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Maybe this will be long but I want to cover as much detail as I can to get proper help, because I think I need it.

I'm 23 years old. I'm a Computer Engineer who got top 10 degrees in university, and I'm working in a private company (since 6 month) which some days ago told me they told me I'd get a raise because they're happy with me.

Who can't be happy saying this?. Well, I don't. I always say, to my family and friends that I'm not an "above average person" (which rarely they believes me). Well, believe it please, I'm not.

This is a moment in my life where I stopped to think why I'm not really happy about myself, and I think I came to the conclusion that my good performance comes from a really deep fear of failure about everything I face to do. I never failed in an exam, never fail a test in school, never fail in about anything I did...

I have to be honest and admit that I had fear about failing exams, I had fear about what others think about me if that could happend, meet expectations, maintain that image others believe about me... it seems that I value myself under the metric "good results" in a very "cold" way. All this was the fuel that let me achieve such good results in university; and the same happens with my job. In work, in such a short time a try to achieve the same level of expertise of senior professionals, and I put a lot of pressure on myself.

I know it's wrong to be so self-demanding, there's a high cost to pay (stress). All this seems to show a lack of confidence, fear of failure, giving value of myself depending of really not such important things in life.

I know this is not the psychology stackexchange (I don't even know that would be the right place), I just need some advice. I'd not be angry if this is closed, but who knows..

Edit: I'm asking for some resources (books, websites, etc) or personal advice that would help me overcome this situation. I believe this long term stress (if not solved) would eventually force my productivity to decline I guess worsening the situation.

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Hi peter, welcome to Productivity. I am not sure what you are asking - you have posted how you feel, but I can't identify a question here. Can you be more specific, and let us know what your productivity issue is. – Rory Alsop Dec 30 '12 at 10:48
Would "The Perfectionist's Handbook" be the kind of resource you mean as an example or are you wanting to get into cognitive behavior therapy here? – JB King Dec 30 '12 at 15:47
You prepare yourself for things that you are afraid of, and as a result of preparation able to tackle them - that's a good thing, I don't see anything wrong. – user221287 Jan 1 '13 at 16:35
Well, in similar situations I usually ask myself whether my fear is a "real" fear. What does it have to do with really important things, like life/death, health, your kids/parents etc.? Meeting a deadline is important but it won't hurt you if you don't; failing an exam won't kill you either. I think Steve Jobs said something on this account (but in a much better way than I did). – Jonh Smith Jan 2 '13 at 9:45
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I suggest you should examine your (unconscious) beliefs. If you are afraid to admit that you are above average, there is probably something you believe about being above average or admitting to be above average.

Maybe you are not aware of what it is, because ordinarily it does not come fully to your attention; it just sends out a small wave of fear when someone praises you, and you usually dissolve that wave by saying "no, I am not above average". You could bring it closer to your attention by imagining that you are great and you loudly proclaim "I AM GREAT!" in front of everyone. Imagine doing this... and capture the scary story that your brain sends you as a reaction. What would happen if you did it? How would people react to you? What would it mean about you?

Then, calm down and think about the story, as a rational adult. How likely is this story to be literally true? Do you have in recent years (not in childhood) any evidence that supports it, or that opposed it? Would other people believe in the same story? -- Or is it just some crap that someone has told you when you were 5 years old naive child, and you believed it uncritically? Is it something that reflects more about the person who told it, not about you?

Some examples of possible limiting beliefs:

  • Gifted people are evil; e.g. because they cause all the suffering of the good average people.
  • Good people are always humble. If you ever accept any praise, no matter how deserved, and no matter how you accept it, it means that you are an bad person, any nobody will like you, ever. Also, God/Fate will send you some special misfortune tomorrow, just to teach you a lesson.
  • If you ever admit to be good at something, people will have high expectations of you and give you a lot of work; and you will be morally obligated to do it all. You will never have any free time. Also, any failure will be punished more severely, because you will be expected to do better.
  • If you ever admit to be good, you will suddenly lose all your motivation to self-improve, and you will become a pathetic lazy bum.

Most of these beliefs are silly, when written explicitly, but without explicit writing people can believe them.

(Note: In some situations, admitting to be good really has some negative effects. Some people are envious, and if they will see your success, they will hate you. But in a long term it is better to avoid such people, than to mentally cripple yourself just to make them happy.)

The title of you question is "fear of failure", but from the text it seemed to me that it is also a fear of admitting to be good. You actually brag a lot ("never failed in an exam, never fail a test in school, never fail in about anything I did"), but then you stop just before making the logical conclusion and turn around ("I always say ... that I'm not an "above average person" ... believe it please, I'm not."). WTF?! How could mere fear make you never fail in anything? If such mental mechanisms existed, all the average people could just scare themselves to become new Einsteins!

Instead, you are just so scared of success, that you are even afraid to write the word "success", and instead use "they're happy with me", "never fail", "meet expectations", "good results" (but this one was so dangerously close you had to put it in scare quotes!), "achieve expertise". It seems like you can never accept yourself to be good (successful, above average), but instead you work hard in hope that eventually other people will notice... but when they do, you explain them that they are wrong! And then you work even harder and wait for... what exactly?

If there is one specific person you are trying to impress, and unless you impress them, all the good results and all the praise from the rest of the world means nothing to you... then this attitude is the problem you need to solve. Working harder or ruining your health is obviously not a solution. The solution is either to communicate better, or stop caring so much. The universe does not depend on one person's judgement.

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I'm really impressed, maybe you're right; I feel very much identified with many things you say. But putting a lot of pressure on a average person could perfectly achieve excellent results in school and collegue. I always say that university is not for intelligent people, is for disciplined ones. I know this is repeating the same story again... but I read your answer several times and I feel there's something really important that I should learn from it. I need just to meditate it. – Peter Timoz Jan 7 '13 at 23:56
Fear of success is rather common, in various degree. Probably a legacy of our ape ancestors, where saying "I am great" meant you wanted to fight the current leader for leadership of your tribe, which could get you harmed or killed. So unless you felt pretty sure about your victory, you rather avoided doing anything which could make the current leader feel challenged. The rest of my answer was based on impressions and guesses; some parts may not apply. I agree with your point about discipline (with online education the efect will be even stronger). But too much pressure can also break people. – Viliam Búr Jan 8 '13 at 10:23

This sounds rather familiar - you are not alone. It's so easy to get caught up in the desire to achieve while on the run from the fear of failure. But ultimately we are not defined or find our value in what we do or have done.

Although it may sound a bit Zen, I've found ideas from Mindfulness by Mark Williams a great help. You might think of it as a structured way of slowing down to smell the roses and kick leaves from time to time; re-learning to enjoy some of life's simplest yet precious experiences.

However, if low mood or a downward spiral of negative thoughts starts to become a pattern for more than a week, it's time to stop reading books and posting online; go and talk to a doctor straight away.

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I'm not depressed, I'm just unhappy with this situation. I still know and enjoy other aspects of life which don't involve work or professional related stuff. I know what's wrong, I just don't know how to fix it. I'll check for that book. – Peter Timoz Dec 30 '12 at 13:49

For this sort of thing I've always quite liked the principle behind Rejection Theropy, although I don't think their site is very clear about what it is. From wikipedia:

Rejection Therapy is a social self-help game created by Jason Comely where being rejected by another person or group is the sole winning condition. The player can attempt any kind of social rejection, or try a suggestion from one of the Rejection Therapy suggestion cards available. The game can be played for any period of time, although many undertake the 30 Day Challenge.1 The purpose of playing the game is to overcome the fear of rejection through controlled, forced exposure. By this means, players hope to adapt physically to the stresses of rejection.

But I think the best impression of the approach is that of the Hope From Nope blog - which talks about:

"going through 100 days of Rejection Therapy, aiming to have one rejection per day by making crazy requests. My goal is to desensitize myself from the pain of rejection and overcome my fear."

...and is really quite entertaining in places. Worth reading up on.

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I'm going to be very short:

you should set a singular purpose (goal) for yourself. Then start binding every thought (!) during the day to that goal: think through the sphere of your goal, not through the sphere of yourself (ego).

I'm basically suggesting changing your thought patterns.

If you succeed, you'll disidentify yourself from "yourself": you won't have fears of failure because you'll have your inner integrity: your final goal.

You won't feel like your results are YOU - because they are not you - they are just a stepping stone towards your goal - therefore, you won't have any fears of failure because they're unneccesary in such a belief system.

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I'm asking for some resources (books, websites, etc) or personal advice that would help me overcome this situation.

We all do have many instances right from childhood that mold the person who we are, Our thoughts, attitude etc.

I have taken Landmark Forum which helped me identify myself a lot on how I am, why i do the same mistakes again and take corrective measure.

But let me warn you that there is an allegation on it being cult etc. I attended the course with this in my mind and have never felt anything like that. What I can say is it helped me tremendously and the 3 days were one of the most enjoyable that I ever had. The effect is not like reading a book but much much more than that. I would definitely recommend.

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Average is very relative, and chances are that since you have a degree and know about SE, you're already better than 50% of the world.

There are thousands of words written and millions spent on seminars on the subject of any kind of fear, including fear of failure. The best selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series alone covers this.

It is normal. Unless you have low standards, everyone eventually fails at something. Most people maintain low standards to avoid it.

But consider it like any kind of machine - you want to test yourself, push yourself to the point of failure. And once you fail, analyze why you failed and use your analysis to improve.

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. - Winston Churchill

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