I’ve been working away on a project, enjoying the challenge without feeling particularly stressed.
But I’m interrupted by the sudden, urgent awareness:
I pause to figure out why but come up with nothing.
- No pressing deadlines.
- No unresolved conflicts.
- No chatter from my Inner Critic.
None of the usual suspects.
What’s wrong with me?
My anxiety level rises as I worry about what I’m worried about.
I thought I’d gotten good at recognizing my anxiety triggers. Why can’t I figure this one out?
Then, it dawns on me. I reach down to touch my feet. Sure enough, they feel like ice.
I’m not anxious. I just have cold feet!
I put on a pair of the World’s Softest Socks, and soon everything is okay.
Cause and Effect
How often do I reverse cause-and-effect without noticing it?
I’ve known for years that anxiety causes restricted blood flow to my extremities, resulting in cold feet and hands. But it never occurred to me that cold feet might trigger anxiety.
That cause and effect can work in reverse.
As a recovering perfectionist, I’m very familiar with another form of cause-and-effect: the relationship between failure and fear.
When I fail, I typically feel terrified. So I immediately start trying to hide, blame, or shame. I’ve assumed that the relationship always goes like this:
- Cause: failure
- Effect: fear + re-actions to failure
I’ve thought of it as a one-direction relationship:
failure —> fear
But what if this cause-and-effect can work in reverse, too?
Failure from Fear
Sometimes, I suspect it goes like this:
fear —> failure
I’m not talking about fear of failure, when I consciously procrastinate until I’ve become a disastrous self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’m talking about something far harder to detect, something so deeply ingrained it’s automatic.
I’m talking about the way fear throws me straight into “fix-it” mode when there’s nothing to fix.
- I wake up feeling dreadful about how badly I’ve failed on a project I haven’t even started yet.
- I start triaging a failure that hasn’t actually occurred.
This is about having a major re-action before we’ve even taken action.
In her new book, Taming the To Do List, Glynnis Whitwer says
We’ve gotten so good at creating isolated lives, avoiding certain people or situations, and making excuses that we don’t know how to deal with fear. So when it pops up, rather than face it we make changes to avoid it. (pg. 78)
Some of us can’t face fear because fear is a failure trigger.
We’re so frantically isolating ourselves because of our failures, avoiding certain people and situations because of our failures, and making excuses because of our failures that we we commit the one vital (and, perhaps, the only real) failure: We fail to accurately assess whether we’ve actually failed.
Sometimes, the only thing that’s actually happened is that we felt fear. Then, BAM! Instantaneous failure reaction.
We work ourselves into a frenzy of fear-fuelled failure, when all we need is a pair of the World’s Softest Socks.
Putting On Our Socks
The first step in recognizing a fear-to-failure cause-and-effect reversal is gathering accurate information.
Just as feeling my cold feet helped me realize that a common anxiety symptom was making me think I was anxious when I was not, we need to reach for similar data when we feel like we’re in the midst of a failure.
- If we’re alone, we can pull out a pen and a pad of paper, and prayerfully jot down the facts of the situation. When we’re done, we can invite the Holy Spirit to guide us as we evaluate and respond to what we’ve written.
- If we can call or meet with with a trusted friend or mentor, we can talk through the specifics with them, asking, “Does this sound like failure to you?”
Either way, collecting data is a great way to bring two key elements into the equation: time (to slow down) and distance (to gain perspective).
The second step is to work with intentional definitions rather than gut reactions.
I’m doing everything I can to train my brain to think about failure in new ways. A few favorite quotes I’ve hung up near my computer and mirror:
We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.)
…failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. (Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.)
Failure is just another word for education. (Brene Brown)
Collecting quotes like these adds two more key elements: compassion for ourselves as learners (vs. performers) and permission for self-care (vs. punishment.)
Instead of demanding What’s wrong with me? we can ask ourselves What’s going on with me?
We can develop a habit of double-checking for true cause-and-effect.
Sometimes, we’ll realize:
I haven’t failed. I’m just afraid.
So we’ll put on a pair of warm socks.
And soon, everything will be okay.