Decoding fear of failure and why we should care

Decoding fear of failure and why we should care

Fear of failure has been the number one driver to success across my corporate career. In fact, when I think about it, it’s been there from the age of 7 where I got second place in my class instead of first. Every year in primary school, other than one year where I was first equal, second was the best I could do. I remember the prize giving days vividly, wanting to achieve that first place, waiting with baited breath to have my name called out as number one – but it wasn’t. My mother saying “try harder next year and you might achieve it.”

The reality is that as we understand more about neuroscience and how our brain functions, this very early stage of development set me up in later life to be hugely disappointed when I didn’t achieve and yet I had no clue how to actually get to being first. So what we do is- try harder, do more, compare more, keep going in the hope that this time it will be enough. I never once looked back and said – wow second place that’s pretty awesome. I am super proud of what I achieved. Never!

This pattern has followed me throughout my career. Looking at what got me up in the morning, was this same anxiety and knot in my stomach to want to be the best – not the best I could be – but the best. After all, that’s what people admired – successful people were seen as being smarter, seen as being more “together” and having more opportunities open to them. It didn’t matter how many hours I worked, or what contribution I gave the organisation, it always came back to how I perceived my own success. Organisations loved it because we were star employees – known as ‘go the extra mile.’ It also had me continually look at myself when I thought I had failed and pick myself up. Every time.

Let’s look at the meaning of Fear – false expectations appearing real and failure – fail u re are two extremely strong words. I set my practice up 8 years ago because I knew I had to wake people up, reconnect organisations and do my part in resetting the world on a new path. It’s super easy to sell products and services for others but when it comes to selling yourself that’s a whole new lens. Any little niggle or lack of self belief, conviction or fear of failure comes hurtling towards you so quickly, you have to address it. You can’t hide. Ever.

Fear of failure had me put on weight purely for protection layers. Perhaps I wouldn’t stand out or be noticed – I could blend into the background… well for a while anyway. It created the number one trigger for me – ‘stress’ and this manifested itself in layers of inflammation throughout my body. Anxiety was rife throughout my stomach and I felt it every day when I knew I could have done better.

It also made it easy to set myself up for rejection – what if I wrote the truth about how things really are from my perspective – what if people didn’t like it – what if they tore it or me apart – it was like that same feeling of being back in school and being second. No one remembers who came second. It also came at a deeply personal cost with relationships – both personal and professional during the earlier years in my career.

Everywhere, whether it be working with an organisation or coaching a client I can see their unrelenting fear of failure overtake their thought patterns as leaders and how it is destroying who they are as individuals. The focus becomes ‘I am judged on what I do, not who I am.’ This has created emulated leadership and identity crisis within organisation- commonly referred to as ‘imposter syndrome’ and a whole raft of default behaviours come to the forefront in organisations.

There is now so much more research on how our brain works, the patterns and the importanc of pathways we learn at a young age. Neuroscience says that the child’s version of thoughts and beliefs trigger a reaction. The trauma of the events don’t have to be hugely traumatic as it is a child’s perception of the events which are as important as what actually occurred. “While a child’s life may not have actually been in danger, the child may have seen it as life-threatening,” says Dr. Kerry Ressler, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. At this point in time a series of learned behaviours are adopted as a coping mechanism and will be present every time they feel the experiences or stories come up to play over their lifetime.

These patterns present themselves in our workspace and create a reaction based on our safety mechanism in our pathways. This coupled with how we ‘feel’ rather than what we ‘do ‘ becomes the pattern trigger.

Alongside this, there is an undercurrent or underlying pattern in organisations that suggest failing or making a mistake is ‘bad’. We hear phrases like ‘a head will roll’ we need to find the scapegoat or abdicate any responsibility of decision making which adds another layer of complexity to someone who already has the fear of failure trigger. We are creating a fear based culture that drives a new subset of behaviours like passive- aggressive and bullying tendencies.

How did I decode my fear of failure?

Here’s my learnings. You have to get to a point of rock bottom in your mind where you just feel like there’s not one more thing you can possibly ‘do’ to make this fear go away. This is where the recovery process starts. This allows you to go back to your core of what the trigger pattern is, where it came from ( crucial ) and how you have operated with it over your life – regardless of whether you are 20, 40 or over 50 – it’s not an age pattern – it just plays out for longer if you address it later in life.

Observational Intelligence plays a crucial role in understanding this process and how traumatic it can be for some. Once I understood how much this played out in my life, from the language I used daily – the frequent use of the words ‘not, lack, or good enough’ to how I thought, interacted, completed work tasks, coped with new environments and change also played a big part. I also adopted a set of behaviours that allowed me to ‘control’ and even ‘manipulate the situation’ to allow me to keep control of my emotions. I could also judge and compare daily to reinforce my lack or worth and set up my failure.

Once this was all out in front of me and I was ok with seeing it for what it was, I was able to see how to rewire the pathway and set my brain playing a new story. Here’s the thing- I actually got to see how competent, capable and successful I actually was – it was only me holding myself back from achieving what I wanted to. This process allowed me to focus on looking at the ‘what is’ rather than what I may have perceived the story to mean or personalisation and drama.

Two years ago I left a seventeen year partnership, moved locations so my practice could continue, navigated a traumatic failing family court system and juggled quality time with my children who live in a different location.

Single at 49 years and starting all over again was part of what I needed to do to really interrupt and decode the final part of my failure cycle and create a new beginning with no preconceived understanding of what that could even look like. Putting one foot in front of the other, working to get through the day – just one day at a time was the focus.

I wrote and wrote to get out my patterns and learnings to make it part of my programme when I work with clients. The more I observed about myself, the more I see these patterns in the people I interact with today. Has it been easy? Heck no. But now I look at things from a totally different perspective.

I am uber grateful to be present, healthy and be able to do the work I love. I am looking forward to helping as many people as I can to reconnect their pathways and get them present to just ‘be’ – if we are truly present and grateful for who we are as individuals and the contribution we make on a daily basis, this is the start of being full enough.

We need to learn to fail fast as individuals and in organisations – to learn from our mistakes without personalising them. Fear of failure no longer haunts me. I am relentless in living my purpose so we can get real change. We must address social isolation, anxiety, support leaders across all sectors who are in trauma mode – struggling to get through one day. Medication is a bandaid fix in my view. It’s time to have everyone understand their trigger patterns and support them to learn more about themselves in a safe and compassionate way.

My previous mantra was ‘never done it before, bound to be good at it.’ My new mantra is ‘focus on being fearless. I am enough.’ When we are truly present to our own greatness and do the self care that come with achieving this, we have achieved.

I am deeply inspired by Brene Brown’s work ” You either walk inside your story and own it or stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness” I am now writing from heart – this is just the start. I am 51 years old – Fearless and Focused to do my best work. The next phase of my journey is beginning.


Rebecca Morris

Rebecca set up Paradigm Shift in 2011 because in her corporate career she repeatedly observed leaders choosing to let chaos reign rather than work out strategies for effective change. Or put simply – poor leadership.

With a background in educational psychology, roles as CEO, sales executive, business coach, business owner and teacher, Rebecca uses her proven experience and insights along with her practical tool box to get results.

Rebecca observes human behaviour and associated patterns and enables leaders to become present to their patterns through her IP, Observational Intelligence (OI). Rebecca uses her 'cycle of interruption' approach to interrupt, innovate and lead from new paradigms creating collectively powerful leaders and culture-safe organisations.

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