I recently learned that fear of failure can be an actual phobia. It’s called Atychiphobia and is defined as “the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure and is particularly devastating for its effects on a person’s willingness [or unwillingness] to attempt certain activities. Persons afflicted with atychiphobia consider the possibility of failure so intense that they choose not to take the risk. Often these persons will subconsciously undermine their own efforts so that they no longer have to continue to try. ” Here’s a link to the rest of the Wikipedia entry about it.
This disproportionate fear is all too real for me. Somehow I have convinced myself that I can only fail at things I attempt and through my distorted perception, failure is more likely than not. What am I really afraid of, though?
My brain has concocted quite a story around this fear, to somehow make it normal, controllable, rational. You see, the fear it’s not necessarily that I think I am not capable of succeeding (although I do have a long history of perceived failure as evidence). It’s that when I have the option to do something, at which I may or may not fail/succeed, I would rather choose not to do anything and believe that I COULD, IF I took action, than to TRY doing it and CONFIRMING that I am NOT CAPABLE.
I do the same thing with relationships. When things get strained, I withdraw from the relationship, because it allows me to believe the other person might care about me and be open to me reaching out or being assertive, rather than trying to reach out and confirming that they don’t care about me and the relationship is over… forever.
I also definitely did this with my recovery. When I first started treatment, I was extremely resistant to any work around the meal plan. I’d been on so many diets by this time and I was convinced at this point that “diets” didn’t work and that a diet by any other name is still a diet, which included “meal plans” and “lifestyle changes.” I had convinced myself that this “meal plan” was just some double talk to get me to attempt and inevitably fail at yet another diet.
The only problem is that this was not just any other diet. This was my last chance. This was the only thing I had not tried (besides surgery, but my insurance turned me down for that twice and I’ve since realized it can be far more dangerous and damaging than staying fat). In my mind, if this diet-we-weren’t-calling-a-diet didn’t work, I had nothing left. No hope. Nothing to cling to. No future happiness (you know, the one that lies and tells you “you can’t be happy until you do x”).
My internal fight against this one last thing, surrendering to a process and trusting that it would have a positive outcome, was a mechanism to protect me. To preserve my hope. To believe that it COULD/WOULD be working, if I chose to take action. I COULD be successful, if only I would try (but when I was ready to leap, doubt and fear of negative consequences started setting in). It allowed me to spend my time thinking about WHY I was so resistant, what the block was, rather than ever finding out whether there was anything left to fight for. There is lots of other “fodder for therapy” around this block, including my father’s unrealistic expectations that I could, in fact, be perfect, if only I cared enough to try harder. He definitely taught me to believe I could achieve anything I worked at hard enough, so experiencing (what I perceived as) failure, after giving it all I could, was that much more devastating.
But it’s time to challenge this false belief that not confirming a failure, or disappointment, is not also a failure. Even if I think there’s a 99% chance I’ll fail at something I attempt, there’s at least a 1% chance of being successful. If I don’t try, I might never know that there is a 99% chance of failure, but I also don’t have the 1% opportunity to succeed. The absence of failure is not the same as having success. I would rather fail 10 times a day in recovery, to see a glimmer of progress every once in a while, than continue to blame myself for not trying.