What do you tell a soon-to-be-graduated 21-year-old adult who can’t stop freaking out about the stresses of college and the fear of failing a class, as they teeter on the lines of their comfort zone? I’m asking for a friend, and that friend is me.
I recently started my last semester of college. My Fall semester was difficult and filled with doubts. And even with those consistent doubts, 18 credits and tests every week soon came to a quick end with an arrival on the Deans list and a conversation about pursuing an honors project. Who am I? As I registered for my Spring semester I felt excited. A new semester with a mere 14 credits 3 days a week seemed right. Yet, Spring already feels maybe even a little bit worse than the last.
I can’t help but wonder whether or not I can send back this whopping side of anxiety, panic, and I-cant-wait-to-get-this-over-with fear I ordered?
I’ve never done poorly in school, but somewhere along the way, I began to start manifesting this fear in my mind of failure a year and a half back.
My super specific fear currently centers around failing a class, and being held back as I watch everyone move forward. It’s the type of sickly fear that causes heart palpitations at night as I try to fall into a deep sleep. I’m constantly thinking about future assignments, the ‘what-if’ situations, the exams…etc.
I sometimes think I may have brought this fear upon myself by creating future plans—they always tell you to never make plans, don’t they? But, I’ve done it anyway, and my developed life plan involves a few things—one of which encompasses spreading my wings and bidding adieu to Florida before the Summer is up.
It’s not that I hate my home, or where I grew up—quite the opposite actually. Rather, it’s that itching feeling to become someone other than, ‘student.’
In retrospect, I don’t think it would be the end of the world if failure were to happen—so why does it still feel like it would be?
I’ve started to ruminate on this feeling of failure, because I’m sure it’ll follow me from time to time. My career, relationships, growing old. So what’s the root of the problem? And why do I always feel like I’m the only one going through the motions of it?
I can quickly recall last week talking to friends about my fear of failing a class, and their quick ‘omg why?’ replies filled with blasé upon blasé attitudes struck me with a thought—either I’ve just truly lost it, or I recognize difficult tasks, and just simply doubt my abilities to tackle them.
A few weeks later…
It’s been a few weeks since my first week of my Spring semester, and while the anxiety has slowly started to dissipate, I recognize that until I can get over this fear of failure, it’ll continue to follow me around like a rainy cloud that just won’t quit.
Like some experiences in life, you discover you’re not so special. I’m glad this is one is one of them.
I reached out to a few people to share with me their experiences with the fear of failure.
It’s comforting to know you’re not alone.
“I think my true first failure was when I didn’t get into Dreyfoos on my first audition. That was pretty much the first time in my life that iw as rejected from something that was so important to me.”
“I’ve always struggled with math, even the early elementary stuff. Failing math tests and assignments is my earliest memory of failure”
“I can’t recall the first time I failed, but I also can’t recall the first time I won/succeeded. Maybe i’ve blocked it out, maybe it’s blended in with my collection of fears.”
“The first time that I ever experience failure was when I graduated high school almost four years ago. It happened when I didn’t get into the university that I initially preferred to get into. Looking at it now, it seems like a minor inconvenience, but back then it felt as if I had compromised my entire future.”
“I can surely pinpoint middle school as the period when I started worrying myself into never failing. Maybe because school work started getting more challenging and it demanded my complete attention.”
“The first time I experienced the fear of failure would probably be my middle school drama auditionsthere was no plan B so it was expected that I would ace the audition and be accepted into the school. Thankfully I was still young, bushy-tailed and bright-eyed; optimistic with adrenaline, which kept my head up.”
“I first experienced the fear of failure probably, again, either in math or while playing soccer. I played soccer for nine years while I was growing up_I could play one position well (the only I played all 9 years) but other than that, I was pretty shit at soccer. My coach tried to get me to play goalie one time during a high-pressure tied game. Despite that crippling fear of failure and everyone seeing it, I did pretty well. No David Beckham talents here, but good enough to see that I should get out of my comfort zone every once in a while.”
“I think in general my fear of failure nowadays comes from being at a very competitive school. You look around and see all these people in your classes who are smarter than you, have better grade than you, have more extracurriculars than you, and they are all competing for the same jobs and position as you. It’s hard not to compare yourself all the time. It gives me this lingering fear of failure because if I don’t get the same grades and the same fancy job, then I’m seen as a failure. I just want to prove that I’m good enough and failure is really what tells me that I’m not.”
“Honestly speaking, everything. I don’t want to let anyone down in my life, so it can be the most stupid thing that can trigger me into feeling fearfully uncertain.”
“The fear of the unknown and not knowing how things will turn out is the worst trigger. Unfortunately, I’d also contribute it to other people’s perception of me and seeing me fail.”
“The expectations of others definitely triggers the fear of failure. Then there’s our personal history when failure meets anxiety.”
“This fear of failing has constantly been a part of my life. In the back of my head—in whatever I do, I always feel like I have to please a crowd. All of that has led me into have a lot of anxiety which has been proven to drive me backwards when it comes to a lot of things.”
“As many of us have, I’ve dealt with the fear of failure ever since I’ve been in school. I’ve learned to work through this somewhat and take pride in my strengths and watching myself learn from mistakes rather than contributing to toxic fear of thinking I’ll automatically fail. At this point in my life, the fear of failure rarely follow me but does creep in every once in a while.”
“I think the fear of failure follows me consistently. Especially when I see my peers and friends succeeding and thriving. There's envy sure, but there’s also this huge cloud of ‘well if everyone else is succeeding, why can’t I?’ I try not to think about it but then someone asks me what my plan is or I see a former classmate living their dream and I get pretty down.”
“This is a feeling I’ve felt since not getting into DSOA, but it really strengthened when I came to Vanderbilt. It’s something I feel all the time just because I want to be viewed as equals to my Peers, and it’s a lot of pressure to keep up.”
“To move away from this fear, I just try to not compare myself to people and just try to focus on what I’m good at. It’s scary putting yourself out there.”
“I immediately visited a therapist. It helped me in tremendous ways, in making me feel more confident in my work, academia, relationships etc. Even though there is still ways to go, I feel more ready.”
“I try to live in the moment and focus on what’s in front of me. And as far as my dreams and goals are concerned, I don’t forget about them—they’re still achievable, I’m still young and my time for success will come.”
“Slowly but surely, I’ve learned that I’m damn good at some things but not everything; and no one is. Turning that fear into a positive excitement to learn new things or laugh off my mistakes has helped me move away from that fear. Changing my perception was what changed a lot for me.”
Special thank you to Olivia, Ria, Zoe and X.