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Confident Rejection: Handling Fear of Failure

written by Genevieve Douglass 11 July 2014

Genevieve Douglass, MAPP '10, is a positive psychology coach living in New York City. She considers her work to be helping individuals find their authentic selves. Read more on her web site. Full bio.

Her articles are here and here (with Shannon Polly).

In an earlier article, I described my growing awareness of fear of failure, how it became a familiar part of myself at home in my psyche. So, how do I deal with this unhelpful little shadow, my fear of being valueless?

Countering the Evidence

One way might be to counter that basket of evidence. I’ve learned a lot more since my Ph.D. program rejections about what should be in an application. I now know why my prior submission was considered weak: incoherent recommendations, a weak math background demonstrated by relatively unimpressive GRE math scores, and too many hypotheses festooning my essays. In many ways, I feel much better. I no longer feel like it was about me. I put together a pretty unconvincing package.

I feel better until I consider what others will think of me based on the simple fact: I was rejected from 13 programs. That’s what makes up the heavy contents of my basket of evidence, the little facts that might be interpreted to reflect something negative, maybe indicating a pattern of failure.

Even as I write this, I feel a draft of doubt emanating from the basement, blowing away some of the comfort in realizing that my application didn’t represent me well.

I wonder if I’m just making excuses. Perhaps if I were smart enough to get in, I would have gotten in. Can I really justify it? What about all those other failures in the basket? Can I really justify all of them away, too? What’s reality, here? Overall, I’m scared people will judge me negatively, they won’t hire me, and I’ll end up feeling valueless forever. I’m scared I can’t trust myself.

Distinguishing Shared Reality from Illusion

While working in labs, I learned about a theory of our universal need to know the truth. Or at least, to think we know the truth. I certainly don’t want to be deluding myself, particularly about something as important to my life as what I might do with it. According to Hardin and Higgins, one way that people think that they know the truth is when other people validate their perception, creating a shared sense of reality. We want our impressions and beliefs to be confirmed. At least, I do. The admissions committees at these schools didn’t validate my reality. I agree with them, now, but at the time, it surprised me. We did not share a reality, and I didn’t get the acceptance that I wanted. Therefore, I failed. (Thirteen times.)

I’m pretty sure people can look at almost any rejection or failure as a lack of validation. When the world isn’t validating what you think is true, it becomes hard to trust yourself.

But history has noted at least a few times in which shared realities ended up being untrue or at least a little nuts in hindsight, such as the sun revolving around the Earth, Stravinsky’s music being horribly received, the beliefs that led to the 2008 economic downfall.

So, while it’s natural to want some external validation and to be accepted by your group, there’s a point at which it isn’t helpful. If I trusted myself I wouldn’t need other people’s validation, but I’ve made my self-trust dependent on external validation. How do I break this dependency and trust in myself without so much reliance on what others think?

Building Self-Trust

One way might be to fill a mental basket with evidence that I am capable, in other words, to build self-efficacy. To this end, I retrieved my GRE books from storage and have poked at them on and off for the last year. It’s taken me a while, but that panicky feeling is beginning to seem manageable. The sight of the words: “Two trains are traveling in opposite directions…” still creates a quiet gasp, and an inclination toward the thought, “Argh. I don’t know how to do this one.” But, if I actively pull my thoughts back to the math problem at hand, and ask myself, “What do we need to know? What do we know already?” I can begin to see a path.

I’m realizing that I just have to get over that initial wave of fright when I encounter a problem for which I don’t immediately see the answer, It comes, I notice it, and it eventually subsides, somehow on its own. Now, overall, I don’t feel I would be risking that much by re-taking the GRE.

It was as though there was this hole where math skills should have been, and I had laid a few branches over it and hoped that no one would notice and that it would hold my weight. Now, I see that it’s filled in a bit with dirt and pebbles and that I can keep filling it in. I can trust that I will do better and overcome that initial panic, because I’ve witnessed myself overcome it a few times before. Eventually, there will be solid ground under my feet in that area. Confidence.

Part of that confidence comes from seeing myself do the math. Another part of it is that I’m no longer trying to cover it up.

Owning my Self-Worth

I think I need to get over the fright that others might not validate me. I need to see that I will still be okay even if they don’t. That’s part of the exercise in publishing this article. No doubt some people will read this, see that I’ve been rejected so much, and make the judgments about me that I’ve been so afraid of. I’ll just have to deal with that. Two things allow me to quiet my little basement tenant enough to write: knowing that I’ve been authentic in writing about this tender subject and knowing that my intention is to help others normalize their own fears and lay out some options for peeling them away.

I’ll bet my self-worth is highly related to my self-trust. If I valued myself more, I might trust myself more. When I finally stop to think about what I consider truly valuable in myself, it’s not how well I do on the GREs, but my ability to get better at them. It’s not that I have or don’t have a Ph.D., it’s my curiosity. It’s my ability to accept others completely and my ability to listen closely. Really, it comes back to my authenticity. I value myself most when I can slow down and notice what’s going on in my mind and body enough, not driven by the need for external validation or fear of rejection. It seems the very thing that makes me most worthwhile in my own eyes is what has gotten lost in the shadows of fear and doubt.

According to Susan Harter, authenticity is knowing yourself and acting accordingly. But knowing yourself isn’t always so easy. In writing this out, you can see that I had been distancing myself from these fears for years, and yet they were quietly motivating my decision not to apply, not to charge more, and the occasional Chihuahua shakes that came over me when considering my future. It took some serious mindful time, trying to tune into everything I was sensing. I’m still not sure I’ve caught everything.

Acting accordingly is also not so simple. As I mentioned, I need to get over any concerns about how others might judge my story. Of course I’m hoping for good reactions. That’s still hoping for external validation in a way, but the thing that makes it different is that I’ve tried to let you into my head as much as I can in order to give you the sense of what I actually experience. I think that might allow you to empathize, which I think makes this more of a connection than a request for a pat on the back.

Being authentic allows me to be seen.



Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Worth Publishers.

Britton, K. H. (2014). I can’t do it. Yet. Positive Psychology News.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hardin, C. D., & Higgins, E. T. (1996). Shared reality: How social verification makes the subjective objective. In R. M. Sorrentino & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Motivation and Cognition, Volume 3: The Interpersonal Context. New York: Guilford.

Harter, S. (2002). Authenticity. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. (pp. 382-394). New York: Oxford University Press.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Unraveling basket courtesy of dgray_xplane
Ptolemaic universe courtesy of Wikimedia
Two trains courtesy of 96tommy
Seeing myself courtesy of kol.

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Kate Woodhouse 11 July 2014 - 3:17 pm

Yes – a very insightful work, and very timely in my own life. Have been asking myself all day how I can be doing so well externally, and yet be burdened by the misery of not-good-enough? But when I can slow down enough to see that fear clearly, as now, what a pale shadow it becomes.

Mark T 11 July 2014 - 4:25 pm

Well said, Genna!

Kathryn Britton 11 July 2014 - 5:27 pm

One thing I’ve realized over the years is that we can only see the outside of other people — often their peacock feathers gracefully raised — while we can see our entire selves, including the math blocks and the rushed essays. Perhaps one additional step might be to remember that we aren’t alone and to live in compassion with other people’s fear of failure. Thank you for sharing your inner side and for reflecting on ways to peel the fears away.

Revu2 11 July 2014 - 11:22 pm

Hi Genevieve,
Thanks for this pair of articles. Personal success or failure, oh, how we must carve out a life dancing with the ghosts of the Calvinist-Puritan belief system!

Beliefs established by people long dead that continue to echo through a culture are particularly difficult to unravel and come to any stable peace with.

As I looked at this drive to rank ourselves on a success-failure continuum (part of the C-P set-up) I thought about how I was raised to avoid certain actions because of how other people may judge me. I got around it somewhat, with difficulty and therapeutic help, by reminding myself that (1) I hadn’t ceded them any powers to make any judgements (2) if in fact they even bother to have a judgment it may we be positive (“wow, what drive to submit all those applications. I wish I could do that … “) and (3) Most people, most the time, are so lost in their own troubles they don’t have much attention left to notice little ol’ me.

We cannot be original geniuses AND let fears of what others might think hold us back. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, had the sad experience of watching his wife slowly die of cancer. At one point, from her hospital bed, she sent him a set of pencils with custom sayings on them about their romance and love for each other. During one of his visits she asked him how he liked them and could see by his evasions he wasn’t using them. She said, “What the hell do you care what other people may think?”

“What do I care what other people think” became a motto that Feynman would evoke throughout his life when he felt he was holding back.

Sandi 12 July 2014 - 7:36 am

Perhaps spending more time utilizing your strengths rather than focusing on your weaknesses would give you more bang for your buck. Sometimes entry exams have minimal implications on how person will perform at at a job but unfortunately are the only way schools and employees have the ability to narrow down applicants. I believe, in some cases, we are missing out on the development of some great leaders because of this. Whether this be fair or not it is important for us to focus on the essence of what we are looking to achieve and see if we can achieve this on another road perhaps less travelled. There are many ways to achieve similar outcomes when we don’t get wound up in “proving ” ourselves based on our weaker links. Good luck!!!! Remember some of the best times should be the journey. Failures are merely opportunities to learn! Be proud of yourself for staying in the game. Just change your personal rules for what “winning” means.

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 12 July 2014 - 8:19 pm

To quote an anonymous (sometimes attributed to Dr. Seuss) source: Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

I see determination and perseverance in your quest. I see learning and self-understanding. I see growth and bravery. Those who see “failure” aren’t those who deserve to be part of your precious inner circle.

Hugs to you!

Senia 15 July 2014 - 12:13 am


Thank you.

Agreed with Kathryn and Lisa!
Kathryn – we see the outside of others but our whole selves.
Lisa – Agree what she wrote. I also see your perseverance and insight.

Your words drew me in so much.


Paul 20 July 2014 - 10:30 pm

Hi Genevieve,
Thanks for this article (inc. pt 1). In some ways I wish I couldn’t but… in fact, I could relate to much of what you discussed. It is certainly helpful to know that others experience similar thoughts and hinderances and to receive some suggestions regarding how one might work through it.

My greatest struggle appears to be ‘against’ (for want of a better word) the veracity of the ‘mirror’ that is other’s reaction to us. If they don’t come, don’t invite, don’t respond to what we do, it seems to suggest that we are doing something or presenting ourselves in a way that they are not interested in or comfortable with. That suggests, we’ve got to make changes… if we want to be ‘accepted’. I like the idea of being free from the acceptance and judgements of others but recognise the need to be acceptable – we’re not islands, we need others. I reckon I have some more reading and soul searching to do!!!!

By the way, one thing I noticed about your ’13 rejections’…
Perhaps it was not so much ’13 rejections’ as ‘1 rejection being backed up a further 12 times’!?!? Afterall, it was the same application, it wasn’t as if, after feedback, you did more work on it a further 12 times and copped a rejection each time! 🙂


Genevieve Douglass 22 July 2014 - 5:02 pm

Kate and Mark – Thank you for the feedback and support. I’m glad this was a useful read.

Kathryn, Lisa, and Senia – I think you offer excellent additions to this article. The idea that you’re the only one that sees all of you is an immensely helpful reminder. The quote about those who matter is fantastic — I often don’t distinguish enough about who I’m trying to please. This whole article is just one little example of how these little extrinsic (pleasing others/out of guilt/fear/shame/etc.) motivations sit subtly in the way of me being my authentic self. (And my guess is that this is true for many people.)

Revu2 – Excellent point about the Calvanist-Puritan belief system and its lingering cultural pressures. I just got back from visiting Barcelona for the first time where I’m pretty sure they have a difficult cultural measure of success and failure (I’m not sure what, exactly, but the work ethic is very different). And thank you for giving us what you’ve found useful in your own life. The Richard Feynman story is also a great one.

Sandi – Thank you for your insightful comment — I have just recently actually changed direction to a clinical/counseling psychology focus, which I think does use my sensitivity much more as a strength. You are so right that some of the best times should be the journey — it’s all journey, I think. 🙂

I want to send everyone who has commented on this article a huge thank you for welcoming it and receiving it with such support and gentility. I feel utterly relieved to have published this both because of the sense that I am no longer tucking anything away and also that it seems to have resonated with you.

Genevieve Douglass 22 July 2014 - 5:20 pm

Paul – Thank you so much for your response. Ha, each application was a little different, but they all had some similarities, so in a sense you are right. Thank you for that. 🙂

Also, I am imagining that soul-searching will continue throughout the lifespan (at least for me). For me, it’s taking me some time to notice these quiet extrinsic motivations, but I’m feeling much more solid in who I am (my intrinsic motivations or values, basically) with every moment of insight. But it is definitely not easy, especially when I’m in a situation where I see myself as struggling — that negative emotion goes along with some tunnel vision and an excessive vigilance in my skepticism of my opinions. I’m still working on knowing when I’ve passed the point of useful skepticism in myself, but one other thing that I’ve been using lately is the question “what would it be like to trust myself, right now?”

Thanks again for your comment, and if you want to chat this through any further, please feel free to get in touch.

Kate Woodhouse 22 July 2014 - 5:44 pm

It seems to me that self-worth is fragile while it depends on ANY external or internal factor which can be taken away. And that is everything, apart perhaps from a sense of life itself.

The American teacher Charlotte Joko Beck used to say that the only thing we can fully trust is that things are as they are – which is in the end not dispiriting but liberating?

So the issue of ‘seeing it’ – being fully aware of a sense of lack – seems to me not peripheral, but central to a sane approach to the emotions.

This is the attitude now promoted through a range of mindfulness approaches – rooted both in the western traditions, particularly Stoic schools, and in eastern philosophies, particularly Zen.

It’s said there were two Zen masters, one who taught only ‘Nothing is lacking’ and his successor ‘Everything is lacking.’

Yet while technically both were right, I would imagine the first one had a greater sense of life. Perhaps one resolution here is that we’re perfect as we are, which necessarily includes our human sense of imperfection?

Caz Wheeler 26 July 2014 - 9:14 pm

I validate you!! Your very existence validates you. What makes your fear invalid is that you are not defeated, many would give up after one or two. Life is a continually journey of discovering the layers we hide behind. When we realise we a weakness in ourselves we can either stop and say thats just how I am (Many do, it is the easier path) or we can take responsibility to look at that weakness (or rather neural pathway that has developed within us, usually to try and protect us in some way) and work to overcome, just as you are doing, your article is so beautiful as it reveals you at a point of change, you have let us into your world at this point and must make you feel vulnerable, that is brave and such an act of kindness. I too suffer from fear or rejection/failure/not being liked. Its so encouraging to hear another grappling, ebbing and flowing as the ‘Truth’ for what it means to you is being assessed. Thank you.
Remember we walk up a spiral staircase in our growth, or we can walk in circles we reach this point of ‘weakness’, those in circle will re-iterate that they are doomed to failure. Those on a spiral staircase will have learned something new since last we tripped and will be able to view it from a higher perspective, the further you walk the better the perspective becomes and the ‘weakness’ much smaller and less daunting.
Life is so precious, and precarious but every experience that is new is good, whether it feels like it or not at the time is irrelevant. Each of us so unique with our own set of experience at varied points in life that have formed the you that is right now… magical … I will not be that same person again that I was half an hour ago because new things happen all the time and our brains filter some things out and get us to focus on certain things all dependent on what is happening NOW. You are the only you there is in the entire universe and there will never be another one ever again (parallel universes … lets not get into that). Try some Zen Koan or gardening anything that brings the mind into the now, the moment. Everything else is relative. I have learned (continue to learn should I say) that I will be rejected and not I will fail and not, there will be some people who despise me and others who think I am amazing. I will get things wrong and I will get things right and to be honest that is the heart beat of life. How we know we are living … without the bedum bedum of the heart there wold be atrial fibrillation and possibly a flat line … I am so pleased with your continually rejection and the incessant survival instinct that is clearly in you from your article. You will learn so much and see the world so richly.

Happy travels fellow traveler.

Sherri Fisher 28 July 2014 - 12:16 pm

Hi, Genna!
This is a lovely and thoughtful piece. I’d like to agree, and then respectfully disagree with Kathryn that we are the only ones who see our entire self. I think sometimes we are often not-seeing, and that wonderful aha moments can come from the mirrors that let us see how we are showing up in the world. Does any one person see all of us? Probably not, and that is why other people matter. 🙂

Kathryn Britton 29 July 2014 - 9:20 am


In words I used in an earlier article, “I disagree with myself!” That is, yes, I agree with you that we don’t see all of ourselves. You imply, probably correctly, that the part we don’t see so well is our strengths, so reflecting back other people’s strengths is a beneficial service we can provide.

That said, I still think that when we compare ourselves to other people unfavorably, we may be doing so in ignorance of their inner demons.



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