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.