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.