All of us have a lengthy list of expectations around relationships, career plans, finances, family members, sport and health. Inevitably, gaps between what we would like to happen in our lives and what actually happens appear and widen. These gaps result in feelings of disappointment.
In this instance the feelings of disappointment are a result of cognitive dissonance; which is an uncomfortable, distressing emotion caused by the inability to reconcile two opposing ideas experienced simultaneously. It occurs when there is a contradiction between what you think you know and what is revealed or if there is a significant gap between what you desired as an outcome and what you are experiencing.
A telling example of cognitive dissonance can be found in some romantic relationships. You will have cognitive dissonance if you pictured an intimate relationship and the other didn’t.
Many dissonant feelings also originate from randomness. Nassim Taleb writes about improbable and unplanned chance events that affect our expectations. In his book he calls these, Black Swans. (Taleb, The Black Swan, 2007).
In his follow-up book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” Taleb writes, “Some things benefit from shock; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure and risk. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it Antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the Antifragile gets better” (Taleb, Antifragile, 2012).
It is my contention that mental toughness and antifragility are similar. Both are opposite to fragile and both challenge you to go beyond being resilient and robust into a realm where you gain and grow under pressure.
Fear of failure
Thomas Edison, American inventor and businessman is reputed to have claimed, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Disputed or not, it makes good sense to appreciate that we will fail often.
When we think about performing a skill it begins in the thinking part of our brain. The neurons get excited and they activate nerve cells connected to the limbic system. This area is associated with emotions such as fear, anxiety, elation and satisfaction and is tied to the motor cortex, which controls the muscles.
If thoughts such as those regarding fear of failure, disappointing others, or being unworthy enter your mind, anxiety levels increase. The process involves the release of more adrenalin that sets the heart racing, primes the muscles for action and puts all the senses on high alert. In other words, the fight or flight response comes into play. The fear over potential failure is now actually making you experience the symptoms of the failure you fear.
Positive thoughts can help you stay focused, but if thoughts or words stray into being scared of failing, then it can become counterproductive. Mentally tough people become aware that it is the fear itself with the power, not the concept that is scary.
A big obstacle to people achieving their intention is the fear of failure. This can be defined as being terrified of making a mistake because of the negative consequences associated with failure, i.e. loss of status or disappointing friends and family. Fear of failure is more likely to be present in people who have experienced success early in their lives or careers. Performing well in a small community isn’t as difficult or challenging as it is to prosper as a senior executive in a large corporation, as a national athlete or a star performer.
Fear, control and choking
One of the consequences of being influenced by the pressure of a big occasion is it increases our fear of failure. This drives up our arousal and we may get immobilized and potentially freeze as we try harder to control the situation that scares us.
In sporting terms this phenomena is called choking. When someone has the ability to do well and it’s expected that they will, yet they inexplicably slip up at a critical moment – the label “choker” is often used for describing this situation.
Choking occurs when the part of the brain that monitors behavior starts to interfere with actions normally made without thinking. When one is in a performance mode and overthinks it or thinks too much about the skill needed in that moment – anxiety increases and performance suffers. You may have heard that the dividing line between winning and disappointment isn’t about technique or talent; it’s about performing under pressure and in this instance, fear. It may sound over-simplistic, but when dealing with fear it’s important to remember that all people experience varying degrees of it. You may have heard people say, “I need to get over my fear of it, then I will do it.” What they should rather say is, “I need to do it, then I will get over my fear of it.”
Fear of success
You’d expect that most people want to be successful at whatever they attempt to do. Curiously, many people sabotage their own success even when it may be close. It seems they undermine their chances so that they can avoid dealing with the underlying fears that come with doing well.
Football player, Wayne Rooney, and golfer, Tiger Woods, had huge successes early in their careers. Yet, with this success they had to deal with many problems. Both were under the scrutiny of the public, they were recognised wherever they went and had to handle the high expectations of their performances and behaviour. If they weren’t winning, the community wondered what was wrong with them. If they behaved inappropriately they were condemned.
Some people might have welcomed Woods’ or Rooney’s problems because of the celebrity status they achieved but for others, the fear of success and the complications that come with it are as strong as those associated with failure. Many successful athletes, performers and businesspeople have sabotaged their careers because of their fear of success.
Why would the fear of success affect performance? Most people don’t have to deal with the fear of public scrutiny if they win a club championship or work in an assembly line. However, they still may self-sabotage by harbouring more subtle fears of success such as the fear of increased expectations or a deeply rooted belief about the evil of money and being rich.
You can expect a huge surge in anxiety if you’ve been acknowledged for a particular ability, feel pressure from high expectations and may be publicly put to the challenge of performing to your expected ability. The confidence of others, or your own expectations for yourself to do well, can pressurize you to the point where it hangs over you like a dark cloud.