Fear of failure – we’ve all experienced it one time or another

Beth had signed up for coaching because she was leading a transformation project fraught with politics and big egos.  Despite her experience and the faith that had been placed in her, she was concerned that she would “drop some of these moving pieces.” 

Like a lot of my clients she was afraid she might fail

Today that fear seemed close to the surface. When I asked her what she would like to think through in our session, she seemed startled.

“Well,” she said. “I guess I just want to talk it out loud…if that doesn’t seem too self-indulgent?”

The value of just talking to someone who is really listening without judgement is often a way clients begin to make sense of their jumble of thoughts and feelings.

But clients also bring their inner critics with them

I could hear her inner critic loud and clear.


Beth told me that she felt that she should just get on with it.  She was a master of planning; used to this stage…..etc….etc.  And then she was off into the detail of the project.

She really did need to talk this one through.

And it was helpful for me to listen less to the deep content of what she was saying and more to the emotions that lay beneath the words. A pattern began to emerge:

“If I don’t….”

What emerged was that Beth was afraid of stopping and reflecting. Beth was relying on her habit of keeping going, one project step at a time.  She was relying on a solution that had helped her succeed many times before.

Which brings to mind a recent post by my friend and seasoned change agent, John Stepper, who wrote about the free diver  Guillaume Néry and how his approach could help get through fear:

“There often comes a time when the goal seems so big or out of reach, that you naturally become afraid. Those are the moments when your brain, in an effort to protect you, makes you think of giving up rather than fail.

It’s at those times when, like a diver at 60 meters underwater, the thinking doesn’t help you. Instead, to reach your goal you have to calmly focus on the present moment, let go of the fear and the innate need for control, and keep moving. Inch by inch, meter by meter.”

I felt that Beth was a master of this free diving approach, yet right now it wasn’t helping her.  She seemed stuck.

Her solution had potentially become a problem for her

Up to now she’d never challenged the idea that keeping going was a more productive way to work through the fear than stopping and looking up.

So I asked her if she felt she could articulate – fantasize even – about all the things that might complete that sentence:

“If I don’t…..”

The coaching room is a safe place to consider these kinds of things

It’s like charting the course on a map, but not actually sailing there.  Beth started with the safe routes – the well-rehearsed endings to that phrase – and gradually explored saying out loud her greatest anxieties and fears.

We all need to get beyond the familiar story we tell ourselves

I encouraged her to fully imagine sailing to the edge of her known experience and to be curious about how that made her think and feel.

As I listened to Beth get closer to her fears I saw her calm right down.

I could see curiosity replace fear

She began to get creative about the challenges that lay ahead of her.  She began to generate more varied options for handling each of her challenges, rather than lumping them all together.

Facing our fears is sometimes the only way we can calm down

If we’ve relied on our Hurry Up, Be Strong, or Try Hard Drivers, we will have a hard time slowing down and taking the time to consider our true feelings and fears.  We will consider ourselves weak or self-indulgent and focus on action and output.

Action is essential but fear of failure and avoidance of difficult emotions slow us down

I’ve written many times, that what we fail to understand controls us.

So if you are on the brink – or in the middle – of trying something big, something that you care about:

Get started, start diving

But never forget to take time out to ask yourself:

“What if I looked up?”

After all, when sailors challenged those medieval dragons they found a whole new world.

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