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3 Steps to Uproot Your Fear of Failure

Failed? A psychologist explains her three-step process for using the experience to come back stronger and less fearful next time.
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'Chin up!'

'Get straight back on the horse.'

'No point in crying over spilled milk.'

We’ve all heard this sort of advice following a setback, and entrepreneurs-- given the risky nature of their trade and the necessity of multiple failures for later success--have more opportunities to hear it than most. But is the conventional wisdom that says buck up and move on as quickly as possible actually correct?

Not according to Tina Gilbertson, a psychotherapist and author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them. The popular image of wallowing may be as a self-indulgent and pointless period spent moping over a tub of Ben & Jerry’s (or is that just me?), but as Gilberstson explained recently on Psychology Today, in reasonable doses, feeling sorry for yourself can actually be constructive.  

"Constructive wallowing," she argues, isn’t simply a failure of backbone and grit, it’s an occasion for self-compassion and a chance to learn about your negative feelings and fear so you can get better at working through them. In fact, done correctly, a good, thoughtful wallow can help you eliminate the fear of failure that may be holding your back -- but you have to follow the right procedure. She lays it out in the three steps.

Get to Know Your Fear

Sure, you fear failure. Most of us do on some level. The question is why exactly? Do you think people will judge you as overly mighty or self involved if your ambitions are too large? Do you think you will be unmasked as less competent than you present yourself? "What does failure mean to you?" Gilbertson suggests you ask yourself.

Instead of hiding from your painful and sometimes irrational worries, get to know them and even write them down, no matter how petty or silly they sound. "The more you accept these feelings, the less they’ll control your behavior," she insists

"If you’re not sure what your fear of failure is about, take a cue from themes swirling around in your family when you were growing up," she adds before listing several "family values" like security, selflessness and humility that often cause people to have conflicted feelings about risking failure when they’re older.

Be Kind to Yourself

Fear of failure often has deep roots in our early lives, so getting tough with yourself and giving yourself a lecture is about as effective as yelling at a teary two year old. Showing yourself compassion is more likely to help you overcome the blocks that stop you from taking the risks you need to reach your full potential.

"Picture your fear as a reluctant child with his or her heels dug in. Children who are scared need reassurance, not ridicule. Rather than mocking him or her, try to understand what’s got that child worried," Gilbertson instructs.

Take Baby Steps

Hopefully having a good wallow, really thinking about your feelings and showing yourself some compassion (sadly, there’s no word from Gilbertson on whether that can come in the form of chocolate fudge brownie icecream) should help ease your fear of failure going forward, but Gilbertson suggests that you take things slowly as you move on from a disappointment.

"Find a path that winds toward your goal at a pace that feels do-able for you," she writes. "Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of small steps in the right direction; by the time you get there you’ll be more ready to be where you are."

Are you being unhelpfully tough with yourself when you face failure?

 

IMAGE: Alamy
Last updated: Jun 10, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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