The fear of failure can become a very powerful force in each choice we make and each endeavor we undertake. While sometimes this fear can motivate us to succeed, other times it can defeat us, preventing us from pursuing our goals. Often it is at those times when we are faced with the greatest opportunities that this fear is strongest, intimidating us with thoughts that we are not good enough or the threat that we will look foolish when we fail. What many people are unaware of is that these thoughts are part of a well-integrated system of negative thoughts toward ourselves and others we refer to as the “critical inner voice.”
The inner voice undermines us and limits our capacity to pursue and accomplish the things we want in life. Whenever we face challenges or go after a dream, this inner critic is there to hold us back and scare us with possibilities of failure. It encourages us to be self-protective and not put ourselves out there or take chances. Though everyone is faced with struggles or hard times at one point or another, these circumstances are much more difficult to overcome when they are accompanied by this self-destructive thought process.
So how can we combat the intrusions of this inner critic? We have to start by recognizing it. Too often, we live our lives unaware of the influence of this coach in our head commenting on our every move. This coach will critique our performance at work: “You’re going to mess up. There’s no way you’re getting this promotion, so why even make the effort?” It keeps us from pursuing meaningful relationships: “He/she will never go out with you. You’re going to make a fool of yourself.” This inner voice feeds our fear of failure. It lures us into playing it safe: “Don’t apply for that new job. You will never get it, and you will look like such an idiot for trying.” The problem is, it can be hard to distinguish our inner critic from our own, real point of view. We often believe its directives without question.
The first step in overcoming our fear of failure is therefore to identify when our inner coach is talking to us. What situations make this voice louder or more prominent? Does it second guess us just as we’re about to take a step forward? Does it criticize us the minute after we’ve completed a task we were nervous about?
Keep in mind that this is the voice of an enemy, a part of us that is against ourselves. Our inner critic was developed during early life experiences in which we were made to feel bad about ourselves. It’s made up of words we put to the rejections and hurts we faced along the way of growing up. If we were criticized or corrected a lot, we may end up feeling insecure in our abilities. Maybe what we accomplish never seems good enough. Conversely, if we were built up or offered false praise, we may not really trust that we can accomplish our goals. Or we may feel that if we can’t do something “perfectly” or the best, then it is better not to try. These earliest experiences take a toll on a child’s emerging self-esteem. Hurtful experiences are incorporated into the child’s developing sense of self, forming an internalized enemy or anti-self that continues to reside inside our heads. Throughout our lives we tend to parent ourselves the way we were parented.
As we start to recognize how and when this voice is influencing our present lives, we can start to separate it from our true point of view, our real self. For example, if you were about to go on a job interview, you may be having thoughts like, “They will never hire you. What experience do you have anyway? Who are you to think you can succeed?” These attacks could make you nervous and awkward and impact how you come across in the interview, undermining your chances of getting the job.
A helpful exercise, which is outlined in our book Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, is to write your negative thoughts down in the third person — as “you” statements, so you can start to separate them from a more realistic compassionate point of view toward yourself, where you are taking your own side. After you’ve done so, write down a response to each of these comments that is more realistic and compassionate toward yourself. Make sure to write these as “I” statements, as they represent a more appropriate caring attitude toward yourself. For example, you might write: “I am capable of doing a good job. There are real reasons for a company to want to hire me. I would be an asset to a team. I work hard and learn fast. There is nothing wrong with having ambition.”
When you respond to your inner critic, try not to use inflated or ego-boosting statements (i.e., “I am the best person for the job! Who wouldn’t hire me? I’m too good for anything else.”). Building yourself up often represents another form of self-parenting that contributes to inflated self-esteem or vanity, which is actually a desperate attempt to feel good about yourself, to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. The point of this exercise isn’t to boost yourself up; it’s actually to take on a more honest, balanced perspective. Responding to your inner critic can be tough, as it’s all too easy to slip into believing its statements. Yet, by recognizing and starting to counter the directives of this inner enemy, we can become more resilient and act in our own self-interest.
We can start to resist taking actions that go against our goals. Calling in sick for an interview or refusing to ask someone out for fear of rejection will only make this coach more powerful. The more we feed the monster, the bigger and stronger it will grow. However, if we stand up to this critic, we weaken it. At first, this will cause us a lot of anxiety. Challenging our critical inner voices can leave us feeling vulnerable and even more afraid at first. Eventually, however, if we are persistent in going against it, the voice will start to fade into the distance.
Research by Dr. Salvatore Maddi of The Hardiness Institute shows that what predicts a person’s success in life is how “hardy” or resilient they are. Hardiness describes a way people deal with life’s challenges. Dr. Maddi found that perceiving obstacles as opportunities for growth, feeling like you have personal power to control your life and sticking with things when they get hard are all hardiness traits.
Our fears of failure can limit us and keep us from living the life we want to. When we inevitably experience rejection or disappointment, we have to be hardy in our way of coping with these struggles. Overcoming our critical inner voice can be a vital step in becoming more emotionally resilient. We can learn skills to become hardier, and we can face challenges with fewer internal setbacks. Yet, the first step in taking on this new confidence is shedding the baggage of our past, the critical inner voices that falsely feed our fears of failure.