Fear of failure, staying stuck in our stories

When I was 24 years old, I was fortunate enough to go camping in the Drakensberg mountains, with my boyfriend. On the second day we decided to do one of the most scenic hikes in the area, the Sentinel Chain Ladder.  The actual hike was not very difficult although it is very high starting at 2560m and ending at a view point at 3015m above sea level. And the final part consists of 2 rickety chain ladders that we had to climb, the first one is about 40m and the second one 20m. About half way up the first one I became paralyzed by fear.  I couldn’t go up; I couldn’t go down. I just clung to the ladder not able to move. The guide and my boyfriend called to me, trying to reassure me that it was ok that I could do it. But I couldn’t.  My mind was filled with thoughts of falling to my death, how I wasn’t strong enough, how tired I was, how I couldn’t breathe. And while I was busy hugging that rock harder than any limpet could have, mind racing, tears rolling down my cheeks; a boy of about 7 years old came scampering past me on the 2nd set of ladders that ran parallel to the set that I was clutching and went up to the top, no problem.  And I thought, “What? Hang on a minute that’s a little kid and if he can do it, I can do it.” and just like that my fear vanished and although I was still shaky and I had to go slowly I managed to make it to the top.  

I remembered this adventure today while discussing fear of failing when starting an online business on a webinar with Frank Sieben on SFM. We were discussing how negative thoughts about ourselves keep us stuck and how this perpetuates when we focus on ourselves instead of focusing on how we can help others.  If we can just step outside of ourselves for a moment, like I did on the chain ladder climb, the thought pattern is disrupted and we can become un-stuck.

But often the root of the fear is deeply entrenched, an old familiar story that we have been told (possibly when we were growing up or sometimes it’s our parent’s story that they passed it down to us) and we picked it up and re-told ourselves it for years and years. If that’s the case then it becomes more difficult.  

I suspect that its harder to release the deeply entrenched stories because the thoughts that give rise to the fear are accompanied by emotions. Although it is relatively easy to let go of some thoughts, when they come with what we perceive to be as “negative” emotions, they stick harder. However the same principle applies – pause, release the thoughts and surrender into the emotions – be it anger, sadness, rage – do not defend against or further substantiate these feelings with more thoughts.. in a little while they will be released.   Remember that these stories are not eternal truths, they are just thoughts, they are just emotions. If you do this you will find that they come; they go. How long they stick around for depends on how attached we are to them and whether we cling to them like my impersonation of a limpet on that mountain that day.    

But one has to wonder why we stay attached to our stories?  Perhaps it’s because sometimes they become almost like strange travelling companions and it’s hard to say good-bye because who are we without them?  Or maybe we are more afraid of having to face the emotions that are behind the story than living a mediocre life.  And sometimes we are afraid to let a story that has crippled us for most of our lives go because when we eventually realize that we could have chosen to not let it dominate our reality, we are faced with having to be accountable to ourselves for how much of our lives we have wasted, and that can be truly devastating.   

So, get busy now, the sooner the better. Stop, breath, let them go… they are just thoughts, they are just emotions, and although you have housed them for a while, they do not belong to you, they never have.  You’ve got this.      

2 thoughts on “Fear of failure, staying stuck in our stories”

  1. Love this post and the story you shared. What practical steps would you suggest for someone wanting to figure out which stories are holding them back or what those crippling fears are that they aren’t dealing with?

    1. Thanks so much. Everyone is different but usually the stories that cripple us are so familiar that we know them well.. often it’s some thing along the lines of “I’m worthless/have no value”. What we need to do is to recognise that that is not true (everyone has value they are just unable to see from where they are at that time), and create distance between ourselves and the story.
      Perhaps try the following exercise – write the stories and/or fears down as if you were writing about someone else, someone that you cared about and loved, even give the protagonist another name… and then really go into what the story is and what their fears are about as much as possible… then shut your eyes and think about that character’s story, can you give that character some advice? What would you say to them if they were your best friend/sister/son? Can you help them see things differently?
      Some times an exercise like this can allow us some space to see things from another perspective and help to shift things.. our stories are always only part of “the truth”, finding other parts can often set us free. If you are unable to do this on your own a good therapist can often help.

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