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Academic Coaching & Writing

X. An Academic, Writing: Confronting the Fear of Failure

Jan 31, 2013 by Lee Skallerup Bessette

Many of my writing challenges are based in my fear of failing in my chosen career. The narrative within higher education typically defines success as getting a tenure-track job, preferably at an R1 institution. I have subscribed to this narrative, and, as a result, I say “Yes” to too many things out of fear of missing out on some unseen opportunity that will guide me to the promised land of tenure-track success. The limited and limiting aspects of my current job are real, but my reactions to them are a result of my (admittedly somewhat irrational) fear of failure or of being perceived as a failure. This week my coach and I explored these fears with a visualization exercise.

I am no stranger to visualization exercises. My first experiences were when I was a teenager, swimming competitively. Our coaches tried (sometimes successfully, often not) to get us to visualize our races, to try to recreate our races in our mind and achieve our goal time. Other times, visualization exercises helped us relax, focus, and calm down. While I wasn’t a big fan of visualization at the time, I knew that certain elements were useful and helpful. I remember using one of the visualization techniques to help calm down some of my classmates before opening night of the school play, and later using some of the same techniques to get through the natural births of my two children.

Confronting the Fear of Failure: The Future Self-Visualization

I closed my eyes, and after some breathing and preliminary visioning, Moira invited me to visit myself, 20 years into the future. I found myself standing at the door to my current house, a place I decidedly did not want to be in 20 years. Why couldn’t I picture meeting myself someplace, anyplace, else? In 20 years, how could I be stuck in the same place? I was horrified, but the place I envisioned refused to change. So, I decided to confront my fear. I got up my courage to knock on the door, ready to confront myself, my failings, my anger and resentment, head-on. I presumed that my Future Self must be angry and resentful because I felt those emotions so strongly emanating from the house.

However, when my Future Self opened the door, she smiled at me warmly. Only then did I realize that my Future Self wasn’t the source of these negative emotions—I was. There was none of that in her. Instead, all I felt from my Future Self was a sense of calm and peace. She hugged me and said that everything was going to be okay and that I was NOT a failure. How was this possible? How could this be true? How had I come to be okay with this situation? My Future Self responded. “You have done things and will continue to do things that are meaningful. You are successful, Lee. It has nothing to do with the place you live. It comes from inside. You are not failing. And you have not failed.”

I have not failed.

Finally, I was able to accept these words as being true. No matter how many times others (including my husband and other loved ones) have said these same words to me, part of me has stubbornly refused to believe them. Even now, a week later while I write this, I have my doubts (which is probably why Moira tasked me with finding something, an object of some kind, that will bring me back to this place of acceptance). Confronting my Future Self and hearing and accepting her message that I am not a failure has lead to a very powerful shift in my thinking that will help me move forward with my writing and make decisions about my priorities and how I decide to spend my time. I’ve started to say “No” to new demands in order to say “Yes” to focusing on where I want to go and what I want to do. For the next 12 weeks I will say “Yes” to writing my book.

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