Coping with the crippling fear of failure


Scott Lewis

Failure. There’s that feeling again. Your palms are sweating; your fingers are visibly shaking. Your heart is pumping so fast that you can actually feel it inside your chest.

Looking around the room, you see other students who seem to be getting along just fine. All the while, you are experiencing a sudden urge to explode. Simultaneously, you want to run and hide in the tiniest cave. “What if I’m wrong? I don’t want to look stupid in front of everybody.”

With that shame-filled thought, you keep your mouth shut and try to struggle through the rest of the class.

This scene is all too familiar for many of us—not only in college, but throughout our entire lives. Somewhere in our past we became paralyzed by fear of failure.

It eats away at our self-confidence and damages self-image. We obsess over how we appear to others rather than what we can accomplish. Far worse, we can easily convince ourselves that we won’t be able to accomplish goals that are well within our grasp.

The problem is that we don’t understand that we need to fail. We will fail. We will be wrong. We need to come to terms with that. Now, we need to understand that failing at something does not make US a failure. Let’s take a look at why we must fail and why it’s good for you to do so while we’re in the classroom.

First and foremost, we are in a class to learn. The goal is to gain useful knowledge of the world and develop a set of skill sets that will help you better understand how to approach it.

The classroom should be a safe place for us to be wrong. Though none of us like to be laughed at, most students will not remember what any mistakes we had said by the end of class. Instead, we are given this opportunity struggle.

Raising our hand or participating in a class discussion, even if we’re wrong, generates positive outcomes. Now we know that what was thought was true is not and can work towards understanding what is really is correct.

Secondly, doing homework—even if it is not collected provides an opportunity for feedback, either positive or negative.

Nobody enjoys having a homework assignment marked up with red ink, drawing our attention to what we did wrong. However, we can use this feedback to create something better. Let’s not let our eyes glaze over when we catch that glimpse of the poor markings.

When we admit defeat on something that we haven’t reassessed, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to grow and become more proficient at that concept in the course.

A few semesters back, I recall getting a slew of questions wrong on a final exam. They were all tied to one concept in the course. I had answered questions wrong on several previous quizzes and homework assignments, but since I had earned an overall “A” on those, there didn’t seem to be much of a point to look into what I got wrong then, and it really bit me during finals.

I hadn’t wanted to look stupid in front of the class. Asking for clarity on the homework, even when the professor openly encouraged us to do so, was far too embarrassing, even from a professor that was almost begging us to ask questions.

Instead, I kept my mouth shut and ignored the concepts that I got wrong. I not only cringe on behalf of myself and my final exam, but on behalf of my fellow classmates that were in the exact same boat as me. We didn’t want to look stupid. No one wanted to openly admit not understanding a core concept of the course.

If just one of us had spoken up about our failure to understand the topic, all of us would have learned something—and maybe even earned a higher final grade.

Lastly, our failure does not harken the Apocalypse. Fire and brimstone will not rain down from the sky because we bombed a midterm. There is no reason to give up.

This is the perfect time to take time to step back, review what happened, and see how we could have done it better. Maybe we skimmed over that chapter in the textbook; maybe we didn’t read the textbook at all. Perhaps we should have given more time towards studying—both alone and in a group. Sometimes things happen that are completely out of our control. Beating ourselves up will not help. Ever.

As we find ourselves in a situation where we begin to struggle, don’t chalk that up as a failure. It’s not a failure—yet.

We have ample time to recognize our struggles and address them to move forward. Failure, especially in school, does not happen out of nowhere. It’s not as if we go 13 weeks and find ourselves suddenly failing a class. We need to take it upon ourselves to mark our progress within our classes.

Speak with professors, preferably within the bounds of their office hours to see what can be done to ensure success in the course.

If we find ourselves in a position where we are failing, or have failed a class, we can do ourselves an enormous favor and meet with a counselor. The counseling staff at Citrus is here to guide us and ensure we have access to all of the tools necessary to create a successful academic experience.

Many tools are provided, but we must take them in our hands in order to sculpt the future we want.

Failure is not the bridge falling apart, but a chance to reassess the path to where we want to end up.