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The Lingering Fear of Failure: An Enemy? Or a Friend in Disguise?

2-ways your inner voice puts you down (3-ways it uplifts you)


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Anirban Kar

2 years ago | 6 min read

2-ways your inner voice puts you down (3-ways it uplifts you)

Life is hard. But for the wide-eyed dreamers, it can get downright cruel.

In 2012, when Life of Pi came out, I was barely 17. Nearly the same age as Pi Patel when he got lost at sea. Yet, I was too young, too naive to grasp the layered themes and subtext. Thus, the following quote made no sense to me:

“Without Richard Parker, I would have died by now. My fear of him keeps me alert. Tending to his needs gives my life purpose.”

It came from the 17-year-old Pi. Later, a grown-up Pi (played by late Irrfan Khan) echoes the same, saying:

“Richard Parker, my fierce companion, the terrible one who kept me alive.”

It sounded dumb. The guy was stuck with a tiger in a boat. Moreover, it was nothing like those Disney fairytales. Richard Parker, the fearsome predator, went for his neck multiple times. To me, it seemed like he was better off alone. Why would he thank this creature for saving his life?

Do you know what’s funny? At the time, I could not predict what was lying ahead. Years later, I found myself voyaging into a similar journey. Ever since then, I have been sailing in the oceans of uncertainty, with my own Richard Parker on board.

No, it is not a literal sea. Nor is my Richard Parker a Royal Bengal Tiger. Instead, it is the overbearing Fear of Failure.

Again, for years, this single piece of question has been bothering me. Is my Richard Parker a fierce predator or a friend who is keeping me alive?

Here’s what I found.

Here’s How Your Inner Voice Might Tear You Down

Fear and fire are very similar. Both of them flare soft, spread fast, and come in many forms. If you learn to tame them, control them, they help you assess your surroundings. Not only that but, these elements can prove to be essential tools for your evolution. However, there is a catch. If you leave them unattended, they can burn you down.

1. Fear of failure kills your dreams

When you are too sensitive to failure, you see no point in trying. As Michelle Obama notes in her memoir Becoming:

“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.”

So is it all your mind? No, far from it! The real issue spawns from our conditioning. Robert Sapolsky is an American neuroendocrinology researcher. In his book Behave, he suggests:

we and our thoughts are more of a product of our cultural environment than our genetics.

Wait! Give yourself a moment. Let it sink in. Are you done? Good! Now, ask yourself a question. What does our culture teaches us about failure? It molds us to fear it, discard it, and be severely upset over it. And it leads to the following turn of events:

  • We associate shame with the very concept of failure.
  • So we do our best to avoid it.
  • In our vain attempt to do so, we trick ourselves into thinking that we would not fail if we don’t aim high.

That is how your fear compels you to give up on your dream even before getting started.

2. You lose the courage to get back up:

According to Healthline, fear may show up if:

  1. you have past traumas of failure, leading to devastating consequences
  2. you’ve learned to fear failing through different situations
  3. you’re a perfectionist

How does it affect you?

“If you’ve ever failed at something and wound up feeling humiliated or upset, these emotions may have stayed with you far beyond the initial incident.”— Blinkist Magazine

And these wounds drain your courage to give it another try. You ask yourself: What if I fail again?

Here’s a more relevant question here. Why do you feel the way you do?

Neuropsychologist, speaker, and author Theo Tsaousides Ph.D. propose a theory. In a Psychology Today article, he notes failures hold consequences. You deal with actual losses. So it is only natural to be afraid. However, he suggests:

“The alternative, of course, is even worse. Choosing not to pursue these goals means never giving them a chance to materialize. Fear of failure keeps you safe, but small.”

Here’s How It Helps You Survive

Seeing the ferocity of this fear, you might want to put it out for good. In an ideal world, it would be the right thing to do.

However, that is not the case. Is it?

The world around us is anything but ideal. It is chaotic, unfair, and again, it is unforgiving to people with a head full of dreams and a heart full of unchecked confidence. If not careful, it can break you.

Here’s the deal. Without a Richard Parker of our own, it is too easy to get carried away. It is too easy to be self-indulgent. It is too easy to be lazy.

Here’s how your fear keeps you from being there.

1. Fear is a protective instinct:

Have you heard of the Davy Lamp? It is a 1915 invention by Sir Humphry Davy. Miners would use it to detect flammable and toxic gas in and around the depth of interconnecting tunnels. Earlier, they used to employ canary for the same purpose.

When you learn to separate the suffering from your fear, it can serve as a canary or davy lamp for you as well.

The bottom line is your fear of fire is keeping you from mindlessly jumping into it.

2. If you don’t fear failure, you might not learn from them:

“We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes — understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.”— Arianna Huffington

None of those overcoming-the-fear-of-failure tips will work for you until you acknowledge one truth.

What would that be?

Failure is inevitable. There is no way around it. So what to do about it?

Many self-help gurus will encourage you to embrace the concept of failure. However, there is a flaw in this approach. They mistake failure for progress.

Yes, failure is a natural part of progress in life. Yet falling overly fond of it can prove to be counterproductive. You might end up committing the same mistakes over and over.

Illustration by the author using Canva

Again, failure is no fun. As we discussed earlier, it comes with substantial losses. So it is the fear of getting there again drives you to rise above it. The fear compels you to learn from your mistakes. If you don’t fear it, you lack the reason to be better.

3. It makes you take risks and jump into action:

Skip Prichard, the CEO of OCLC and the author of The Book of Mistakesquotes:

“There’s just no incentive to take risks when we’re drifting comfortably on the placid waters of Lake Status Quo. Calculated risks fuel our growth when we step out from where we are to where we want to be.”

He backs up his claims with a fitting example.

“Every parent of a teenager knows that their child will be suddenly motivated to learn how to do laundry when facing the prospect of attending a party without his or her favorite outfit. So it is with us adults. When we want to avoid a very real failure, we’re not likely to sit still.”

Richard is not alone. Former American naval officer and the author of Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink, shares the same beliefs.

A Concluding Note:

At the end of the movie, an aging Pi Patel shares some pearls of wisdom about Richard Parker.

“You know, my father was right. Richard Parker never saw me as his friend. After all, we had been through, he didn’t even look back.”

So what do we learn from it? Your fear of failure is neither your enemy nor your friend. It is an instinct, an emotional reaction to the chaotic outer world. No, it has no mind. No, it has no judgment. It is just there.

It is, after all, you who makes the call.

[Originally published in Medium.com]

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Anirban Kar

An English Literature Graduate sharing his stories of entrepreneurship, art, relationship, and many more. The Creator is greater than the Critics. Support me at: https://ko-fi.com/anirbankar


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