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Why are we so afraid to fail?

When something goes wrong or we make a mistake, for some of us it can feel devastating. It can spark some destructive and negative self-talk that can sound like this: “I have failed.” “I am useless as a parent.” “My child will see that I never succeed.” “I will never be good at this.” “I have let myself and my family down.” “Everyone can see I’m incompetent.”. Sometimes these thoughts happen even before we have done anything because it is sparked by worry about the prospect of getting it wrong or failing.

But why are we so afraid of getting it wrong?

We often put the pressure to strive and to succeed at everything we do onto ourselves (and in some cases, we put that pressure onto others…know any pushy parents or micromanaging bosses?) and it can spring from areas of insecurity, low confidence, people pleasing and being worried about uncertainty. As parents and carers, we can feel this pressure tenfold as we are responsible for other human beings and so if we get things wrong, it is not just us that could feel the impact. Furthermore, in a world where all of us are already stretched and juggling a million balls, we have to find the time and energy to try and rectify the mistake…and more often than not we end up taking it all onto our already heavy shoulders.

So why do we believe we are a ‘failure’ at times?

Many people have a firm belief that if they do something wrong or they don’t succeed, they are a ‘failure’ and therefore inept, incompetent, and not as good as other people. We have our own perception of what success looks like (or should look like), and we measure it against our own abilities, what we do, and who we believe we are. We may also be trying to achieve all the things that we perceive a successful parent as being - the parent that does it all, has beautifully behaved kids and who looks like they’ve had 12 hours uninterrupted sleep (and of course we sometimes compare ourselves to this “perfect parent” image). So if we don’t achieve these goals and measures of success we have in mind, we fall into a self-deprecating approach where we feel we have let ourselves down and we aren’t the fantastic person (or parent and role model) we thought we were. We can be very mean to ourselves, and we wonder why we tried in the first place! When this happens, we could be operating from a fixed mindset.

What is a fixed mindset?

People with a fixed mindset believe that we all have a limited capacity for learning and intelligence. My own fixed mindset made me believe that I was rubbish at maths because my brain just couldn’t do sums and so I would never be able to learn or be any good at it. So when I do try even the simplest of maths and I can’t get the answer quick enough (or right) I beat myself up (“I am rubbish at maths, I always have been and always will be, I just don’t get it”). Being in a fixed mindset means we are limited in what we can achieve because we have a limiting belief system (in other words, if I believe I won’t get better at long division, then I won’t). We may also avoid challenges for fear of getting it wrong, we avoid or ignore negative feedback or take it badly because that means we are failing or not as good as we thought, and we may get defensive or give up on things we aren’t successful at straight away. For the record…parenthood is a minefield for all these fixed mindset triggers – I am sure you have a lot of examples.

Why is being ‘fixed’ so limiting?

Having a fixed mindset all the time can be an exhausting way to live and can really stop us from grasping new opportunities and enjoying the process of achievement. By the way, the fixed mindset doesn’t just happen, it is a thought process that we have been taught – and this is the important part. I want my child to never be afraid of maths so I am ever so conscious of my fixed mindset in this area, therefore my ramblings (and my husband making light-hearted fun of me) for being rubbish at simple sums may influence my daughter and she could adopt this learned belief thus the fixed mindset cycle is passed down to another generation. Our fear of wanting to look smart and successful could come at a cost to those who are watching and learning from us.

What’s the alternative?

Adopting a growth mindset means we learn from our mistakes. We take criticism and feedback as key areas we can improve on. We can look at areas or things we aren’t so good at and ask ourselves “how can I improve? how can I be better next time in this situation?”. Those with a growth mindset see getting something wrong as an opportunity to learn and progress. Some organisations even encourage employees to get it wrong –Google’s Head of People Operations Laszlo Bock states “it’s important to reward failure” so as to encourage risk-taking. In the spirit of Google, unless we take a risk or make a mistake, how will we know what works and what we need to learn to get it right? We don’t laugh at babies learning to walk and falling or toddlers trying to do a jigsaw and choosing the wrong pieces that don’t fit together - because they are learning, they are progressing – so why do we give ourselves as adults and parents a hard time? Why do we feel embarrassed or perturbed from ‘asking stupid questions’ or being seen to get something wrong?

We believe we as adults (and parents) need to be competent so getting it wrong equates to failing, but we need to end this stigma and encourage everyone’s growth. The science tells us that our brains do not have a limitation on how intelligent we are or how much we can learn. It is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it will become. If you believe you can improve and learn new things, then you will. Therefore, being a failure becomes a positive in the process of improving and becoming better. Kids will learn this valuable lesson the more they see us taking value from missteps and when we get things wrong. Afterall, FAIL can be translated as First Attempt In Learning!

But how do you change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?

  • Acknowledge your negative inner critic that tells you how rubbish you are and tell it what you have learnt from the situation and what you are going to do next. Its easy to say out loud how silly we feel or how rubbish we are, but instead instill a positive talk of why it didn’t quite work and how you are smart enough to persist in the face of a setback.

  • Change your self-talk – Instead of “I’m no good at this” change it to “I’m no good at this…yet”. Of course you aren’t going to be spot on every time! Adding ‘yet’ means you will, if you keep persisting and learning and with time and effort, become good at it. Change the narrative, change the mindset.

  • Put self-compassion over ego. What this means is, aim for goals and celebrate the successes for yourself, not because it looks good compared to someone else. Comparison is the thief of joy, and actually a thief of giving yourself full credit when things go right!

So if you would like to adopt a growth mindset, ask yourself...what could you achieve if there were no boundaries on what you could learn? What if you did become good at that thing you think you're rubbish at? What if your next mistake leads you straight to success?

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