Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Nice day

I got very worked up today. Had something important to do. Extremely important. And... Everything went well! Very very well. Man I can't believe it well. Party time, yelling "Oh yeah!" well. S-U-C-C-E-S-S.

Yet for most of the day I was still very worked up. How odd. Not just the physiology of getting worked up (it can take a while for the parasympathetic system to get off of anxiety mode), but the fact that I had what by all accounts should, in fact, be considered a successful day. Yet there was still worry that it *wasn't* a success. Despite my scrupulous preparation, checking my work repeatedly, checking it again, checking it again... And it was still fine. Still OK. But I kept having this phantom feeling from time to time today as if I were going to get an email or phone call in which I was told that in fact my success was just a mistake and it's going to be taken back and replaced with some kind of shameful failure. I can hear it now--"Oh yes, well, we were just being polite, but in good conscience we really ought to penalize you, not reward you. Everything you did was wrong and it's a joke you thought it was any good." Yeah, right.

I have met this personal demon before. In fact I know it so well we send each other birthday cards and take vacations together. It's the fear of failure. It's a fear that can become so intense that at times it's actually preferable to fail or give up rather than to keep trying. What's truly sadistic about it is that it grows with success, which may seem counterintuitive. Let me explain. When you succeed, it tells you that you got lucky, or someone had pity on you, etc. It *wasn't* your hard work, talent, or skills. When you reach the next level of success or milestone of accomplishment, it gets worse because the odds that you will keep "getting lucky" over and over are becoming smaller and smaller. Sooner or later the streak will end, and then it will be clear to everyone that you were incompetent all long. If this still doesn't make sense, think of fear of heights instead. It's no big deal to fall two feet. But what about ten feet? Twenty? One hundred? Five hundred? The higher you climb, the bigger the fall and the more intense the fear of heights becomes.

Over the years I really became fed up with this little imp of over-exaggerated self-doubt whispering in my ear. We all have something that causes us to worry, a particular vulnerability where we are most likely to be buffeted by the circumstances of life. Mine told me I would flunk out my first year of grad school. It told me that I would fail my language requirement. That I would fail my comps. That I would be laughed out of my overview. That I could never successfully complete my project. That I would be humiliated at my defense. Plus many many more predictions that have all been shown to be incorrect. I never believed it. It was absurd. And yet it still had the power, on ocassion, to make me nervous or upset. That really bugged me, to actually *feel* the slightest discomfort over something so lame. I ignored it repeatedly even though it had been a very loud presence at times. For a while the effect it produced had been getting weaker and weaker, and in fact I believed at one point that it was gone. Then out of the blue today, the same familiar sickening feeling. Or almost the same.

It's not gone. It's just powerless. It shrieks and shrieks, but it's lost its influence. No doubt, no worry. Sure, I can feel concern creeping in and this heavy weight trying to make me depressed, but it no longer simply drags me down. Rather than a loudspeaker that blairs its unhappy tune it's just background noise which can (with effort) be tuned out. In fact, my reaction was more of a reflex than a genuine response to the taunting by my own personal boogey-man. Much like smelling a particular perfume and then being taken back a decade or two to some event that you hadn't thought of in years. The stress level simply triggered and associated response, but upon examination a very hollow one. And like jumping during a scary movie, I feel a little silly afterward.

So why bring this up? Because realizing I am no longer unduly affected by the fear of failure is an extra reason for celebrating! And because I am sure that there are other people out there who have had the same anxiety. It's not the kind of thing that is necessarily debilitating to the point where it inteferes with your ability to have normal relationships or hold a job, though it can be quite miserable at times; impairment, not mood, is the litmus test for whether one's behavior is just eccentric or whether it should be medically diganosed. But at the same time it's not always just a bit of hearburn or a nagging doubt--for some people this fear can transform into terror. This is one of those fears that many of us have and that some of us have to a more extreme degree, but not quite bad enough to count as an official illness. It's the kind of thing that may only become noticeable under periods of extreme stress, when a person is likely to act and feel miserable anyway.

Here's my advice: You can never accomplish enough to satisy the little bugger trying to bring you down. Never. Don't try. Just keep pushing through. Find supportive people. You might feel stupid because even though you intellectually realize the faulty reasoning behind your fear, you keep feeling the anxiety anyway. Don't. You can't help being anxious. Just keep going. Keep acting like you are good enough, whether or not you feel like it. Keep trying your best, even when you're sure your best is a pile of crap. Just keep pushing through. Although he wasn't talking specifically about fear of failure, I think Sensei Ogui says it best in his book Zen Shin Talks when referring to rising through the storm clouds of life. The clouds may be blocking your view of the blue sky, but it's still there--

"Go through and through and through, and you will enjoy the blue sky."

I'm sailing in the blue sky today and it feels pretty damn good.

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