Roxanne knew she had a problem and needed to tackle it. Urgently. For the past three years she had been smoking close to a pack of cigarettes a day – more when she was stressed at work – and had contracted a lingering cough. Her stamina too had plummeted. Where once she could easily climb the two flights of stairs to her office, now she was panting after the first.
That was not the only problem that worried the 33-year-old. Roxanne, who is single and an expat, longed to be more productive in the accounts department where she works because she’s keen to be promoted, and buy an apartment.
‘Of course, I’d like to sort my life out and achieve those things; I’ve tried in the past, but I’ve never been successful,’ she says. ‘I set out with really good intentions, but then I have my first cigarette or I mess up at work and waste a lot of time.
‘I never save enough money to get my own place. I suspect I’ll always have to rent. I end up feeling much worse about myself than before and then, stressed out, pick up yet another cigarette. It is a vicious cycle.
‘I feel a real failure, not just someone who’s getting things a bit wrong. Now I don’t even try doing anything new, because I know how horrible and let down I feel when I fail. And I do fail. Every single time.’
Experts say Roxanne isn’t alone. She’s suffering from fear of failure, or atychiphobia, which occurs when we allow fear to stop us from doing things that can move us forward to achieve our dreams, ambitions or goals.
In its mildest form, it can be limiting; at its worst it can stop us from realising our potential in careers, relationships, finances and hobbies.
‘If we’re afraid we might not get a particular job, we don’t even bother applying when vacancies come up, and if we think we might not finish a half-marathon, we ask what’s the point in entering one and training for something that will end up making us feel like a failure,’ says British consultant Simon Gilbert, who’s also the author of Think Smart, Live Rich!
But we’re not born with fear of failure. In his book, Gilbert writes that we’re born with three basic fears – the fear of being abandoned, fear of loud noises and fear of falling. ‘The fear of failure develops as we grow up,’ he says, ‘and it’s a feeling we get when we do something outside our image of ourselves.’ According to experts, fear is adaptive because it protects us. So, the fear of falling is necessary to keep us safe.
Many fears have roots in childhood, including the fear of failure. ‘This debilitating fear arises during childhood as we absorb information from our parents, teachers and other influences,’ says Dr Sheetal Kini, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia community psychology clinic in Dubai. ‘At school, for instance, you are rewarded for answering questions first. Not being able to answer was seen as a failure.’
In time, what gets imprinted on the mind is that success is good and failure is bad.
‘Some of us learn that our parents and teachers were disappointed in us when we failed,’ she adds.
‘Also, we were made to believe that failure equals not being good enough, or smart enough, or hard-working enough. These negative meanings get ingrained in us and stay into adulthood.
‘We doubt ourselves, we experience fear, and we avoid taking a step towards our goal in the fear of eventual disappointment. But not taking a step makes us feel incompetent, which increases our self-doubt, which then perpetuates the fear.’
Dr Kini goes on to say that once an individual gets stuck in this vicious cycle, they begin to feel extreme fear of disappointment.
So how can we conquer our fear of failure so we tackle our resolutions with enthusiasm, not trepidation? Here are some tips from experts to help you.
1 Devise a secret blueprint
Gilbert says we all have a concept of who we are, and setbacks occur when we have a resolution that clashes with this image of ourselves.
‘If you work in sales and see yourself as a low earner, even if you decide you want to earn 10 times the amount next year, the idea will be rejected by your subconscious mind because you don’t see yourself as a high-earning salesperson,’ says Gilbert.
‘You need to change your mental blueprint in your subconscious until you see yourself as the type of person who can achieve those things. That means stripping out limiting beliefs like “I’ll always earn a low income”, and replacing them with powerful ones.’
Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?, suggests we write our own constitution, stick it in our diaries and update each year. It will contain our values, and outline what we stand for.
‘Some people will discover they want to leave a legacy, create a career they’re proud of and honour their marriage vows. They may find that creativity is important to them, so they should look at writing or acting rather than a medical qualification.’
2 Visualise your goal
Kelsey suggests we choose a quiet place and set ourselves an hour to time travel to 10 years in the future. ‘Picture what you want in great detail – examine every aspect of your life,’ he says. ‘What does your place of work look like? Is it a book-lined study at home, a corner office in a corporate skyscraper, or a workshop or studio?
‘If you’re working for a big international company, and you want to start your own business, picture yourself at your desk, with staff working for you. It could be you want to live in a house on The Palm in Dubai. If so, picture yourself there. Then write out your dream in the present tense with as much detail as possible.’
Keep looking at this every single day and remind yourself that that is where you want to be X years time. Having a visual representation of your dream has a greater impact on your mind and can encourage you to realise it.
3 Develop milestones
Once you know where you want to be in future, break down your steps into smaller milestones, says Kelsey.
Start taking measurable steps towards achieving your goal. If, for instance, it is to set up a business, start working towards saving up a certain amount of money every month to fund your venture. If it is a shorter-term resolution – like losing 12kg in six months – start by breaking it down into smaller goals such as losing two kilos a month. This will be easier to achieve and you’ll be able to see changes every month when you step on the scales.
‘For example, if you’re an office cleaner and you want to become an actor, in the first year, your aim would be to get a job as a theatre cleaner. Then, in year two, join an amateur dramatics group. By year three, you might have a bigger role in a play.
‘Take it step by step until you get to where you want to be.
‘If you want a house on The Palm in Dubai, by year five you should be on the property ladder in some form.
‘Resolutions tend to be all or nothing, but when we break them down into smaller steps, all we need worry about is what we’re doing today and tomorrow.’
4 Undertake a SWOT exercise
Kelsey suggests we look at our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) in relation to our goals so we can formulate a strategy and some tactics to affect change.
‘If you need to move to a company that pays more money so you can get on the property ladder, a strength may be that you have great contacts in a firm renowned for paying good salaries,’ he explains. ‘Your weakness could be you have no experience working for international companies, so that could be an area to work on.
‘Look for opportunities. It may be the company you’d love to work for in Dubai is opening up an office in Abu Dhabi and looking for staff.
‘The threat could be a business that’s pulling out of the city and you will have to ask yourself if this is the right employer for you to target.’
5 Be efficient
By setting ourselves up for efficiency, we could make good time management a habit, says Kelsey.
‘Create an office or workshop that you’re proud of, and divide your week into hourly slots – let’s say, 8am-8pm – so you make good use of each hour.
‘Make sure every action moves you towards your goal.’
6 Celebrate your success
Dr Kini says many of us experience a thinking error known as filtering – which means we focus on the negative, rather than the positive – in a situation. Eventually negative focus makes us doubt ourselves even more and increases our fear that we will fail, the therapist adds.
‘Don’t become a victim of filtering. When you achieve small successes, acknowledge them. Celebrate and congratulate yourself for the parts of the goals you were able to accomplish.’
7 Find your unique gift
According to Robert Kelsey, we all have a unique gift, but most of us don’t bother looking for it. He says we often discover our unique gift in the simplest of circumstances, such as when we’re pottering around our apartment on a Saturday afternoon.
Once we know what our gift is, if we pursue it and make it part of a goal or a resolution, or use it in our work, we’ll see results faster. ‘It might be you spend your evenings playing chess and you’re amazing at it,’ says Kelsey. ‘This could be down to being great at spotting sequencing, and looking for a job with figures might be the answer.
‘Someone who spends hours watching news bulletins might be interested in journalism or politics, while watching soaps all evening could suggest a person is interested in narrative. ‘An interest in or knowledge about theatre could lead to a career as an agent, producer or a writer, or work in costumes or lighting.
‘It doesn’t have to be the obvious and often it isn’t.’