How do I get over the fear of being wrong and the fear of failure?

This is a question that I was asked on Quora.com.  I thought  some of you might be interested in the issues this question raises.

Most of the answers that were given by others on Quora tended to focus on the reality that we all make mistakes and need to learn to accept that.

While this is a good response to this question, I, as an expert on emotions with two Amazon bestselling books, Emotions as Tools and Beyond Anger Management, would offer a bit different perspective.

The above question uses the word “fear” as it is commonly used i.e. “fear of being wrong” and “fear of failure”.

Unfortunately, both of these uses are incorrect because the emotion the writer is really referring to is anxiety.

I should mention that, for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t really matter which word you use. However, when you understand the difference between anxiety and fear, you enable yourself to master both emotions and the suggestions I make below will make more sense to you.

Fear is an in-the-moment emotion, the message of which is that you are perceiving a threat that will “kill” you unless you get out of that situation. Fear is the hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck raising up. The best response to fear is to get out of the situation. Too often, women, and sometimes men, experience fear but ignore it to their own peril. An example is when your feelings tell you the guy standing in the elevator is bad news eventhough he looks fine and has done nothing wrong. While you might be wrong about him, trust your feelings and take the next elevator.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a future based emotion the message of which is that there might be a threat that might hurt me.

Notice in the question that the writer is concerned about what might happen if, at some future date, he (or she) is wrong or experiences “failure”. Both are future possibilities. If the writer were wrong or had failed when they were writing the question, they would have asked a different question.

So, let’s address the question.

The antidote to anxiety (fear of being wrong) is to ask two basic questions about what might happen in the future.

The first and most important question is this: If the worst possible outcome happens to me (however you define “worst” and “being wrong”), can I survive (however you choose to define “survive”) it?

If the answer is “I won’t like it but I could survive it”, then you no longer have to dwell on the issue and can move on to the second question.

By the way, there are very few situations in which you would not “survive” if you made a mistake. So, the answer to question #1 will usually be yes. Now, if you are talking about being wrong about whether or not the mushroom you are about to eat is poisonous or not, or whether you have chosen the right rope to repel down the side of a mountain, well it will be in your best interest to get more information before you make a decision.

Whether you could survive the future or not, question #2 becomes your next focus.

Question #2 is: What do I need to do, learn, or make happen in order to reduce the possibility of “being wrong” or “failing”.

I need to explain that there are two types of anxiety. The first is called distress and the second is called eustress.

Distress is disabling, focuses on the worst case scenario, and leads you to act as if this undesirable outcome is inevitable. It is distress that the writer is most likely referring to when he talks about the “fear of being wrong”.

Eustress is enabling, uses the same motivating energy of anxiety, and focuses on what you need to do to make the right decision. This is the energy my students use to motivate them to study for an upcoming exam. When you prepare for a future event, you no longer have to avoid it because you are now prepared for it.

So, if you are prepared for the future event and you can survive it if goes bad, you will no longer have a “fear of being wrong”. You may not like it, but you won’t be “afraid” of it.

Finally, let me give you a different definition of “failure”.

Most people think that “failure” is a destination. You either “succeed” and reach your goal or you “fail” and fall short.

This is a disabling definition as it only gives you two options-achieve your goal and label yourself a success or miss your goal and label yourself a failure. And, as all kinds of things can happen which delay or interfere with you reaching your goal, you are more likely to experience “failure” rather than a need to recalculate and redirect your attention.

A more adaptive definition of failure is to see it as a process or journey. As a process, failure is defined as “falling short Y times and getting up X times, where  X > Y”. It is this definition the person who quoted Edison  as saying: “I didn’t fail 1000’s of times to make a lightbulb. I found 1000’s of ways that didn’t work.” is referring to.

As long as you pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes, make the corrections you need to make, and move forward, you can’t fail. You only fail when you give up.

I hope that gives you, my readers, a bit different perspective on this question and I welcome your comments and feedback.

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