Fear of failure

I was chatting with one of my friends on Facebook last night, and we were discussing some of the issues we were both facing in recovery.  One of the things we ended up discussing was how embarking on recovery brings about the possibility of failure.

One of the things that so enthralled me with the eating disorder was that I felt it was something that I was good at.  Not that I ever felt it was quite good enough, but I knew I was good at it.  I didn't need anyone to tell me this.  I knew I could succeed at losing weight even when everything else seemed to be falling down around me. 

Recovery, on the other hand, was very different.  I knew how to lose weight.  The methods were very straightforward.  Eat less, exercise more. I knew, ultimately, I couldn't fail.  But recovery wasn't so straightforward.  I could stop eating much more easily than I could start.  It's like--anorexia was like falling off a cliff.  I had the help of gravity.  Recovery was like trying to climb up.  You have to fight gravity.

Here's the thing: I am really afraid of failure.  Like really really afraid.  And recovery meant the possibility of failure.  I don't like to do things if I'm not sure of success.  It's why I didn't bother applying to any top-tier schools--I was too afraid of being rejected.  It's also why I never really played sports.  I've come to enjoy being active later in life, but I never played sports when younger because I wasn't that good.  I also didn't like the idea of dating unless I knew the person I was going to go out with was going to be "The One."  Needless to say, I didn't do much dating until very recently.

Because of all this, I built my life so that I basically always succeeded.  I'm not familiar with failure, so it stings especially badly when things go wrong. I don't like uncertainty, and so I either worked my butt off or simply avoided situations where I might not succeed. I was lucky to thrive in academic settings, which meant I didn't get much practice--if any--at learning how to deal with failure.

It's easy to see how I might be a little wary of recovery.  Where the outcome was unclear.  Where I wasn't sure if I could do it.  Where, to boot, I wasn't even sure I wanted the outcome.

It's something I need to get over in order to keep making progress.  Fear of failure keeps me from trying new things, from branching out.  It keeps me trapped.  Logically, I know that each thing I try in recovery won't always be successful.  I know that not everything I try will be useful.  But I hesitate to try or do things that won't be perfect, useful, or (for that matter) perfectly useful.  Except there's no way to find the things that will work without trying a bunch of things that might not work.

It's pretty ironic that I need to get better at failure in order to succeed at recovery.  But then nothing about eating disorders makes much sense.

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Dawn said...

so true about recovery feeling like fighting gravity! I am listening to the audio book of "The Pursuit of Perfect" right now. It is a really good read and exactly what you say here, that failure makes us stronger and more able to cope with bad things or future failure. It is a bizarre concept that failure is a necessary part of life, a concept that I really don't like!

Cathy (UK) said...

First, there's no way that anyone (other than yourself, Carrie) could consider you to be failing. You are a great writer, have a very popular ED blog, you're a good kitty mommy etc., etc. So you need to get the idea of 'failure' out of your head!

You write "Fear of failure keeps me from trying new things, from branching out...".

I thought about this statement from my own perspective. I have terrible fear of trying new things and from branching out, but it's not attributable to a fear of failure as such. What underpins my fear of novelty (and spontaneity, unpredictability, fear of change etc.) is mental and behavioural rigidity. It's just a total mental block to 'do' change. Unless I know exactly how a situation will pan out, I panic. The bit where failure comes in is when I try to do something new but have a meltdown or shutdown because I'm not coping with it. And if I don't cope then (in effect) I fail.

This is the part of me I am trying to work on right now. That totally rigid, inflexible part that cannot cope with change. My AN has been part of a much larger syndrome, and it was the most obvious part of that syndrome because it was so physically apparent. It is only now that I am heavier that all my other difficulties have come to the surface. These other difficulties were present long before AN, and are trait rather than state, so they take much more energy to tackle.

I never saw my AN as something I was good at. It was merely a means of controlling my life through a never changing routine. And that's where the 'control' aspect comes in, at least for me. It has nothing to do with a desire to control, or exert power other people, or fighting a lack of control; it's about avoiding change and associated anxiety.

Anonymous said...

"It's like--anorexia was like falling off a cliff. I had the help of gravity. Recovery was like trying to climb up. You have to fight gravity." This bit really stuck out to me - you're so right Carrie. Also how recovery is so much more complicated. To lose weight you eat less, to recover you... well what DO you do? Eating more won't make you recover just like that, if it did then I think it would be so much easier.

Angela said...

I can definitely relate to this. It is why I'm so afraid of trying new things. The thing about an eating disorder strangely enough is that we forget when we were so deeply entrenched, that we also felt like a failure when we did eat. I felt like I was good at it when people would compliment me on my willpower, but it still was never good enough. Recovery to me often feels like failure when I gain weight, even though a huge part of me wants recovery. It's such a double edged sword. Keep on fighting that gravity because in the end it will be worth it, because you are worth it.

Zuzka said...

First, thanks for being so honest, Carrie.

I'm also very scared of failure. I think I experienced some failures in my life, but most of them were only in the past 6 years and a lot of them were ED-related. I think I have very poor coping skills to deal with failure, or better, my reactions to what I perceive as failure (these reactions are mostly anger/resentment/hate/disgust towards myself, frustration and hopelessness). I'm trying to work on this - I guess by being more gentle with myself and thinking more constructively than destructively...

Anyway, to me you seem like a very good, caring and smart person. Good luck with everything!

Katie said...

I really relate to this post. A similar thought process was related to my depression as well as my anorexia. I felt as if it were safer not to put all of my energy and enthusiasm into recovery from either, because it seemed that every time I tried, something dreadful would happen and knock me back. Eventually I just couldn't bear the thought of any more disappointment so I quit trying. Being at rock bottom is horrible, but at least then you have nothing left to be taken from you. Eventually I managed to challenge those fears but I remember how persuasive they were!

I know perfectionistic traits might tell you otherwise, but I don't think anyone CAN fail at recovery while they are still breathing. You can have rough patches but there is always the potential for things to turn around as long as someone is still alive :)

Anonymous said...

I feel the exact same way as you do sometimes, but it's not possible to fail at recovery. If I get up and do my best everyday, then I didn't fail. I only fail, when I fail to try. I only fail when I give up. I refuse to give up.

Fear and perfectionism does keep me in the illusion that I don't try things but then I realize (like you, Ms Carrie) how amazingly accomplished my life actually is! Don't downplay your talents and gifts because you're awesome. Okay?
So much energy is spent comparing ourselves to others when we actually need to be practicing self care.

A:) said...

Honestly, I know how you feel.

I relapsed before going to university because if I was ILL I had a reason not to do as well at school - a reason to fall back on as to why I could not adjust/excel at academics like others did. Ironically despite my BMI of 14.5 and very fucked up ED thinking I did do well and DID manage to gain 9lbs that year while in university.

Even now, SO CLOSE (6lbs!) away from my target weight, I am terrified of reaching it because once there I feel I will have no excuse not to be "normal." Being in recovery gives me a reason as to why I am not volunteering as much, outgoing enough, academically excelling, socially active and boyfriendless.

When I am feeling this way, I always remember this House quote that I found really inspiring.

“Nothing we do has any lasting meaning. Life is dangerous and complicated and it’s a long way down. You rather imagine that you can escape instead of actually trying because if you fail then you have nothing. So you’ll give up the chance of something real so that you can hold onto hope. Thing is, hope is for sissies. – House Season 4

It reminds me that it is weak NOT to try and challenges me to do something beside HOPE while sick. I can DO while trying to get better. . .


j.m.r. said...

This blog should be required reading for ED specialists and friends/family of ED patients. As one friend of mine would say, "Get out of my head, Carrie Arnold!" But, really, thanks for being in it, and for giving it the voice I lack the courage to.

Now: When is someone going to quote Beckett?

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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