Confident Rejection: Handling Fear of Failure

In an earlier article, I described my growing awareness of fear of failure, how it became a familiar part of myself at home in my psyche. So, how do I deal with this unhelpful little shadow, my fear of being valueless?

Countering the Evidence

One way might be to counter that basket of evidence. I’ve learned a lot more since my Ph.D. program rejections about what should be in an application. I now know why my prior submission was considered weak: incoherent recommendations, a weak math background demonstrated by relatively unimpressive GRE math scores, and too many hypotheses festooning my essays. In many ways, I feel much better. I no longer feel like it was about me. I put together a pretty unconvincing package.

I feel better until I consider what others will think of me based on the simple fact: I was rejected from 13 programs. That’s what makes up the heavy contents of my basket of evidence, the little facts that might be interpreted to reflect something negative, maybe indicating a pattern of failure.

Even as I write this, I feel a draft of doubt emanating from the basement, blowing away some of the comfort in realizing that my application didn’t represent me well.

I wonder if I’m just making excuses. Perhaps if I were smart enough to get in, I would have gotten in. Can I really justify it? What about all those other failures in the basket? Can I really justify all of them away, too? What’s reality, here? Overall, I’m scared people will judge me negatively, they won’t hire me, and I’ll end up feeling valueless forever. I’m scared I can’t trust myself.

Distinguishing Shared Reality from Illusion

While working in labs, I learned about a theory of our universal need to know the truth. Or at least, to think we know the truth. I certainly don’t want to be deluding myself, particularly about something as important to my life as what I might do with it. According to Hardin and Higgins, one way that people think that they know the truth is when other people validate their perception, creating a shared sense of reality. We want our impressions and beliefs to be confirmed. At least, I do. The admissions committees at these schools didn’t validate my reality. I agree with them, now, but at the time, it surprised me. We did not share a reality, and I didn’t get the acceptance that I wanted. Therefore, I failed. (Thirteen times.)

I’m pretty sure people can look at almost any rejection or failure as a lack of validation. When the world isn’t validating what you think is true, it becomes hard to trust yourself.

But history has noted at least a few times in which shared realities ended up being untrue or at least a little nuts in hindsight, such as the sun revolving around the Earth, Stravinsky’s music being horribly received, the beliefs that led to the 2008 economic downfall.

So, while it’s natural to want some external validation and to be accepted by your group, there’s a point at which it isn’t helpful. If I trusted myself I wouldn’t need other people’s validation, but I’ve made my self-trust dependent on external validation. How do I break this dependency and trust in myself without so much reliance on what others think?

Building Self-Trust

One way might be to fill a mental basket with evidence that I am capable -- in other words, to build self-efficacy. To this end, I retrieved my GRE books from storage and have poked at them on and off for the last year. It’s taken me a while, but that panicky feeling is beginning to seem manageable. The sight of the words: “Two trains are traveling in opposite directions…” still creates a quiet gasp, and an inclination toward the thought, “Argh. I don’t know how to do this one.” But, if I actively pull my thoughts back to the math problem at hand, and ask myself, “What do we need to know? What do we know already?” I can begin to see a path.

I’m realizing that I just have to get over that initial wave of fright when I encounter a problem for which I don’t immediately see the answer, It comes, I notice it, and it eventually subsides, somehow on its own. Now, overall, I don’t feel I would be risking that much by re-taking the GRE.

It was as though there was this hole where math skills should have been, and I had laid a few branches over it and hoped that no one would notice and that it would hold my weight. Now, I see that it’s filled in a bit with dirt and pebbles and that I can keep filling it in. I can trust that I will do better and overcome that initial panic, because I’ve witnessed myself overcome it a few times before. Eventually, there will be solid ground under my feet in that area. Confidence.

Part of that confidence comes from seeing myself do the math. Another part of it is that I’m no longer trying to cover it up.

Owning my Self-Worth

I think I need to get over the fright that others might not validate me. I need to see that I will still be okay even if they don’t. That’s part of the exercise in publishing this article. No doubt some people will read this, see that I’ve been rejected so much, and make the judgments about me that I’ve been so afraid of. I’ll just have to deal with that. Two things allow me to quiet my little basement tenant enough to write: knowing that I’ve been authentic in writing about this tender subject and knowing that my intention is to help others normalize their own fears and lay out some options for peeling them away.

I’ll bet my self-worth is highly related to my self-trust. If I valued myself more, I might trust myself more. When I finally stop to think about what I consider truly valuable in myself, it’s not how well I do on the GREs, but my ability to get better at them. It’s not that I have or don’t have a Ph.D., it’s my curiosity. It’s my ability to accept others completely and my ability to listen closely. Really, it comes back to my authenticity. I value myself most when I can slow down and notice what’s going on in my mind and body enough, not driven by the need for external validation or fear of rejection. It seems the very thing that makes me most worthwhile in my own eyes is what has gotten lost in the shadows of fear and doubt.


According to Susan Harter, authenticity is knowing yourself and acting accordingly. But knowing yourself isn’t always so easy. In writing this out, you can see that I had been distancing myself from these fears for years, and yet they were quietly motivating my decision not to apply, not to charge more, and the occasional Chihuahua shakes that came over me when considering my future. It took some serious mindful time, trying to tune into everything I was sensing. I’m still not sure I’ve caught everything.

Acting accordingly is also not so simple. As I mentioned, I need to get over any concerns about how others might judge my story. Of course I’m hoping for good reactions. That’s still hoping for external validation in a way, but the thing that makes it different is that I’ve tried to let you into my head as much as I can in order to give you the sense of what I actually experience. I think that might allow you to empathize, which I think makes this more of a connection than a request for a pat on the back.

Being authentic allows me to be seen.

Confident Rejection: A First-Hand Look at Fear of Failure

After two years of working in various labs, organizing mind-melting spreadsheets of data too big to fit in a single excel file, coding minute gestures and facial expressions, and collecting saliva in test tubes, I had gathered my recommendations and written up my statements of purpose. I awaited responses from 13 social psychology doctorate programs.

At first it came in just a trickle. “We regret to inform you…” You can tell that it’s a ‘no’ just by the size of the envelope. After opening the mailbox to four of those, I took the mail key off of my key ring, leaving the dirty work to my boyfriend. Every time one came in, it seemed to be yet another reason that I wasn’t good enough.

Yes, yes, they could only accept one or two candidates, and most of the professors I requested to work with hadn’t even met me. They probably had their own research assistants who were applying. Sure, that’s possible. Also there were still nine more schools. Some of them weren’t even that great, so I was bound to get in somewhere.

But the rejections kept coming. I didn’t get into any of the 13 programs that I had applied to. THIRTEEN failures. Over a thousand dollars in submission fees.

This was three years ago, and I haven’t applied since. It’s hard to pin down exactly why. One reason is that, off and on, I figure maybe I don’t really need a Ph.D. after all, but this echoes the false justification of the boy rejected on the schoolyard who yells back at the girl, “You’re ugly, anyway.” Another reason might be the thought of retaking the GREs, which initiates a tingling down my arms, leading to the slow perspiration of my palms and the quickening of my breath like a paranoid dachshund. Lastly, to pull off the remaining tattered bathrobe: A fear of failure.

When I listen a little more closely, that fear is specific. What if I don’t get in, yet again? It would be more evidence that I’m not good enough to get a Ph.D.. It would mean that something I submitted was off. I should have rewritten that statement of purpose. I should have studied for the GRE writing section a little bit beforehand. Or maybe my ideas are just not interesting. Would I really want to reapply? Or should I take this as a hint?

Aftermath of Failure

As I write all this down, I see immediately how irrational it is. How one-sided. I made everything all my fault automatically. I even backspaced the more embarrassingly dramatic stuff that came to mind first, but I’ll show you here: They rejected me because they think I’m not smart enough to go this route. Maybe I’m not — They’re experts at this, right? I’ve been preparing for this for over two years, which seems like plenty of time. I guess even they don’t value me. No one values me. (Whoa, this last thought makes my eyes water.) This is the real fear: I’m not valuable.

Now that I’ve told you about it, I can easily see how over-the-top these thoughts are. “Nobody” values me? That’s a pretty big leap, I suppose, but when these thoughts crept through my mind, they went by automatically, hardly even verbalized by my inner narrator. A stinging feeling still lingers in my chest, even from just rereading these words. It seems that those thoughts that slip right past, kicking up a trail of hormones, are often ones we end up believing, whether we want to or not.

Until writing this, I realize that a lot of the thoughts I’m describing have been buried, latently determining many of my decisions. I had put my GRE books in storage, decided that I wasn’t going to re-apply, or at least, I wasn’t going to deal with deciding whether or not to reapply for a while. I sputtered for a while, teaching yoga, doing some team consulting, and writing music. All this was for very little pay, and much of it for free. This isn’t because I’m a philanthropist at heart, but because I felt that I wasn’t worth charging for.

Looking at Failure More Clearly

Sad, right? That’s not why I’m telling you. I’m telling you because I want you to see that I have been quietly making a mental basket full of evidence showing why I’m not valuable (oh jeeze, the watery eyes again, the lump in the throat). I’ve probably been doing it since I was a little kid. Remember the time I totally forgot my violin piece at my Brownies talent show?

I’ve been developing this fear of being valueless, making it a warm, cozy home and knitting it a hat. It has been quietly influencing my decisions. Decisions about what I do for a living and how much I make are big ones, but it shows up even in small ways, such as the guilt I feel for not accomplishing my goals for the day. Then the fear subtly smirks, adding yet another nugget of evidence to the basket.

Sometimes, there is a little piece of me that subtly makes a choice not to push through my work and actually helps this fear become a belief. I add another stockinet row to that hat when I vaguely decide not to tough out my last task because, in some small way, I want that belief to be correct. At least I’ll be right, I guess.

Being Right or Facing Fear?

Why would I ever want this belief to be confirmed? At the time, way back in the dark basement of my mind where this decision is quietly made, it seems like being right might be worth something. Writing it out makes it seem so illogical, so surprising, to think that I would want to fail, even in a small way. The only rationale I can come up with is that there might be some comfort in knowing myself, even if it’s not the self that I want to be.

I know that fear is down there, and I don’t know what life would be like without it. Maybe it’s like some sort of Stockholm syndrome, but it seems like I have embedded this fear in my identity. I’ve learned it about myself: I am creative, female, brunette, intolerant of any kind of bean, and scared that I’m worthless. This insidious fear has been living in my brain basement for a long time now. It’s no surprise that it has a toothbrush in the upstairs bathroom and tells me what it wants for dinner.

So, how do I deal with this unhelpful little shadow and rebuild my identity? Seeing what it’s been up to and how it manifests is undoubtedly the first step. Stepping back and looking at it seems to take away much of its power. When I’m listening closely to its whisper with curiosity and perhaps a bit of humor, my judgment of this little guy drops away. When my judgment is gone, I am free to consider other ways of dealing with it.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll talk about specific actions that are helping me wrestle my confidence from its clenched mitts.

One Woman's Meditation: Weightlifting

As I push open the door, gym bag on my back, and trot down the cement steps, I’m comforted by the familiar smell of rubber and sweat, indicative of all the effort that has happened under the yellow lights of this basement. The next hour is mine to push myself.

Today, we’re doing snatches. I get changed, tape my thumbs so they won’t chafe, and grab a barbell. This begins my warm up. I break the movement down, piece by piece, with the empty bar, giving my body time to acclimate to these strange postures and precarious transitions. Then I will start to add weight.

But before lifting, I must imagine it: I walk up to the barbell, gently touching it with my shins. My feet are just a little wider than my hips. I place my hands wide, just a few inches from the plates, being sure to tuck my thumb under my fingers. I feel the cold bar quickly warming under my grip. I bend my knees a little more, press my knees out, fire up my abs, and look up. I find the point at which I start to feel the weight of the bar pulling against my arms, then I inhale and keep that breath. Then I lift, skimming the front of my legs with the bar as I shrug my shoulders up, elbows lifting out to the sides, like a scarecrow. As the bar passes my hips, I pop it up, momentarily on my toes, before I hop my feet out into a squat and get under the weight. I squeeze my shoulder blades together like crazy and lock out my arms. Now, all I need to do is stand up, keeping it over my head. Keep looking forward and a little up, lifting the chest. Press, press, press my knees out to the side as I straighten my heavy legs, cemented to the floor. Once I’m standing, weight over my head, I’m stable, I’m powerful. I’m not done yet — I’ve got to put the bar down. I release my grip and step back, awaiting the slam of the bell against the floor.

Now it’s in my mind, and I do it. Smooth and controlled. I notice that I hesitate in dropping the bell, a little nervous about dropping something so heavy. The crash on the rubbery gym surface still jars me, and I feel apologetic for the noise. But I know there’s no need — this is how it’s done.

My heart is surprisingly alive after that, and my eyes are wide. I take my ritual walk to the chalk bucket to let my body calm down. I look at my hands, the white powder sitting in the cracks of my palm like I had been baking. But I’m proud that this isn’t flour. I’m proud to have a hint of calluses where my middle and fourth finger meet my palm — it’s an indication of the work I’ve been doing and the strength I have earned.

Pride is an emotion that I find difficult to reconcile with my usual humility. But I can’t seem to get over the amazing transformation I am seeing in myself. The physical strength has coincided with watching myself do things I didn’t think I would ever do. What’s particularly interesting is that, even just six months ago, I had no desire to touch a barbell. I wasn’t even too interested in being able to do a pushup. What do these skills translate to in reality, anyway?

My strength training began due to a hip injury that muted my yoga practice. It became clear that building muscle was the only thing I could do to shore up my wobbly hip. I started with body weight exercises and kettle bells (which I still use and love), but the idea of lifting a barbell seemed weird and unnecessary. I had tried it a few years earlier and attributed my negative reaction to the seemingly competitive environment. But, I was getting excited about my progress as I moved up to heavier kettle bells and it seemed more weight was within my reach. My husband had been working on weightlifting and invited me to try it. I still didn’t really like it very much.

It took me a little while to realize that my initial aversion to the barbell came from some sense of fear about not being able to do it. That, combined with my perception of the weightlifting community as being kind of rude and egotistical. Making big loud noises by dropping the bar just seemed peacockish and unnecessary.

But I now understand. It’s the only way you can put down the bar sometimes. And the egotistical aspect? Well, there’s something very exciting about seeing yourself grow.

I shake out my arms and go back to my bar to challenge myself. It’s still a little surprising to me that I can snatch up any weight at all. But I’m here to grow. I’ve now got 5lbs more than my maximum weight on the bar. This would be a very nice achievement, but it’s really not that much more weight than I’ve seen myself do in the past.

I’ve having trouble imagining the process, and I notice something in my chest is clenching a little bit. I’m scared. It’s so many pounds of weight, and it will be over my head. What if I can’t do it? And for a moment, that’s where my mind stops. The sounds of the rest of the gym enter my awareness — barbells slamming against the ground and bouncing a couple of times. I’ll just drop the bar in front of me. I know it will be loud, but it won’t hurt me. That’s the worst case. No big deal.

My fear is still there, though. Okay, bar. It’s you and me and this weight, and I’ve got you figured out, now. That extra weight is about that of a newborn Labrador. So, I’m lifting weight I know I can do, plus a puppy.

I take a deep breath and close my eyes, one more time thinking through it all: My shins against the bar. My grip wide, thumbs under. Abs. Breathe. Lift. I’ve got that part under control. The part that isn’t so clear is where the bar hits my hips and I pop it up, immediately dropping into my squat to get under it. How am I going to move it quickly enough? Wait, I forgot about my shoulders. My shoulders shrug and I lift so much I’m on my toes as the weight is skimming the front of me. Then I drop under it and lock my arms straight, and use my legs to lift it up. I’ve got that tricky part in my mind, now.

This movement takes under a second to perform, but if there’s any fear in the way, I won’t trust myself to complete it. The times when my fear has stopped me are the times when I’ve disappointed myself. It’s not about the weight itself. It’s about not letting my fear drive me.

At some heavy weight, my muscles legitimately won’t be able to lift. But long before that happens, my fear stops me. I know that my fear is there to protect me — to keep me from dropping a heavy weight on my head or injuring something else. But if I listen closely, I can also sense when it’s being overprotective, coming across as doubt. This lift is about putting my fear a little further out on the perimeter.

I get the sense that there’s something special about the confidence that comes from knowing that your physical being can do something you once thought improbable. Maybe it’s because those hindering fears manifest in the body — as tightness in the chest or a cinching of the forehead, even a sensation of fatigue. When I’m doing something physical, my body seems hypersensitive to these experiences, so there’s a very raw, visceral sense of overcoming them. I now leave the gym with a body that conquers fears, regardless of what it looks like, and an expanded belief in myself. That’s what I’m there to do. It is a primitive and fundamental sense of assurance, and it seems to be spilling into all the domains of my life. If I can do this, what else can I do?

This might sound like ego, but I think it’s this foundational belief in myself that allows me to set aside my defenses and be vulnerable. There’s nothing to protect once I’ve settled my self-doubt. That settling comes from this practice of noticing. The visualization process that lifting requires gives me an opportunity to notice where I’m unsure. It takes a concentration to think through it all, but at the same time, an open awareness to catch the little sensations of tightness and insecurity. Acknowledging these feelings and exploring them with curiosity is where the insight comes from. Weightlifting has become a practice of mindfulness for me.


Originally published on Medium.

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