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.
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.
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?