiety of any particular phobia is understood to be disproportionate to reality, and the victim is typically aware that the fear is irrational, making the problem a largely subconscious one.

This describes the problem perfectly: constricted lifestyle, unwillingness to attempt certain activities, unwillingness to take risks, unwillingness to try to succeed. The sad result is indeed that the sufferer is held “back from a life of meaning and the realization of potential.”

I think a lot of people suffer from this in varying degrees. But it really depends on the person’s imagination. Someone who lacks the imagination to come up with goals worth pursuing and does not pursue goals can’t be said to suffer from atychiphobia because they simply don’t have anything to potentially fail at. But someone who does have the imagination to come up with achievable goals and doesn’t pursue them — well, what can be holding them back if it isn’t a fear of failure?

You Can Only Blame Yourself

Failure is a part of life. While no one likes to fail, there’s no reason why a fear of failure should hold someone back.

If a goal is achievable and a good plan is made to work toward that goal, why not give it a try? By weighing risks and rewards — and the potential for each — a person should be able to make the decisions necessary to move toward any achievable goal. And by measuring levels of success, failure, and risk along the way, a person should be able to determine, on a day-by-day basis, how he’s doing and whether he’s likely to succeed.

The person I’m trying to understand shared many dreams and goals with me throughout his life. I was as supportive as I could be, actually helping him with brainstorming, writing, designing, and doing web work in a few instances when he began attempts to achieve some of these goals. But in the end, he simply stopped trying, abandoning file folders of incomplete notes in favor of “unwinding” in front of a television.

Being blamed for holding him back was particularly painful for me, especially since I was working so hard to build my business so it would support both of us. I wanted badly for him to achieve the kind of self-satisfaction that I achieved throughout my life. I wanted to see him free from financial burdens so he could have the time to chase down one of his dreams and make it a reality.

Unfortunately, I would never get to see that happen.

Move Forward

Meanwhile, I’ll continue formulating goals, evaluating them, and either discarding them or chasing them down. I’m looking forward to rebooting my life in a beautiful place that I love, surrounded by friends with plenty of work to keep me busy. I’m facing the challenge of designing and building a new home that exactly meets my needs. I’m building my apiary with solid plans for producing comb honey and other bee products by next summer. I’m forging new friendships and new relationships to take me forward in my life.

I’m not afraid to fail so I’ll throw everything I have at every goal I want to achieve.

How about you? What’s holding you back?

11 thoughts on “Atychiphobia

  1. I hope this isn’t redundant. I tried commenting earlier and my comment just kind of disappeared. Me & computers. Go figure.
    This essay couldn’t have been more timely for me.
    See I am one of those people. I’ve gotten a lot better over the years, but its still a work in progress.
    I’m homeless right now. Not in a bad way. I’m sleeping on my parents couch in very nice part of southern California. I’m disabled and on a limited income so living in this nice area is out of the question. Can’t even afford a closet here.
    This morning I knew I had to get out and drive into the high desert to look at places I can afford. I had planned this day for a week. Even set up an appt. with a real estate person to look at places. But I dilly-dallied. Posted on Twitter, looked at the news, checked my email. Tried distracting myself with anything. Was so afraid to make the trip.
    Have a sort of good reason why. Last fall I thought I had found my dream place to live. A live/work space in a downtown arts district. I was over the moon. It all crashed. Either the leasing agent was the biggest liar in the world or the dumbest real estate agent there is, because after only 3 weeks I had to move out of the place due to truly unlivable conditions and a very questionable lease. It was hard. I have spine problems and should lift nothing more than 10 lbs. So I had to pay for the move in and the move out. Everything went in storage. Luckily, I had a place to go for about 6 months. But then it was mom & dads couch. Ouch.
    I’ve been so apprehensive about the hunting for housing. I got myself so worked up with “what if that lease fiasco happens again?”. I let myself be consumed by it. So this morning, I almost talked myself out of my trip to the high desert.
    I read your essay.
    Guess what? I’m in the high desert, waiting for the real estate agent. We’re going to go look at a couple of places.
    So, thank you. Your essay kicked my butt. In a good way.
    As for “what ifs”, what if I find a really cool, reasonable place to live? Right?
    Thanks :)

    • Thanks very much, Kim, for taking the time to comment. It really makes my day when I read a comment from someone telling me that I’ve helped them — with anything! Best of luck to you and your home search and your future.

      Remember, you can make it happen — if you try.

  2. I heard this quote once; “Some people make things happen, some people watch things as they are happening, some people ask ‘what happened?'” Making things happen isn’t a matter of talent, brains, money, etc. It’s just a matter of making up your mind and doing it. And yes there will be failure, and you can dwell on it or you can look at is as a learning experience and just move on.

    Personally, what I have observed is that people who watch a lot of TV seem to have very little personal initiative. I don’t know if you have observed this as well.

    • Great quote!

      Television is a time suck. Every minute a person spends watching TV is a minute he spends not doing something else — including creating, working on personal relationships, or even just THINKING. If you have to rely on a box that shows moving pictures and plays sounds for mental stimulation, you can’t have very much initiative. So yes, I’ve observed this and agree with you.

  3. Hi! I am a student at Wilcox high school who is interested in learning more about atychiphobia. I was wondering if you still had your friend’s contact so I could ask them a few more questions of their case when dealing with fear.
    Thank you!

  4. I’ve been wondering how Kim (author of the first comment) got on…?
    Kim seems to have been dealt a poor hand, but she is not using it as an excuse.

    Maria, you are clearly a driven person, I’m a bit like that too. I think family background is probably key. My parents were kind and supportive when I was young but made it clear that I should make my own way after school. The idea of coming back to sleep on their couch as an adult would have been treated with derision. Yet that outcome seems common these days.

    Of the group who started pilot training with me, 75% dropped out. I asked the CFI if this was usual, he said it was, for weekend would-be pilots like me. Like you, I was not going to let that happen. All that investment of time and money…
    But I am saddened by the lack of realism in some people who are lazy. Kids I chat to want to be helicopter pilots or doctors when they grow up. Most will struggle to be check-out staff.
    Some parents indulge these silly fantasies, that high achievement is open to all. It is not. If you lack the maths to calculate weight and balance, flying is out. If you lack the stick-ability and memory capacity to learn neuro-anatomy then forget medicine. Parents want to encourage their kids, that’s fine, but they must be realistic; otherwise they are merely postponing disappointment.

    As you say, start by throwing out the TV.

    • I’m old school: I truly believe that in order to get ahead in life, you have to work hard. (Working smart helps, too.) Sure, there are shortcuts, but most of them depend on luck and circumstance and you can’t rely on either one. In the end, the only thing you can rely on is yourself. You either make it happen and enjoy the benefits of your hard work or you don’t. But don’t blame others for your failures!

      And don’t let the fear of the possibility of failure stop you from trying.

      I agree that there’s too much laziness and too many indulgent parents in today’s world. Many of today’s kids want to postpone the responsibilities of adulthood by taking advantage of all the babying and financial support they can get from their parents. Yes, it’s true — the economy isn’t what it is when I graduated college 30 years ago. But there are still plenty of good career paths out there for young people who try hard to do what’s necessary to move forward.

      TV and social media are serious problems in today’s world. They give us the distractions we need to procrastinate and, eventually, fail.

      That’s my two cents, anyway.

  5. Atychiphobia has made a mess of my life. I only discovered the name of the hidden beast within me a few days ago. In retrospect, I’ve suffered it since high school. I am 57 years old and it has absolutely destroyed the past ten years of my life. I have lost the love of my life because she could no longer stand to be in a relationship with a brilliant, kind, charming man who was not doing anything to provide for himself or provide for a future. I have been inert, paralyzed with fear of failure. I have wonderful dreams but can’t overcome the fear of failure to even try to achieve them. And therein lies the self sabotage. I’m afraid to try and in so doing I guarantee my failure. I feel like I’m trapped in a lose-lose situation, but the reality is I’m not. That defeatist attitude is only the phobia controlling my mind. The demon whispering in your ear ” don’t try, it will be less painful than failure”

    The phobia convinces me I will fail and be left with an overwhelming feeling of shame. Without absolute confidence and complete assurance that the outcome will be successful, I haven’t tried. I can rationalize infinite logical reasons why I shouldn’t try. Not trying leaves a person rotting in desires that will never be fulfilled. I’m tired of rotting due to inertia in my own private hell.

    I have achieved incredible success during my professional career, only to see it destroyed by circumstances beyond my control and for the past ten years I have been afraid to try again. I sidelined myself during my prime earning years.

    Now that I understand what I’ve been suffering, I’m really pissed off. The frustration is maddening. The years wasted, the love lost. If only I had understood. I did this to myself.

    Failure is understandable and a natural part of evolution/progress. It is excusable. Effort alone can be heroic even in failing, yet some of us are terrified of trying even if our rational mind thinks we could do it. I can’t cure it but overcome it with small accomplishments to rebuild my confidence. And I actually welcome my next failure to see if I can pick myself up brush off the shame of failure and get back to trying to achieve the outcome I want.

    Talk is cheap. Only tangible behavior changes will provide the strength needed to hammer the fear into a manageable size. It is only fear I have fabricated, it doesn’t truly exist except in my head. I feel very confident now. I know I will defeat it. I’m tired of not having the things I want and I may still not attain them but I’m tired of being afraid, of not trying. I’m going to impress myself through effort. I’m going to earn back my self respect. I realize I can’t cure it but I can learn to control it rather than have it control me.

    I am now penniless and alone. I have to rebuild my life from the ground up while most of my friends and colleagues are nearing retirement from highly successful professional careers. I took the first step, looked for job and finally got hired. It is a part time job paying minimum wage. I had a panic attack my 3rd day on the job when I struggled with a simple task. I wanted to quit right then but I fought it off. I made it through that day and I keep going back. Every day I go to work I feel less afraid and more confident. Grateful to have the job. It doesn’t pay enough to solve my financial situation but the far great value is in helping me build self confidence and a notion that I can succeed again. I am inspiring myself, becoming my own hero. But it’s still a long road. Baby steps right now but at least I’m moving forward. All I have to do is ignore the fear and keep trying.
    Wish me luck.

    • First of all, I’m glad you found this post and I’m glad you shared your experiences. I think what you’ve written here might help other people with similar issues. I’m also glad that you’ve recognized the problem that has been preventing you from moving forward in your life. As you undoubtedly know, you can’t work through a problem until you know what it is. You seem to be on track to resolving your issues.

      I saw this problem from the outside — I really believe my wasband suffered from this. Like you, it put his life at a standstill, preventing him from following his dreams and making the life he really wanted. Instead, he took the safer route, the one with the least risk. That put him in a frustrating cycle of dead-end jobs that were not only unsatisfying, but sometimes demeaning. But rather than recognize that the problem was within his own mind, he decided to blame his failure to achieve his goals on me, claiming that I held him back. In reality, I did what I could to help him. But in his sick mind, I became the enemy and once he had another woman lined up to take my place, he left me, throwing away a 29-year relationship. The fact that he wouldn’t leave me until he’d found another woman is just more evidence of his risk-averse state of mind — he didn’t want to risk being alone for the rest of his life. Of course, this is all water under the bridge at this point. I’m sad for him. He’s 59 now and likely still reeling financially from the costly divorce he forced on us, so he’s not likely to achieve any of the goals he claimed to have while we were together.

      And I think that’s the worst part about this problem. The longer the fear consumes you, the more years of your life are lost in limbo. I’m glad you’ve taken control of your life and mind again and are working through the problem. Do you have some help? A psychologist who can talk you through your recovery — preferably without drugs? Supportive friends and family members? Even supportive people in online forums can help. Just don’t let the trolls put you down. You have the power inside you to succeed if you want to badly enough — and I’m sure you do.

      Best of luck to you. Feel free to stop by here with any future progress reports. It’s my pleasure to help cheer you on!

  6. Maria, thank you for your encouragement. I do have help. I have many blessings. I have the love and financial support of my parents. They have been enabling me for years by providing financial support. I have been their ward. I don’t blame them for enabling me but we all now realize it was misguided love. They provide terrific emotional and ongoing economic support. Without them I most likely would have become a homeless person or living with one of my grown children.

    It has been difficult to finally admit to my loved ones that I haven’t really been trying to find work. I am very much ashamed of myself. That is the fear’s victory to this point. I have been living in shame. Everyone who knew me successful has been wondering why I can’t get a job. I’ve had interviews but no offers so I quit trying.

    I have just started seeing a counselor hoping they can help relieve my anxiety and grief in losing the woman I love. I also hope they can provide me with the tools to mitigate my fears and build momentum in my self confidence.

    I have reached out to my friends that I have been avoiding for years due to self imposed isolation… too embarrassed to be in their presence, avoiding their caring interest in my job search and well being.

    I am very lucky to have a supportive family and friends. I am truly blessed. I don’t see drugs/medications as a solution to my problems but they may help get over some rough spots when my mind goes 200 MPH in a negative direction and I can’t slow it down.

    I’m just starting confront the atychiphobia while dealing with incredible emotional grief at the loss of my best friend. She stayed with me for 8 years waiting for me to reengage. I knew I was losing her respect and with it, her love. Her love for me is now gone and so is she. I’m trying to banish my love for her but it’s very difficult.

    I hope I can earn her respect back someday, perhaps her friendship and maybe even her love, but I have to focus on me and becoming whole gain for now. I need to become self sufficient, both financially and emotionally, before I can concern myself with another relationship. It will take some time to reestablish myself, but I have maintained a great sense of humor throughout my failures. Laughter is a healthy ale, simple joy is food for the soul.

    I want to get to a far better place. I’ll get there one day at a time.

What do you think?