By Jacob Devaney / 11.21.2017
Master Your Fear of Failure
None of us enjoy a smack-down from the universe but this can be great medicine for the soul. Our psychological and emotional defence mechanisms are meant to protect us and keep us from being hurt but they are often the source of our pain. Unless we have the courage to be mindful, step back, and observe, while maintaining the humility to laugh at ourselves on occasion, we will certainly make matters worse for ourselves. Let’s look at this aspect of turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones so that we are empowered in this process of learning to dance gracefully through life.
Everyone has a different edge for where they are challenged in balancing the many perspectives within our internal landscape. For me, the fear of failure is often a lot worse than failure itself. Shame, humiliation and failure can be like giant monsters that are behind many of life’s decisions, in the hope that we can avoid them. Sometimes I can feel like a deer in headlights trying to decide what is the best choice to make in a given situation.
Getting Closer to the Uncomfortable
As a pianist, I spend a lot of time playing alone, emulating as much of the full sound of a band with ten fingers. Playing jazz with others requires a certain etiquette. With 88 keys that cover the range of every other instrument, one needs to be sparse and tip-toe around the other musicians while also being structurally supportive of the tune. This means really knowing the chord changes. Needless to say, my desire to have pride in my musicianship kept me away from sitting in with other musicians for fear that I would mess up or fail.
The fear of failure is often a lot worse than failure itself. Image: Goldsmiths
Once I began playing with others, I would pick tunes in key signatures I was comfortable with. One evening, the band leader suggested that we play the tune I had picked in a key that I was very musically weak in. As they started the tune, I felt trapped; clueless in the spotlight. I struggled through the first few verses, feeling like I was being dragged through a rocky field behind a horse. Then I was forced to let go of control and fear, which were also entwined with my limitations. I stepped back mentally and heard the tune from a place of enjoyment as my fingers settled into the changes; delicately becoming more comfortable as they weaved through the song. The terrifying experience gave way to a breakthrough and great confidence that I can roll with whatever is thrown my way.
Getting closer to the uncomfortable is not always something we consciously choose. I used to despise the idea of consciously allowing myself to get closer to the uncomfortable because it seems completely counterintuitive. What is comfortable to the alcoholic is another drink, to a smoker is another cigarette, and so forth. The concept of comfort is not exactly synonymous with health. Though it may feel good, though it may feel safe, it rarely encourages you to reach beyond what you already know. Growth happens at the edge of our comfort zone but our egos prefer to stay in the familiar.
The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them. ― Albert Einstein
Growth happens at the edge of our comfort zone.
Here are some things to consider when drawing closer to our own authentic expression.
Being Like a Kid
When we first learned to ride a bike, it was exciting and terrifying, yet falling down and getting back up was part of the natural process. As we get older, our desire to fall and get back up in life changes. We are no longer comfortable failing until we succeed because our ego, our identity is based on what we know and what we are good at. Hurling ourselves into a place of unknowns undermines our sense of self and our confidence. The solution is simple and fun but let’s explore other things that hold us back first.
The Mind Plays Tricks on Us
Cognitive biases come in different forms but the most popular is confirmation bias. With confirmation bias we tend to only read or seek information that supports our existing world view and beliefs. We tend to ignore or not remember any facts that don’t fit into our world view. Worse is that we will often argue with people, or make them wrong for proposing ideas that don’t fit into our belief system. In that process, we develop a tribe, surrounding ourselves with people who believe what we believe.
Consider the role confirmation bias can play in ‘fake news,’ false or deeply misleading information that spreads widely, typically via social media. – Robert Wright, Wired Magazine
Identities are Formed that Must be Defended
As we gather our tribe, and others gather theirs, the polarization increases. Each tribe believes the other is the enemy. Identities are built on this tribalism and traditions grow from it. We see this in religions, between nations, and in politics. We are collectively insulted when the other tribe says or does things that challenge our world view. We are eager to critique the other’s world view but terrified to critique our own. In this aspect of tribalism, we believe we are protecting ourselves but we may be harming ourselves and others by over-identifying. This is how the mind and the ego can trap us if we are not careful.
Each tribe believes the other is the enemy.
So confirmation bias is a ‘cognitive’ bias that is driven by feelings from start to finish. In that sense it’s feelings, more than thoughts, that propel false or misleading information through social media. – Robert Wright, Wired Magazine
We are Not Our Thoughts and Ideas
This is evident when we look back at our lives. Think of all the things you believed in your life since you were a kid, and how much those ideas have evolved, changed, or been discarded over the years. You are still you, regardless of the different thoughts and ideas you hold. It is comfortable to hold onto ideas as we get older, and surround ourselves with people who think like us, but it does lead to spiritual stagnation sometimes. Growth happens at the edges of our comfort zones.
We are taught to be proud of what we know, and are naturally ashamed of what we do not know. Meanwhile, those who have the courage to embrace what they do not know become wiser, while those who only cling to what they already know tend to be stuck in that place. Ego likes pride but is terrified of shame and will do anything to protect us from it. However, we didn’t feel shame when we were children learning to walk. We got back up after falling until we were successful. Were we ashamed to not know how to drive before we learned to ride a bike? No.
Shame, and fear of shame, are manufactured by our little friend ego and are socially enforced through our tribe. Imagine that! Tribe can be a collection of egos as much as it can be a collection of kindred souls. If you are ridiculed by your enemy tribe, you can fall back to the support of your own tribe. Being ridiculed by your own tribe is much worse than being ridiculed by your enemy tribe. This is true if you are in the Spiritual Tribe, the Religious Tribe, the Vegan Tribe, the Party Tribe, the Liberal Tribe, the Conservative Tribe etc. Often what we think is protecting us is actually holding us back.
You are still you, regardless of the different thoughts and ideas you hold.
This doesn’t mean we have to toss away everything we believe, or abandon our tribe. It doesn’t mean that our set of moral values is wrong and that we need to rebel against our roots. Not at all. It just means that it’s okay to loosen our grip. By embracing that our knowledge is incomplete, by accepting the larger mystery that surrounds our island of understanding, by seeing the places that we have put in our blind spot, by realizing where we need growth, and acknowledging our faults, we evolve spiritually. A Hopi Elder once shared some beautiful wisdom when he told me:
Sometimes in order to keep a tradition alive, you have to break the tradition. For us it is the clowns who are the accepted tradition-breakers. – Michael Kaboti
Laugh at Yourself or Someone Else Will
When we don’t take ourselves, our collected ideas and wisdom, or our tribe too seriously, something special happens. This doesn’t mean that we don’t love, respect, and honor our tribe. It means that we recognize that we are in a constant state of evolution, innovating, cultivating new ideas, growing leaves, branches and fruits from our roots. When we allow the natural curiosity to explore the edges of our comfort zone, we have to be okay with folly, with being a novice, with skinning our knees and bruising our egos. This is the great blessing of humor. When we can laugh at ourselves then it doesn’t hurt so bad when others laugh at us. It is a place of power that connects us with all other humans, whether they are in our tribe or not.
When we can laugh at ourselves, it doesn’t hurt so bad when others laugh at us.
The inspiration for this article came from reading a great piece called How Mindfulness Can Save America, by Robert Wright, which is why I have sprinkled his quotes throughout the blog. He delves deeper into the social media and political repercussions of these ideas, while presenting mindfulness as a solution for all sides. I highly recommend his article and the way he relates the current polarization in our society to the need for mindfulness practices.
It is not easy to recognize that our understanding of reality may not be complete. It can bruise our ego to realize that we have been acting foolish, but to ignore this part of our humanity just makes the problems worse. When our pride gets too big to swallow we create more suffering for ourselves and those around us. Allow yourself the time to observe your feelings, your reactions, your defences, and loosen your grip on them (or the grip they have on you). Let there be folly and humor in your life, flirt at the edges of your comfort zone and see what you find there. Though our ego may become humbled and even bruised, our soul will be grateful for new growth!