Do We Have to Fear Failure?
Jerry N. Duncan, Ph.D., ABPP
Fear of failure is a prominent fear in most of our lives. For some, it results in a drive for perfection. And anything less than perfection is seen as failure. Friends and family members with perfectionistic expectations are difficult to live with, and are miserable within themselves. They are driven by fear, and they are never satisfied with themselves or with others.
Another consequence of this fear is an unwillingness to try. Fear of failure can create an internal logic that says, “I can’t fail if I don’t try.” How many fun, adventurous, learning experiences have we missed out on because we were afraid to try? How many relationships have remained stagnant because we were afraid to try something new?
Procrastination is a third consequence of fear of failure. The logic of procrastination is interesting. It goes something like this- “If I wait till the last minute, I will have an excuse for my failure” (“I did the best I could with the limited time I had”, “I stayed up all night working on it. I could barely keep my eyes open”, etc.) If we succeed, we feel lucky, if we fail, we have a built-in excuse.
There are alternatives to this fear. One of the alternatives is to understand that a mistake or failure is something that we learn from rather than something that defines us. When we make a mistake, it is something we have done, not something we are. We are not all knowing. We will make mistakes. God has made it clear that He defines us by what His son did for us on the cross, not by what we do.
It is also important to keep in mind that this earth is not our real home. We are described as strangers in a foreign land. What others around us describe as failure, may not be failure at all.
In this world, pride is more valued than humility. Vengeance is more valued than loving our enemies. Jesus’ crucifixion looked a lot like failure at the time. His enemies were jubilant and his followers were discouraged. But it wasn’t a failure, was it? It was a means to a greater end.
When we do fail at a task or relationship, God has promised something unusual and undeserved. He tells us that He will take the failure and turn it into something good- “That's why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Romans 8:28-Message translation)
How we define failure will determine how we live our lives. If we define it as a representation of who we are, we will be driven by fear to accomplish and achieve at our expense and at the expense of our relationships with friends and family. And we will never be at peace, because there will always be more that we could achieve or accomplish.
If, on the other hand, we define failure as an event that happens, then we learn from it and move on. It becomes a stepping stone. As members of God’s family, we are called to define ourselves by what He’s done for us rather than by what we do.