Recently my oldest son refused to perform an ordinary task. Despite the mission being age appropriate and something he had already practiced with an adult, fear and anxiety seized him. He would not budge.
His task was to get out of the car, walk down a long sidewalk toward the football stadium, and wait for my father at the gate. After he declared that someone might see him and he might mess up, he simply refused to walk to the front gate.
In that moment, reciting truisms, such as, ‘everyone fails’ and ‘no one will even notice you’ did not do us any good.
I may have uttered tried and true nuggets of wisdom, such as, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” In the end, however, I walked with him. We were under time constraints and needed to get the thing completed, so I gave into his wishes; nonetheless, I was angry while I did it. Seething is more accurate, another washout parenting moment.
What I see reflected in my son caused a recent reevaluation of my own motives. It is irrefutable that his fear is very familiar to me, and that is perhaps why it makes me so angry. What exactly is it that I fear in moments like that?
The Fear of Being Seen
Fear of failure is intimately tied to a fear that someone will “see” me. And, they will see me fall on my face, completely screwing up what I had set out to do. Fear of failure manifests as an anxious belief that the unsuccessful completion or implementation of an idea or activity will cause pain. In particular, for me, it is that someone might see me blow it and that knowledge often stops me from doing what needs to get done.
This is why much of the time I am happy to blend into the background especially in large social settings. It is true that I have a natural tendency to observe and want others to have the spotlight. On the other hand, it is a lie that that’s the only reason for my reticence. I don’t want the scrutiny that comes with the risk of speaking out.
This fear means I wait too long before I go into action. If I step up and out, I am more visible, and that leaves me open to judgment and second-guessing.
As the years have passed, my pauses and reluctance fade and my actions suddenly lurch forward.
These days I must act for the simple fact that there is no one here to walk me down the sidewalk and yet something must be done. At which point, I mutter some version of ‘Ah, to hell with what it’ and then proceed to get the dang thing over with.
Still, the disquiet lurks around me. It is the constant refrain of ‘what if?’
When Everyone Sees You
In middle school, I started taking the bus to school for the first time. For months, I prayed the bus would break down. Middle school is a fishbowl, and everyone sees you.
I feared failure in my social setting, yet I didn’t say it that way then. Instead of embracing my weirdness by realizing everyone is weird, I wanted to be anyone but me. Simultaneously, I wanted to be loved for just being me. (We could sum up early adolescence as the overwhelming desire to be loved as yourself and all the while hoping you wake up as someone else.)
In retrospect, it is strange that I struggled so much to feel accepted and normal. I had friends, several in fact. A couple of these classmates continued to be my friends during my high school years and beyond as well. What exactly was I fussing about?
I don’t know exactly how I thought I would fail. It could be I felt someone would hurt me with their words. I did see that all around me and occasionally someone hurled an insult at me while riding the bus or walking down the hall. The thought seems to have never occurred to me, “How is that normal to shout a put-down at a random person?” Instead, I assumed they were uttering the truth about me, that they really saw me.
Fear as False Imagination
It is amazing how long it took me to realize my imagination was worse than the actual outcome. Instead these days I find simple questions help me wade through my fear. What difference will it make if I fail here? What would that look like and would anyone even really care? Since we are obsessed with ourselves, we fantasize that everyone else is as well.
Fear is easier to spot in others than in yourself. In the midst of its grip, I think I’m being logical and rational about potential outcomes. In actuality, I am imagining worst case scenarios and magnifying any discomfort I might feel in the future. When I witness a student or colleague or family member talking aloud about a possible sequence of events, I immediately spot the exaggerations, the taint of negativity, and the anxieties disguised as planning for the future. I am blind to my own imaginings.
The advice people give about the fear of failure reminds me of a seasoned parent telling a soon-to-be mother all she will feel about her child and how she should respond when the baby arrives. In general, I think such know-it-alls should keep their mouths shut. One cannot know some things until they actually happen. Quit trying to convince them of something that they have no context for.
Keep it simple: you will feel new emotions. Know that it is normal and when one arises come to me and we can talk about it. That would be sage advice. We do not live in an age of sages.
The same is true for failure. Fight through the fear. Failure makes you strong. Failure is this and that. On and on it goes with the little ditties. Such advice before failure is pretty much useless in my book. Coming right before some big event, these words of the supposedly wise fall on deaf ears. It is also pearls before swine to swoop in right at the moment of failure and try to console.
For me, it takes weeks, months, and even years to realize the lessons of failure. Only as a mediocre parent and burnt out teacher have I come to realize the joys of failure and to embrace the fear. So I suppose the words I write may be for the bedraggled and worn down. They are the words of a couple of decades spent failing and moving on. Such advice is lost on the young and unreflective. I also suppose that makes this post a bit of irony.
All my reminiscing about fear and the past brings me back around to my son. For my oldest, I see years of delay and procrastination, hesitation and anxiety ahead. I keep wanting to speed up his learning process. Then I remember me at his age, and I sit back and wait. It is not a waiting without action but a holding back. I tell a story about my own similar feelings and ask questions and I pray. “I see you, little one, and what I see is okay.” Alas, you can’t grow up for someone else, only for yourself.