If you love goal-setting as much as I do, you know how exciting it feels to sit down with a fresh planner and a hot cup of tea to map out your amazing new life. And if you love goal-setting as much as I do, you likely know how frustrating it feels to find yourself sabotaging your amazing new life every chance you get!
I always used to wonder why I couldn’t follow through with my plans and I spent hours and hours scouring Pinterest to find the answer. I searched for planning tips and organising tips and productivity tips, all in the hope of figuring out why I couldn’t make myself do what I truly wanted to do.
But it wasn’t until I realised I had failure all tangled up with my self-worth that I was able to stop self-sabotaging. The problem wasn’t anything to do with planning or organising or productivity (which btw took me years to figure out), the problem was that I was hellbent on avoiding failure.
Now this may sound like a good thing. When failure isn’t an option, we’re more likely to succeed. Right?! Wrong. Because I saw failure as a reflection of my (lack of) self-worth, I wanted it to be removed as a possibility completely. I shrunk my world. I only did things that were guaranteed to succeed and the moment it looked like I might fail (or do something imperfectly), I abandoned it altogether. To me, it was better to fail on purpose than to fail because I’d tried my hardest (simply because it was less uncomfortable in the moment).
If I learned anything this year, it’s that fear is a normal part of life (I was not pleased about this realisation). And that life sucks when you let fear win. Which is all well and good. But fear can be so damn sneaky that we don’t even realise it’s ruling our lives. We tell ourselves stories and make excuses to justify our inaction, and they’re good. They’re really, really good! In fact, they’re so good that we can get to the point where we have NO idea we’re self-sabotaging.
So in this blog post, I’m going to share some of the most common (and sneakiest) ways that fear of failure can show up in your life and illustrate with examples from my own. I hope you find it helpful!
1. You shrink your world
One way that we can manage our fear of failure (i.e. our fear of shame and humiliation) is to shrink our world so that we only do things we’re good at, things we can get good at quickly and things that are socially acceptable to be ‘bad’ at (like dieting). By shrinking our world, we can feel successful without having to leave our comfort zone and risk rejection. The problem is that while it feels safe, it’s not satisfying. And by shrinking our world, we forgo opportunties to be challenged, to learn, to grow and to have a bigger impact on the world.
You might convince yourself you don’t want a boyfriend so you can never be rejected. You might delay a creative project so you never have to be bad at it. You might procrastinate on job applications so no one will ever say no. Here are just a few of the ways I shrunk my world in the past:
Before I started highschool, I was told by a friend a year older that the highschool netball team was really hard to get into (suprise, surprise – she hadn’t been selected). Even though I’d played netball since I was 8 years old and had always been in the top team, I didn’t even try out. I had convinced myself that it wasn’t worth the effort so that I wouldn’t be rejected (few years later, I tried out for the highschool netball team and I got in the A team).
When I was in my second last year of uni (I have a dual degree in law and finance) applications opened for vacation work but I didn’t put in a single application. Even though I really wanted vacation work, I was terrified that my application would be rejected so I procrastinated and told myself the usual ‘too exhausted too busy’ story. It was only when I spoke to the uni career counsellor about my options (a real sense of urgency kicked in later that year) that he told me to pull myself together and get those applications done (following that much-needed reality check, I did the best I could and ended up with numerous offers).
I’ve been blogging for four years now but it hasn’t been until the last three months that I’ve published blog posts consistently. I used to believe that I struggled with motivation, but really I struggled to open myself up to the possibility that people wouldn’t like my writing and they wouldn’t like me. To avoid rejection, I didn’t tell any of my friends or family about my blog and I only published the blog posts when they were perfect (which meant they sometimes took months and were no fun to write). The sad thing is that I withheld my contribution to the world and I didn’t allow anyone the chance to love and be helped by my writing either.
Hopefully, you can see that saving yourself from failure actually requires you to fail on purpose and limits your contribution, satisfaction and success. If you can relate to any of the examples I’ve just shared, it’s time to start doing things that make you feel uncomfortable, doing things that could end in rejection and doing things you’ve been procrastinating on. Don’t expect it to feel good and don’t expect to stay motivated. Know that your primitive brain will freak out on you and that’s ok. It will not be comfortable, but neither is the alternative.
Action: Identify one area of your life that you have been keeping small and make a plan to step into new possibilities, rejection included!
2. You wait until the ‘perfect’ time to start
Another way to manage fear of failure is to believe that there will be a ‘perfect’ time to start. In my experience this kind of thinking is usually coupled with an all-or-nothing mindset, which is the mentality that if something isn’t perfect then there’s no point doing it at all (yep, abandoning habits and goals is just another sneaky way we protect ourselves from the pain of failure).
You need more free time before you can start a blog. You need the holidays to be over before you can workout. You need Monday before you can start eating healthy. You need to be confident before you can start a YouTube channel. Here are a few of the ways I’ve waited until the ‘perfect’ time in the past:
I’ve loved podcasts for years and in my third year of blogging, I began to entertain the idea that perhaps I could start my own (because you guys starting requesting it – thank you!). But I didn’t start – I needed the perfect format, I needed the right equipment, I needed to know people would definitely like it. I let myself indulge in indecision and confusion for about a year before I f inally bit the bullet and started The Smart Twenties Podcast.
Between 2014 and 2015, I attempted Kayla Itsines Bikini Body Guide no less than five times! My first attempt started on a Monday (of course) and I proceeded to do Week 1 to 4 perfectly. But because I wasn’t seeing results (how embarrassing) I self-sabotaged at Week 5 (i.e. I made ‘legitimate’ excuses not to do it) and then I abandoned the program altogether. I waited until the ‘perfect’ time and then went back to Week 1. But the same pattern repeated – again and again and again. My need to complete Kayla’s BBG perfectly (so I could avoid the feelings of failure and shame) and impatience for results meant that I never actually finished it on any of those 5 attempts. Had I just picked up where I left off, and completed it imperfectly, I would have been much fitter and felt much more accomplished!
Hopefully, you can see that waiting until the ‘perfect’ time is not a winning strategy. If you can relate to any of the examples above, it’s time to create a deadline for getting started (one that’s not too far away) and to stick to it! There will always be obstalces and ifs and buts. The ‘perfect’ time never comes, you have to create it. And you can create it anytime you want.
An example of when I haven’t waited until the ‘perfect’ time is when I started my daily vlog, 365 Days of Personal Growth. I had the idea for an unedited daily vlog documenting my personal growth journey and literally started it the next day using my iPhone (which I already had). At the time of writing this, I’m nearly at Day 100. And I can guarantee you that I’m much better at vlogging after doing it for 100 days than I would be if I’d thought about it for 100 days. I gave myself permission to be a beginner and allowed myself to grow.
Action: Identify one area of your life where you’ve been ‘waiting’ until the perfect time to start and make a plan to get started asap with what you have available. Be honest with yourself and call yourself out if you find yourself saying ‘ when X happens, I’ll be able to do Y’. You can do Y this week, you just have to be willing to feel discomfort and be a beginner. There will never be the perfect time.
3. You procrastinate
One of the sneakiest ways that we can manage fear of failure is procrastinating. Obviously, procrastination does not protect against failure itself. But it does protect us from the pain of ‘true’ failure because it gives us an excuse. If we procrastinate and then fail, we can console ourselves with the story that we would have done better if we tried our hardest (and it’s beside the point we never try our hardest because we’re scared it won’t be good enough!).
I used to do this all the time when I was at uni. The truth was, I was scared of the hopelessness and humiliation I thought I would feel if I studied my hardest and it wasn’t good enough. So instead of studying super hard, I told myself a story called I Work Better Under Pressure and left everything until the last minute I could. This was extremely stressful but it also gave me an out – if I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped, I could let myself believe that I would have done better if I’d studied more. And, of course, if I did do well – it gave me further evidence for my little story about working better under pressure!
Another way that I used to do this (which was super sneaky) was with waking up early. Before I was in the habit of waking up early (which btw doesn’t mean it feels natural and effortless or that I spring out of bed) I used to stay up late and fluff around, which often meant that I was simply too tired to wake up early. It took me forever to see that this was self-sabotage – I was scared that I’d try my hardest to wake up early and I wouldn’t be able to do it (or I would and my day wouldn’t be as productive as I’d imagined) so I stayed up late as an excuse. That way, when I failed to wake up early it wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough – it was because I stayed up late! So sly and so common amongst my readers too.
Action: Identify one area of your life where you’ve been using procrastination as a way to stop yourself from ‘true’ failure. Write down what procrastination is costing you (to increase your awareness around it) and call yourself out on it when it’s happening.
And if you struggle with procrastination, or anything I talk about in this post (because it’s all super related), you might like to find out more about my online course Get Out Of Your Own Way.
Get Out Of Your Own Way is a self-paced video course that gives you the tools and mindset shifts you need to stop procrastinating and follow through with all your plans (even if your life is totally overwhelming and you have no idea what you want to do)!
I’ve tried hundreds of different things to stop self-sabotaging and in the course, I walk you step-by-step through the handful that will have the biggest impact on your life! If you’re ready to make a change and want me to guide you through the first steps, click here to learn more about Get Out Of Your Own Way!