Sense and Sensitivity: does ‘atychiphobia’ sabotage your success?

In her latest column for Exepose Features, Sarah Wood discusses the prevalence of atychiphoba – the fear of failure – at university, and ways in which it can be overcome.

There’s one question I get asked over and over and it is one I feel a lot of people will identify with. It is “why are you always so stressed?” to which I usually reply “I don’t know”. The truth is I know the exact answer to that question, I know why, how, and what makes me ‘so stressed’. Atychiphobia, from the Greek Phobos meaning ‘fear’ and Atyches meaning ‘Unfortunate’. I have a fear of failure. For me this fear is complex, because whilst I am ambitious, and believe there is no better way to learn or obtain success but through trial and error, the very utterance of the word error cripples me with anxiety. At university, fear of failure is something I notice daily, and it is especially visible in deadline or exam weeks. I overhear phrases such as “this essay is worth so much, I cannot afford to fail” or “what if I have to re-sit in the summer?” They and I included are anxious, stressed, and phobic of failing because we care so much about our success, whether it is in our degree, in one essay, or in our careers. We care for and nurture our studies and our work and I question why fear of failure should be allowed to threaten us?

Stephen Schochet author of Fascinating Walt Disney provides some fantastic inspiration and comfort to those that suffer with a fear of failure. Although his book is not written specifically for fear of failure, it is a useful example of the failure vs. optimism battle. In his book he recounts how Walt Disney suffered many failures before reaching success. In 1927 when Walt tried to get MGM to distribute Mickey Mouse, he was told that his idea would simply ‘not work’ and that the idea of an animated mouse would frighten women. Walt Disney was also fired from a newspaper he worked at in his early career, the editor’s reason being that he supposedly “lacked imagination and had no creative ideas”. An opinion I’m sure many of us find laughable. Walt Disney is an ideal example of the value in persevering with trial and error. However,
for people who really do suffer from fear of failure so badly that they live a life characterised by constriction, stress, deadline charts, and
Friday nights writing essays, when they probably deserve to be letting their hair down (no reference to myself there at all) inspiration is admirable, but it only leaves them feeling even more overwhelmed. Yes, I wish I could have the failure breeds success mind set, but I don’t. I do however, firmly believe that the only person that can truly help me is myself. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t ask or accept help from others, of course we should, but even the very choice to accept help is an example of helping yourself, and putting your health at the forefront of your priorities.

The reasons to fear failure are unique to the person affected, for me there are two reasons that I fear failing. Firstly, I struggle to comprehend how I would deal with the associated emotions, namely shame and guilt. Partnered with this is the thought of being considered by others as someone who makes poor choices or frequent mistakes. When these two are fed by the anxiety of fearing failure, it results in the individual putting a wall around themselves, attempting to protect themselves. This response obviously only makes the problem worse, because as time goes on, withdrawal becomes a habitual response. For example, when an important essay is due, I don’t want to be presumptive or speak for anyone else, but I’m sure others will identify with the way I approach my fear in this instance. I over-estimate how much time, and work I need to put into the essay, I reject plans and events in the name of work, and my social life suffers. It’s a truly awful way to be. However, it is essential to admit to yourself that you are like that. It is then that you can tailor a method to help yourself overcome fear of failure and begin to obtain the
work life balance that is so yearned for.

Everybody dislikes failing, or feeling as though they could have done better. However, when this becomes a phobia the psychological consequences can be damaging, and distracting. The problem with phobias and fears is that they work on a subconscious level, meaning that all of the shame, guilt, frustration, and disappointment are constantly sabotaging and threatening potential success. Most poisonous of these
sabotaging emotions is the disappointment, being phobic of the prospect of failing before you have even sat the exam, or ran the race puts disappointment at the forefront of your mind blocking the way for confidence. Fear of failure is essentially a fear of disappointing oneself. Dealing with fear of failure is much like dealing with homesickness, agoraphobia, or another anxiety related concern, there is usually an underlying issue allowing the fear to shout and thrive. I have found that the best way to really fight, and confront this fear is exactly the same way Arachnophobia can be tackled. Face the fear. Put yourself in a situation whereby failure is likely, and experience it. Fail! Because when you do that, you will have no choice but to figure out how to deal with shame, how to strive for success, and hopefully it will work in your favour, wetting your appetite for success in the future. We are human, we are not concrete plans, and we make mistakes. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but I cannot help but feel it sometimes gets forgotten. There is so much value in recognising that every single one of us shares the similarity of adaptability. We are wonderful at adapting, we are intelligent, and whilst we all have different definitions of failure we can all cope. Fear is a matter of perspective, and it lives in the realm of the mind, and fortunately the mind welcomes change, even if it takes a long time to be convinced or coerced into it.

I have spent a lot of time contemplating how to really get rid of, or solve my fear of failure and the most useful advice I have to offer is to think about the worst case scenario. If it really is rationally disastrous then don’t punish yourself for being scared, don’t associate that disaster with shame. Instead replace the shame and guilt with courage, because if you are taking on a challenge that could end in disaster you are brave, courageous, and deserve credit for trying. If on the other hand, you analyse the worst case scenario and realise that you are perhaps being irrational, and failing wouldn’t be as awful and shattering as you are convinced of. Then as difficult as it may be, consider how commendable your effort will be. Effort is extremely admirable, and sometimes the result isn’t as valuable as the knowledge, sense, and perceptions collected in the process.

On the note of boldness and perseverance I leave you with the words of Vincent Van Gough “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” if you suffer from fear of failure I urge you to contemplate Van Gough’s question, and I would like to put forth my own question: how many times has failing ruined your life beyond repair?

Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist

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