Mistakes cripple me 

I’m so scared of looking stupid – how can I get over my fear of failure? 

Stop trying to be perfect, says our elder. Accept your mistakes and start to appreciate yourself.


Dear EWC

Hello, I’ve never used this site before and don’t quite know how to ask this properly, but I’m going to try my best. How can I get over my fear of failure? Most of the time, I know I am more than capable of succeeding in school and in my hobbies. However, when it comes time to show what I can do, especially in school, it’s hard and I trip myself up all the time. I suffer from anxiety and depression that make me extremely nervous every second of every day and feel so awful, but I’ve been trying to make an effort to push past that. However, I’ve found I always am terrified, to the point of feeling like I’m in a crisis, when faced with any possibility of failing or looking stupid. I’ve tried to cope, and remind myself to move on from mistakes. Though I’m sure I don’t make them as often as I think, I always feel like I make mistakes extremely often. And it hurts. I’m just starting college now, in fact, I’m in the middle of my second week of my first year right now. I know it’s hard to adjust to college after high school, especially online, but I’m more terrified than ever of making mistakes. Is it common for people to not do as well at the very beginning? I’ve made mistakes on a couple of my first assignments in one of my classmates, and each one makes me feel so, so, worthless and defeated. I’m not sad, or angry, but just scared. I feel like a little child again, not the adult I should be at 18. What should I do? Mistakes are a part of life, but they cripple me.


Grandpa-Matt replies

I assume when you first came on the planet as a baby, you showed up with beautiful qualities of the heart. As youngsters, we were trusting, loving and lovable, worthy, creative, curious, eager to learn, always living in the moment, accepting, precious, and interesting, etc.

You had, and still have, all the qualities that are considered valuable in life. But what happened to us where we can’t recognize or believe all the good stuff about us? All humans need and desire is love in any form: appreciation, acknowledgment, respect, approval, esteem, recognition, regard, and being liked. You share this need with the rest of us. 

You learned to crawl, to walk, and conquer new experiences through trial and error. In the early days, how often did you miss your mouth trying to get food in there? Your failures and mistakes were taken for granted as part of learning to be a human.

Unfortunately, many of us were brought up by our parents, similar to the way dogs have been raised and domesticated. What they used was a system of reward and punishment. The prize is loving, appreciation, attention, approval, caring, hugs, etc. The punishment is emotionally withholding of those things and giving us expressions of negativity. 

 It was the opinion of parents, teachers, siblings, clergy, neighbors, etc. which shaped our image of ourselves. So, we view ourselves resulting from the views of others. An opinion is something that is invented. Mostly what we think of ourselves is a collection of what other people make up about us that we have accepted. Beginning to judge ourselves and believing the negativity leads to low self-esteem. 

When we look deeply at our fears, it is usually the fear of failure or rejection that grabs your attention. It comes from the false evaluation that you are not enough: not good enough, not capable enough, not bright enough, etc. for the folks that influenced you in your early days. Instead of taking failures and mistakes as very human and merely opportunities to learn, you used these events to punish yourself.

With your deep-set fear of failure, you will put off tackling a task not to have to admit failure or face criticism. In a way, accepting defeat in a job gives a person evidence that confirms the judgment that they are not good enough. That fear of failure is likely saying to you, and there is something wrong with me. Feeling stupid, anxious, hurt, crippled, defeated, and terrified (all your words), only adds to your (mistaken) decision that you are worthless.

The error in that type of thinking is that people haven’t separated in their minds what a person does from who they are. For example, when I consider who I am, I know that I am a bright, intelligent, and resourceful man. And I do fail in a lot of things. I can’t dance, I can’t sing, I can’t solve Sudoku puzzles and many other things. But those are things that I cannot do, yet I am not a failure as a human being. 

I sense that you live in a black and white world, with little or no grayness shades mixed in. You identify yourself as a perfectionist. Since perfection can’t happen in human behavior, this is a sure recipe for failure. We are not robots, so we use our mistakes to erode our confidence, and that is what I feel might have been happening to you.

The trouble starts with that type of thinking. We are human and cannot always act perfectly in any situation. So, we set up circumstances to sabotage ourselves because at one time or another, expectations are doomed to be violated, as we are not robots!

When you considered the best female tennis player at Wimbledon a couple of years ago, Serena Williams won 6-4 and 6-4 for the Championship. This was a most excellent performance. Did she lose any point or games? Sure, she did. She was not perfect! Yet we consider her the best. I am suggesting that you give up the idea of perfection and trade it in for the standard of excellence. Being excellent, one can miss from time to time and still be acceptable. 

Another problem we have is when we make comparisons to others. Any unfavorable comparison with another person serves one of two purposes. It makes us feel wrong or deficient somehow, or we believe that the other person is incorrect or inadequate! It is only a human failing. A rose does not compare itself to an orchid. Comparisons never produce or enhance good feelings in the heart. 

We can’t control what other people make up about us. But when we give control to others as to what we think and feel about ourselves, we lose our self-respect.      

You said, “I feel like a little child again, not the adult I should be at 18. What should I do?”                                              

  1. Give up the negative thought about yourself that you bought as a child.                                                                      
  2. Accept all errors, mistakes, and blunders as learning opportunities.                                                                              
  3. Accept yourself totally as a work-in-process.                                                                                                                 
  4. Forgive yourself for judging yourself as less than lovable.                                                                                             
  5. Raise your self-esteem. Start by reading this article on the internet.                    
  6. Remember that you are that same lovable creature to whom your mom gave birth. Once you decide that you are worthy of love, then start loving and appreciating yourself more and more. This includes recognizing and appreciating that you are good enough, that what you do is worthy of self-praise.                                                                                   
  7. Change your reality. 

The moment that you think that you are OK, then you are OK, and this is all it takes to escape the fear pattern that you have established for yourself. There is nothing wrong with you that a bit of self-appreciation will not fix. 

Best Regards,


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