“What if I fail?”
This singular thought can be debilitating, preventing you from stepping foot on the starting line or pursuing your passion. You may carry around this idea that if you fail, you’ll be exposed as the fraud you are. All those negative thoughts that you’ve had will be confirmed: I’m good enough. I couldn’t put in the necessary work to reach our goal.
This is not unique to you. Fear is the most potent and powerful motivator there is. Convincing us to drop everything we are doing and run away. It’s ingrained in us. And that’s a good thing. In reality, fear is a protective mechanism designed to keep us safe, and more importantly, alive. It’s biological roots lie in heightening our awareness, pushing us towards a stress response that leads us to fleeing, fighting, or freezing, depending on what gives us the best chance of survival.
So when we are faced with an uncertain situation– be it a game, a test, or a big presentation–our fear circuits often go haywire in an attempt to protect us. As stress researcher Bruce McEwen put it “When people feel uncertain and threatened, because of a changing internal or external environment, their brains enter a hyper vigilant status to decrease uncertainty as fast as possible.”
In other words, whenever we are faced with fear, our brain goes on a hunt to figure out how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. And in a modern context, that often means thoughts of quitting before you start. After all, the best way to make sure something doesn’t happen again is to make sure you are never in that situation.
How do we combat such a natural inclination? Do we try and fight the cortisol and adrenaline? Do we give ourselves pep talks or try to fake our way through fear? No. You embrace it. When it comes to fear, our bodies response (the anxiety and nerves that you feel) are the result of the information your brain is receiving. The environment, expectations, and context tell us whether we should sound the alarm or not. Our mind is trying to predict what our body needs.
While our hardware might be more apt at discerning whether a predator is lurking in the bushes, in the modern world we need to train it to deal with more “invisible” fears. Our brain overreacts, treating a “failure” at a speaking event as if the consequence is the same as ‘failing’ to get away from a lion. In The Passion Paradox, we discuss research from Dr. David Conroy that outlined the five common aversive fears related to failure:
- Fear of shame and embarrassment.
- Fear of losing a positive self-image.
- Fear of an uncertain future.
- Fear of important others losing interest.
- Fear of upsetting important others.
With the athletes and executives we coach, we don’t simply tell them to “toughen” up or “get over” their fears. Instead, we dig down into them. Fear is a broad reaction. The jitters, nerves, anxiety, butterflies in our stomach; those are just the sensations that accompany the biological milieu that your body is producing in anticipation of your next challenge. What we need to get at is what one of these fears is the one causing your mind to overreact? And how do we reframe that.
For example, with athletes I’ve worked with in the past, I can’t count how many times I’ve said the lines “If you fail, will I hate you? No. Will your parents disown you? No. Will your friends stop talking to you? No. All of those people will be there to support you, regardless of what happens.” Often, athletes walk around with a fear of letting down those who have supported them.
By shifting expectations and hopefully providing a dose of reality, we can ever so slightly free them up from fear. It will always be there. It’s natural. But if we can shed just a bit of that fear, we become more inclined to push the envelope, take chances, and express our authentic selves.
We go from playing not to lose to playing to win.