Fear of Failure (On Getting an ‘F’ and Not Letting It Stop You)

Monica George, Contributing Writer

I want to discuss a topic that is, for many (including myself ), a source of shame, shrouded in secrecy. But it shouldn’t be. What I went through last semester was made easier by those who have gone through similar experiences. Please feel free to contact me with your own stories, thoughts and reactions.

In psychology, fear of success was once described as a mental obstacle experienced mainly by women. I was reading a few studies done in the ’70s in which college women were diagnosed with a fear of success if they equated any sort of academic success with a loss of femininity. Though this is a dated study and an old-fashioned way of thinking, I boiled it down to an insecurity inhibiting women from “letting themselves” achieve success. What’s interesting is that they don’t feel they are incapable of achieving success. What’s stopping them from pursuing employment in a more competitive field is their belief that a successful career will negatively affect their love life.

Though psychologists and scholars may insist that the root of women’s fear of success comes from a fear of no longer appealing to the opposite sex, of making a potential mate feel inferior, of becoming less attractive, I’ve been noticing that today, this fear of success is no longer gendered. Consider this: the modern student’s fear of success is simply rooted in the insecurity that they will find they cannot actually achieve success, that it is better to give up or not try their hardest rather than do their best and fall short.

This is more appropriately called “fear of failure.”

I failed a class last semester. A class that, unlike math or science, should have come naturally to me. Failing was everything I feared it would be: humiliating, deeply demoralizing and completely discouraging. I spent weeks reassessing myself — wondering if this grade spoke a truth about who I am that I’d been trying to avoid my whole life.

I want to talk a little about the self-deprecating voice that gathered steam during this time. We all have one. A variation of my formerly friendly and inspired conscience was telling me these horrible lies convincing me with “proof ” that they were true. This voice can be wildly destructive. It can also be successfully ignored 99 percent of the time when we are faced with acceptance, love, success… an “A+.” The other one percent of the time, all it takes is one rejection for the voice to overrun your thoughts.

In the weeks before I received any explanation — the grade having come as a complete shock — I came to deal with the “F” by blocking out the experience altogether, forgetting my research and the process leading up to it. I just ignored it the way you might walk past or ignore a person you’re afraid to confront. The idea of rereading the essay seemed so excruciatingly painful that I continuously allowed it to be put off another day, thereby circumventing the trauma. The idea of facing any part of it filled me with fear and dread.

While sitting down to discuss the “F” with my professor and my advisor, I compared the grief I felt over this failure to the sadness I might feel over the death of a pet. A pet I hadn’t spent a lot of time with and with whom I never had the chance to bond. It could have been an old dog brought to me in a state of quick decline and who, sadly, only added to my exhausted resentment as it approached its final days; a resentment that I denied feeling at the time. I unknowingly directed my resentment toward the work and responsibility this old dog required, making it all appear so burdensome that I had nothing left to give. Then it died.

And I was shocked because I’d been in denial about my obvious failure to put any passion behind my project.

Once my advisor disproved my initial conviction that the F had been a mistake, I fell into a state of deep fear and guilt. Searching for my mistakes and finding them everywhere, I felt I didn’t belong at Oberlin, and I had been accepted by some mistake. Now, finally, the faculty were uncovering this horrible secret that I had hidden so well. Deep down, I was a failure — incompetent, inept, incapable of success or work. “How had I made it this far?” I kept asking myself as I retreated farther and farther into a state of submission to the voice telling me I was good for nothing. This depression became mixed with anger when I’d speak about the failure to friends and family. I insisted that it was unjust, that I’d done what was required of me and that the professor who marred my transcript without a second thought was horrible and inconsiderate.

After the long-awaited and initially grave meeting in which my professor gave me a comprehensive and respectful explanation, everything began to make sense. I was able to tell him, “Though it’s sad, I accept the grade you’ve given me. You clearly have put a lot of thought into it, and it’s unfair that we can’t go back and do things better, but the decision you made, you made with honesty and integrity. I’m okay with that.”

I am.

I was initially humiliated and demoralized by this unfortunate result, but I accept it now — not as a measure of my intellect or aptitude but as a challenge from which I can learn. This “F” isn’t for Failure; it’s for Freedom. As corny as it sounds, I’ve gotten the “F” that you’re all afraid of getting, and it hasn’t stopped me.

So to the women 40 years ago who were afraid to achieve more, and to the women and men today content to achieve less, I say go ahead and fail. Liberate yourself from the confines of a fabricated womanhood or the debilitating need for control and perfection. Most of all, don’t let your failures dictate who you are or what you’re capable of. Once you manage to accept and overcome the first “F,” that insecure voice in your head gets just a little bit quieter as the learning process it took to get past it allows you to raise your sights for success just a little bit higher.