It’s Not Exactly Fear of Failure

There’s this question that keeps coming up in therapy. It’s part of my therapist’s school of thought (which, if you’re interested in the minutia, is Individual Psychology). She asks me it every week.

What is your greatest fear?

I’ve never actually answered it. I’ve had different reasons, like “I’ve never really thought about it.” and “I have a lot of fears, not just one big one.” (the I Don’t Have A Favorite Movie defense) and “Can we talk David Lynch movies? Those scare me.” And so on. Today she asked me again. For the first time an answer came to mind. I didn’t say it out loud, obviously, because why would I talk about it in therapy when I blog it instead?

(Ok, in seriousness, I just didn’t know how to say it, and figured I’d have an easier time doing it where I had a shot at a second draft. I’ll talk about it in my next session.)

Underneath the self-deprecation and seeming lack of esteem in myself and my abilities, I’m a bit of an arrogant SOB. I have high expectations of myself, a sense of higher purpose driven by the belief that great things are possible. It’s not something I like to show publicly (which is part of the reason I like to take myself down a peg in front of others), but I swear to you it’s there, and it’s got strength. I’m capable of success, damn it, and no one can stand in my way!

And yet.

What if I’m not?

What if all the work, all the effort, all the days spent typing words on this keyboard and taking feedback and finding readers and outlets for publication is for naught? What if, when all is said and done, I wasn’t half of what I thought?

What if I’m



Good enough?

What if I never will be, no matter how hard I try?

That’s the other edge of the sword. That’s the bleeding cut that can come from believing in something you haven’t proven yourself capable of. The fear that you’ve been deluding yourself. The fear of being wrong. Of being less than you told yourself you were and led others to believe.

Maybe that’s it. My big fear. The horrible possibility I let rejections, setbacks, real and perceived negative reactions, and my own dissatisfaction prove. That, in the final summation, I might be so, so wrong about my abilities.

I promise I didn’t post this as a beg for sympathy or affirmation. I’m not even saying I actually believe I’m less than I hope. Remember: I think pretty highly of myself when no one is looking. I’m trying to answer a question I’ve been avoiding for months. As long as a fear goes unspoken and unnamed I have no power over it. No way of keeping that edge of the sword from cutting and cutting and cutting.

I don’t know if that’s my greatest fear or not. It’s a pretty damn great one. If I’m being honest (and if I can’t be honest with the Internet, who can I be honest with?), I don’t really know how to fight it. At least next week I’ll have an answer when my therapist asks. Baby steps still keep you moving forward.

Until then it’s back to arrogance masked by self-deprecating humor. A man’s got to have a shtick.

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11 Responses to It’s Not Exactly Fear of Failure

  1. Carissa says:

    My biggest fear? That I will be successful. And won’t be able to handle it. And will then, in turn, fall harder than I’ve ever done in my life. Do you have any idea how many unfinished projects I have in my life? I can’t even count. I get *this close* and run like hell in the other direction. How screwed up is that?

    You try. You get out there. That’s the battle. You’ve conquered a huge fear. I hope you can see that.

  2. Lauren says:

    Get out of my head.

  3. QuoterGal says:

    “I promise I didn’t post this as a beg for sympathy or affirmation.”

    Let’s take this part as read, then. You’re surrounded here by friends, and at the very least, a ton of folks who want to finish reading Broken Magic. So I’ll skip the “you’re awesome” bit, because you just are.

    There’s another part of the fear of success/fear of failure, Big Ego/Little Ego conundrum – at least, I’ve found it to be true: letting yourself want stuff. Because admitting you want something allows for the possibility of not getting, which is all yearny and painful and stuff. Sometimes we prefer not to want stuff, because – in the immortal words of Pork in Gone With the Wind – “Asking ain’t getting.” Which our fears tell us can suck worse than not wanting at all.

    Of course, it’s not really true – not wanting does so much more harm than wanting & striving and maybe not getting – because the former leaves us in a little undeveloped frozen-y chrysalis state, and the latter gives us either what we want, or the experience of working towards something, and the change that happens to us because we’ve done it, whether we “succeeded” or not.

    One is not living your life, and one is. It’s all an experiment, anyway… one that, in a sense, we’re gonna fail at, because just when we get good at it: it’s over. Which, you know, suckage in the biggest sense. But: that’s just a built-in term of the Experiment.

    Letting yourself want and go for stuff makes a life lived, and it beats the hell out of not feeling that passion – which is kinda Death While Living.

    Crap, end sermon. But: tell your Feary Self you’re gonna want what you want when you want it, goddamnit. It puts you a whole lot closer to getting it than not wanting.

  4. What do you want?

    You can’t control success.

    You can control output.

  5. Carrie says:

    I think we all feel this way. Terrified that we aren’t as good as we think, afraid that one day we might just have to accept it and swallow the bitter taste of “failure” when we were so damn sure of ourselves (at least …mostly sure). I think if you have the drive and the will and the talent you will be successful. Of course I want to believe that as much as you.

    But hell, if 50 shades of Grey can be published and make money…than I have to believe that a writer of YOUR caliber can be too.

  6. Brian says:

    I agree with nearly everything that’s been said here, but I have a little bit different take FWIW. Look, That side of you that knows you are awesome: is really important, is right when he says great things are possible for you, is also kind of shallow.

    There is a depth and importance to the self-doubt side of you. He’s like Two-Face. HEADS, you don’t take that chance because maybe (wrongly) you think you’re not good enough. TAILS, you rethink a decision that you made hastily, rather than rely on Arrogant SOB. HEADS, you are frozen by indecision and doubt. TAILS, you examine your motives and discover *why* you’re hesitating so you can get past it with a better outcome. HEADS, you continually rewrite things in your head long after there is anything you can do about it. TAILS, you *learn* from the continued process of revision, go back to that 1,000th edit reading because this baby hasn’t been born yet and it’s not crunch time, yet.

    Arrogant SOB and Two-Face are both important. You are learning to teach them balance. At their best, they both push you forward. Just don’t forget, ASOB runs the show.

  7. Rachel says:

    First, I’m seconding every single thing Quotergal said.

    Next: one thing that I think is important to remember is something I think we touched on a while ago on Skype – that everybody has different measures of what makes them successful. This is true in writing, this is true in therapy, it’s true in life. You make such a good point, re: therapy, in that baby steps are still steps. This is also true in how we perceive ourselves as artists. Sometimes, because you’ve been blogging so long and we’ve been working together for such a long time, I forget that our resumes in that regard are slightly different. And it’s part of why I’m so glad you’re finally moving into the mode of taking Broken Magic to a self-pub place: it’s a move forward. It’s a thing that will be done. You did a blog about “Always be closing” many moons ago, to me this step of self-publishing BM (oh god, I can’t actually call it that, can I?) is you taking another step toward closing in on your writing goals.

    No shit, that’s gonna be scary.

    One of the things I think about a lot when I think about writing and the internet and selling my writing on the internet is the idea that people will buy things because they understand what I’m giving them. Short stories and films and plays are not the same as blogs and tweets, but my god, can the ideas I explore on my blog and in my conversations with others online contribute to how they perceive me as an artist. My dad had a good point, many years ago, when he said my reason for not having a website – “I can’t design it the way I want it to be” – was a dumb reason not to have a website. (To be fair, “dumb” is my word, his was more articulate.) “You’re a writer,” he said. “The words are the important part.” That lessens the pressure somewhat: I know how many people read my blog, I know how many people talk to me on Twitter, and I know they’re going to see something that represents how I see the world when they crack open something I’ve written. It’s not the same as having a play on all the time, and it’s not the same as running a television show, but right now, for me, success means being read. And I can verify that’s happening. So I’m good on that front. And some people aren’t going to like what I have to say, and some people will be dickheads, and other people will say they like what I do but have an ulterior motive for doing it and, say, return a book of mine they’ve purchased because I personally didn’t live up to their expectation.

    But that’s on them. That’s their expectation. That’s not on me. And so far, it’s only happened once. ;)

    In some ways, I guess, this carries over to therapy, and to life: “I can’t do this the way I want to be able to do this” isn’t a reason to give up on anything. In my case, “Motherfuck, this shit is taking a fucking long time to get through and sort out and be in a good place with,” isn’t reason to give up on the process or the idea or the goal or on myself as someone who can and will eventually be “successful” at this therapy thing.

    What’s success, anyway? It’s different things to different people. To me, success is being able to have a roof over my head and food in the cupboard and buy pretty stupid things like shoes and bags and new t-shirts, but mostly it’s being able to write as much as I can about things I love. You know what my ambitions were like at 15; these days they’re radically different.

    So now we bring in the idea of adaptability. Change. Letting go of ideas that don’t work and finding ways to bring new behaviors in and let ourselves be successful. (Carissa, your comment about self-sabotage plays in here, too, if you see this comment.) And that’s scary and frightening as well, because, as Sare has demonstrated for me, we cling to the things that we’ve developed as survival instincts and it’s really fucking scary when we start to let them go.

    So if not knowing if you’re good enough is your greatest fear – and you’re right, it’s a huge one, whatever it is – my advice would be that that means you’re Doing The Right Thing because being successful is, as Carissa says, pretty goddamned terrifying in and of itself. It requires you to move out into a place and say “Look at me and take your aim and do your worst, because I will still be here and I’ll still be writing.”

    I’m going to stop brainvomming all over your blog now, and leave you with a quote from Al Franken:

    “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

    Rinse and repeat. :)

  8. Mere says:

    So basically you’re a writer.

  9. Christopher says:

    I get it. But I’m also into believing my talents into existence. And I think that how you’re putting up the fight, getting your stuff out there, changing the rules of engagement is one of the ways to do this. And the arrogance.

    There is no real success for a writer–otherwise at some point we’d quit writing because we’d have exhausted what we have to say. And though I don’t believe it’s possible to be truly successful, I’m sure as hell going to break some faces trying to get to that point. Maybe it’s the kung fu talking (and maybe it’s the slogan from Angel), but even though the battle can’t be won, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight. It’s scary, but it’s also awesome.

    So be afraid, but also, keep being brave, b/c it’s a light for us.

    Sorry for the battle speech rambling.

  10. Eric says:

    Huge combined reply inbound. Duck and cover! (I need a blog theme that threads replies. Or to rebuild this one so that it…no Eric, you don’t need another project!)

    @Carissa – I absolutely understand that fear. Though I’ve been enough of an egotist that the fear of success usually sets in *after* I’ve achieved something. Then it’s all, “OH DEAR GOD I CAN’T DO THIS,” near panic attacks kept internal only through the power of my ego’s refusal to be seen as weak. I have problems.

    @Lauren – Be glad it wasn’t the other way around. It’s weird and funhousey in my head.

    @QuoterGal – That fear of letting yourself want something…I don’t think I have anything to add to it except yes, absolutely, that’s the safe-feeling path to misery. Letting go of wanting something, or giving yourself permission to stop wanting something…it goes to bad places. Worse places than not getting something.

    @Brent – I want success, too!

    @Carrie – Thank you for the kind words. in the end, the real problem with this fear is that you let it convince you that success might not be possible without ever deciding what success is. So that fear can just keep moving the goalposts back forever, and no matter how well you do, it never feels like you’ve made it anywhere.

    @Brian – Even if your comment wasn’t funny, true and insightful, I’d give you a million gold stars for calling my fear Two-Face.

    @Rachel – I’ll see you on Skype for round 2.

    @Mere – No idea what you’re talking about. None at all.

    @Christopher – To never achieving real success, but achieving mostly real success and breaking faces along the way. Keep being brave and fighting, yourself. I love everything you’re doing right now. And I love battle speeches, too. The fortress level awaits.

  11. Claire says:

    I’ve been listening to Tina Fey’s BOSSYPANTS, and she’s got a great anecdote that boils down to “I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it.” Meaning: keep doing your thing and don’t waste even one second on the naysayers. Well, this could also be applied to the naysayers in one’s head. Forge on and recognize (as you are in the process of dissecting) that the “doing” is the ultimate conqueror over “failure.” ;)

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