Too afraid of failure: Why I want to back out before I’ve even started

Two very positive things happened for me this week:
  1. I was offered an interview for an internship that I’ve been eying for the last 7 months. It’s on international education in DC.
  2. I was accepted into elephant journal’s 4-month apprenticeship program for journalism, writing and editing.

At first, I felt really good upon submitting the applications. Like I was taking action rather than just talking about my interests. It was unlikely that I would be able to participate in either (and definitely not both) because of my upcoming plans, but I wouldn’t know if I didn’t try.

But then I receive positive responses from both and suddenly I’m…reluctant? Uneasy? Unenthused? These feelings loomed over my excitement.

Why do I feel shitty when the good things start coming?
Am I afraid of responsibility?
Do I feel it will consume me, and I won’t have time for myself or the people I love, and that will make me unhappy with the internships?
Or am I afraid I can’t follow through with what they assign me? That I won’t be able to give my 100% because I can’t organize my time well and I’m lacking flow? That I’m not as competent as I seem on paper? That I’ll make them regret their choice and it’ll just be uncomfortable for all of us?

Am I taking myself too seriously?

I remember when I got my SAT results and then again when I got into my top choice college, I couldn’t tell anyone at first. Even though it was exactly the news I wanted to hear, I felt strange. Trapped. As if the good news meant that I had to continue pushing myself for good results, but if I couldn’t make it, that would mean I didn’t deserve it in the first place. I suddenly felt weighed down with pressure, thinking wouldn’t it be easier if I chose something more aligned with what I expect from my mediocre self?

After some time to process these feelings, the concept of “imposter syndrome” floats to my mind. Maybe that’s it. Now I’m in the position to do something new professionally and I’m afraid I won’t succeed (now…or ever). I feel uneasy because I’m not looking forward to the shame of failing or underperforming (who is?). I’m tempted to delay until I feel more prepared…more perfect.
I decided to learn more about this unfortunate phenomenon. 

The imposter phenomenon is what happens when we compare our insides with other people’s outsides: Others appear confident and capable, but I think I’m insecure and under-qualified. I’ll fail eventually and then they’ll all know the truth about me.

According to the article “Why feeling like a fraud can be a good thing” in the BBC magazine this week, “though the phenomenon was first identified in the 1970s, psychologists say it seems to be ever more relevant in today’s hyper-competitive, economically insecure world.”

This is especially true for women, although it affects everyone. The article cites Dr. Valerie Young’s book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, “Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss them as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm – even computer error.”

How ridiculous that women often attribute their successes to luck, timing and other external factors, while at the same time they blame setbacks or failures on personal incompetencies

And unfortunately, imposterism doesn’t go away as someone accumulates successes. In fact, sometimes it magnifies because success can mean transitions, opportunities or risks that someone may have never experienced before. All the more reason to feel like a fraud.
The BBC also published a podcast on the subject. The following are some take-aways: 
  1. We often experience shame when we fail, forgetting that failure and short-comings are a part of life. Perfection as we define it doesn’t exist.
  2. We may have trouble disconnecting our work from ourselves because a lot of work today is “knowledge work” — work that relies on our minds and not on our hands — so when something happens, it feels like it’s us who are being judged and not our work.
  3. This personal and sensitive shame and preoccupation caused by feeling that others will discover you are an imposter “comes from putting too much value on other peoples opinions.”
  4. The root of this phenomenon possibly originated many years ago, with basis in Plato’s idea of the effect of liberalism; society began to replace God with other people, which turned us into slaves of public approval.
I’m feeling less alone but nowhere close to having conquered my imposter syndrome, so I created the following game plan. It includes reminders and perspective-shifting advice.
Game plan:
  • Accept and ignore the imposter thoughts. Welcome confident thoughts instead.
  • Don’t trust shame, especially the kind I feel before I’ve even started something.
  • Push on. If I see myself as a skilled writer and working my dream job in the future, that means taking risks right now. Otherwise my ideal future self will never become my present self. The best gift I can give myself is to take these daunting yet important steps.
  • I may fall flat on my face or I may succeed. But either way I’ll survive. I’ll keep breathing and I’ll learn something. One day I may laugh about it.
  • One of the best coping mechanisms I’ve learned is to step outside of myself and look at myself from someone else’s perspective. Or ask, how would I see someone in my situation? I find my feelings are a lot kinder and less extreme. This humanizes feelings that emerge from perfectionism.
  • Remember that I can’t see other people’s insides. We can misread external stimuli, and therefore mistake them for negative, judgmental feedback. It’s better to have a motive that’s higher than public approval. Ex: My higher purpose is to learn more about the career, so I can take advantage of my interviewer’s time and expertise (rather than their potential reaction taking advantage of my insecurities).
  • “You have to be self-competent to admit your weaknesses,” says neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. Don’t get hard — let others in on what you’re experiencing, and you’ll find that you’re not alone. Confiding will help you combat imposterism thoughts.


7 thoughts on “Too afraid of failure: Why I want to back out before I’ve even started”

  1. Hey,
    Thanks for sharing. I go through some of the same things. I think that counseling may help too. I don’t know your situation, but sometimes fear of commitment or bigger issues, like depression or anxiety can cause some of these feelings.

    1. Thanks for your comment Kelsie! I agree that there can be bigger issues sometimes, and doing something new can be very anxiety-provoking. In either case, I think better awareness of oneself can help to cope with these situations and know what outside support to look for.

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