ask polly

‘I’m Scared of Failure’

Photo: Michael Bruns/Getty Images/EyeEm

Dear Polly,

I’m turning 25 in February. It took me two extra years to graduate from high school because of bullying. I’ve always been a bigger girl, and up until recently, I didn’t know how to love myself the way my best friends love me. I’ve been battling depression and anxiety all my life, and I recently lost my 15-year-old brother in a car accident. I’ve dealt with that pretty well, considering. I’ve only ever worked in minimum-wage jobs until this year when I landed a great career working in customer service.

But I feel stuck, having lived in the same small town, in the same home, my entire life. Trapped, essentially. I’m moving in January, but into town, not farther away from it. I want to see the world and experience new things. Learn more about my culture. Write a blog and stick to it — I pay for the fucking subscription every month, why don’t I post any new content?

Because I’m frightened. Instead of sending this to you, I should be posting this on my blog. I’m scared of failure. I want to push through that. But that little drop of doubt is what stops me every time. I have had every chance to sit down and just write. I’m off most of the year, and have been for most of my life, between school, and just really great timing with jobs. But I avoid it like the plague because I’m scared of not being good enough. Why should I care? I don’t know, but I do.

How the hell do I get over that? Do you ever feel that way? How do you just do it?


Dear Afraid,

What if you will fail, because you’re not good enough? Let’s just say that you’re terrible. It’s an embarrassment. Everyone can tell how awful you are. You’re a joke. Now what?

Does that mean you have to stay hidden? Should you live your whole life inside of a safe tent of I Will Always Fail Because I’m Not Good Enough? Does it feel good in there? Do you feel cozy and safe? Or is it a little stuffy and cluttered? Do you feel a little sick and isolated and stuck? Even though leaving your tent is terrifying (They’re all laughing at you, it’s true! Those aren’t birds singing, that’s malevolent cackling!), staying in your tent is also awful. Everything is awful, you tell yourself, as you lie in your tent. I will always be a disappointment to myself and others.

You’re hidden, but it doesn’t help.

What if you emerge from your tent in spite of your fears? And now you can hear everyone laughing, just like you imagined? And they all truly think you’re awful, you can see it on their faces? How will that feel, standing in the fresh air for the first time in days? Your thoughts will be consumed by how terrible you are, what a joke you are, at first. You’ll try to fix it, to seem less terrible, and all of your energy will be focused on this effort, so you won’t notice the smell of the air or the way the trees stand so still and tall. After a while, though, the laughter will fade into the background a little (How long can these idiots stand there and laugh, anyway? Don’t they have anything better to do? Who are these losers?), and you’ll notice the trees.

The trees are not moving. They are very tall. One tree seems to have its arms spread out, like it’s giving a benediction. The other two are like a couple, one taller than the other. They are a pair, wordlessly aligned. And even though they don’t move, they don’t speak, they don’t make a sound, you can suddenly see that these silent trees are on your side.

You have to get out of your head to see that clearly. You have to stop focusing on the laughter to notice these allies. You have to withstand the awkwardness and the fear that comes with being out in the world. You have to anticipate and then tolerate those feelings: You will feel inadequate and overexposed and anxious. But the more you expect, notice, tolerate, and accept those feelings, the more calm you’ll feel when they come up. You will allow space for these things. You’ll observe. You’ll wait.

And then, you’ll take a step, out into the day. You’ll force yourself to look up at the trees, to tell yourself that they are your allies.

Leaving your tent, leaving the house, leaving your town, leaving your safe places, posting on your blog: these things will always make you face how fearful you truly are. They’ll make you face how your anxiety kicks up, in the face of imagined judgment. Silence means that you’re about to fail. Noise means they’re laughing at you. Putting yourself out there means being recognized as Not Good Enough. Your job is to tolerate all of that, to face it, to live with it.

If you process your thoughts about how you’re Not Good Enough on your blog, you’ll be dragging your secrets about how much shame and fear you’re feeling out into the open. That might be exactly what you want and need to do. I’ve done that. But I wonder (since you’re at the very beginning of your new life of tolerating fear) if you can’t write your I’m Afraid to Fail and I’m Not Good Enough thoughts in your private, extra-honest journal for an hour, and then take whatever weird, whimsical, experimental strands of thought that spring from that journal, and move it over to the blog.

Make the blog about the odd SIDE EFFECTS and OFF-GASSING and BYPRODUCTS of your fears and hurt and insecurities. Give the blog a structure that’s a little bit more giddy, more wild, less direct, more crafted but also less self-conscious. Make your blog something between sheer rage and poetry. Make something that feels like your ego and your humility are dancing together. You are proud (arrogant, defensive, even!), but you are also seeking to pin down your values and live inside your most egalitarian, humble impulses. Give yourself permission to play around. Tell a story. Invent a few characters. Make them talk to each other. Ask them what they’re afraid of. Ask them what bravery looks like to them.

At first, this will feel like asking too much of yourself. But tolerate that. Try to reach up and out with your words, to discover new territory, to find something in the world that’s wider and bigger than your fears. But let your fears sit beside you as you try these things. Don’t stop writing your extremely honest thoughts in your journal, and don’t start seeing your blog as LESS HONEST. Notice that the more honest you get in your journal, the more crazy, interesting tangents come up and can be used on your blog. Notice how your honesty fuels a new kind of ability to show yourself in ways that are unexpected, even to you. Notice how writing — in your journal and on your blog — is a way of standing up for yourself and also a way of seeing yourself clearly.

We’re all trying to be seen clearly. We want people to love us. We want to be understood. But as someone who’s been involved in that project and that trap for over a quarter of a century now (UNBELIEVABLE) I have to tell you that learning to give yourself these things is the greatest skill of all. You do this by looking directly at your fears and refusing to stigmatize yourself for having them. You do this by tolerating the odd pauses in a conversation when you’re sure you’ve said something stupid, and instead of telling yourself “I am not normal or lovable,” you let it go. You do this by writing something that’s NOT THAT GREAT, and then trying very hard to make it better. You do this by savoring the slow, patient process of revising your work, even though you hate the work and the revising. You become a tolerant, encouraging friend to yourself. You are not perfect. Your work is not perfect. But that’s okay. Being good to yourself means living in reality. You don’t expect wild praise. You embrace what you have, and do what you can, and raise the bar as you go.

Because it doesn’t matter if people misunderstand you. It doesn’t matter if people don’t see you clearly. It doesn’t matter if people love you in inadequate ways, or don’t love you at all. What matters is that you can see yourself clearly. You understand yourself. You accept yourself. You love yourself just enough to lift your eyes to the tall, still trees and say to yourself, “These trees are on my side.” You can honor your values and give generously and tell the truth and ask for what you want from others. You can do these things because you accept who you are and how you’re wired and you refuse to use anyone’s laughter as a reason to live your whole life inside a tent.

You’re going through a kind of quarter-life crisis, in part because you’re probably still struggling with your brother’s death. You should make sure to allow some room for that sadness. Dealing with that “pretty well” shouldn’t mean sweeping those feelings under the rug. Consider trying to find an affordable, sliding-scale therapist, if you don’t have one already, and make sure not to bury your grief, because it will mess with your life in other ways if you don’t allow some time and space for it.

Once you face that sadness more directly, you might find that it alleviates some of your anxiety and fear. Just remember that, no matter how fearful you’re feeling, you still have choices. You can move to your town or move to another country. You can choose to define yourself as someone who has grown dramatically, or you can tell people that you are a living, breathing question mark with no clue about what the future holds. You can recognize, in your heart, that fear will never leave you. You can accept that anxiety and depression might always be around when times get rough. And you can stand up for yourself, repeatedly, calmly, just by leaving the tent, just by going out into the world and refusing to explain yourself or apologize for yourself. You can stand up for yourself by simply admitting that you’re afraid, without going into the wrinkles and folds of your fear, out of habit, out of anxiety, out of some need to be seen, understood, loved. When you make some room for your own circling thoughts and wild emotions, you stop needing other people to prove that these things are okay, that you’re okay. You know you’re okay already. Slowly, your I’m Not Good Enough becomes I Am Enough. You don’t have to force it to get there. Slowly, you notice that you can be afraid and you’re still enough.

The goal is not to rid your life of fear and shame and sadness. Because you’ll never succeed at that. And when you don’t succeed at it, you’ll blame yourself. You’ll say, “I was always meant to fail. I knew it all along. I was always going to be a loser who’s anxious and depressed and too afraid to do anything.”

The goal is to tolerate these things, calmly. The goal is to watch them try to take hold. The goal is to hear the laughter, and tolerate the laughter, and then raise your eyes to the treetops.

This morning, I started to reply to your letter by writing about my own fears. Sometimes writing about myself works. Sometimes it leads me somewhere promising. But I got bored with my fears quickly. I thought “BLEH, this is terrible, I’ve lost my gift, I’m fucked.”

So I thought about what is true for me right now. And the truth is, I’ve spent most of my week doing a bunch of interviews, all of them last minute and pretty unplanned. I answered a bunch of questions about HOW WISE I AM (Why am I wise? Where does it come from? How do I organize my day in order to maximize my wisdom?). And I started to feel very sick of myself, and bored with hearing myself speak. I had to look at that sick feeling.

And the truth is, I hate the idea of talking about wisdom instead of fear. What is wisdom, anyway? It’s a way of maneuvering around fears that will never, ever leave you. It’s a way of looking up at the trees until they tell you something, until they reassure you. Or they don’t. It’s a way of tolerating the awkwardness of a phone call from a stranger who thinks you’re much better than you actually are.

You think you’re not good enough? Dude. I am really, truly Not Good Enough in such a public, exposed way. Sometimes when I start a new response to a letter, I start to picture an ex-friend or relative who might end up reading my words and rolling their eyes at what a fucking tool I’ve become. But it’s my job, quite literally, and as a human being, to tolerate those feelings and also to recognize that THEY’LL NEVER GO AWAY. It’s my job to use those feelings. It’s my job to work with what I have. Those feelings are a part of what I have.

You don’t take the fear and beat yourself up with it, in other words. You admit that it’s there, you tolerate it, you laugh at it, you accept it. Why should fear keep you inside your tent, when we’re all so afraid? Because if you step outside of your tent and you’re patient, eventually other people’s laughter fades into the background, until it almost sounds like a gaggle of string instruments, warming up. And if you stand up straight like those trees do instead of crumpling up in a ball, the laughter becomes a symphony, perfectly in tune, a gigantic, heart-stopping wave of sound that lifts you up.

Eventually, my fear of ex-friends laughing at me and my fear of knowing I am not wise have coalesced into a kind of belief system: I don’t believe in SEEMING WISE. I don’t want to engage in the surreal performance art of DROPPING KNOWLEDGE ON MERE MORTALS. So I have to find ways to subvert that. I have to find ways to show up and be my ragged self and admit that I know nothing, Jon Snow, nothing nothing nothing.

I can’t become what other people want me to be. I have to be who I am. I am just a writer. I am the sum of my fears and my beliefs and my shame. You are, too. I’ve crafted a life out of these things. You can, too. It doesn’t mean that I was once pathetic and now I’m superhumanly excellent, and you should follow in my footsteps. It means that we’re both here, small under these trees, but we can look up together, and feel solidarity. “We are made of fear,” we’ll tell the trees. “It never goes away.”

The trees won’t speak, but their straight posture speaks for them. You still have choices, they tell us. You are not an embarrassment. Take risks. Tolerate these fears. Tolerate how weak you are. Wild out with your weakness. Wild out with your shame. Find your beliefs, they’re mixed in with your shame. Find your values. Dig for them and honor them. You don’t have to become someone else. We like you just the way you are.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I’m Scared of Failure’