For better or worse, there are lots of ways to feel like we’ve failed: the social failure of being rejected, the romantic failure of being dumped, the career failure of being fired. No matter what perceived failure we fear, the possibility of it looms large and makes us do our best possum-playing-dead impression to avoid even trying.
But how to move forward? Here are 5 ways to move past “But what if?”
1: Pinpoint exactly what you’re afraid of. “What if something goes wrong?” or “People will hate me.” or “Something bad might happen.” Fears of failure are often vague. And just like in X-Men, when a fear is indistinct and shape-shifting, it’s impossible to conquer. Therefore, to fight your fear, get specific about what “failure” really means to you. “I’m going to get fired and I’ll have to move back in with my parents” or “I’m going to flub my presentation and the whole office will realize I’m incompetent.” Once your fear is sufficiently narrowed, it becomes much easier to challenge it or plan around it. It might even sound so unlikely that it ceases to be a fear.
2: Answer your “what if?” questions. “What if I fail my midterm?” “What if I actually get fired?” “What if I get caught doctoring photos and test scores so my kid can get into USC?” Well, OK, maybe that one is uniquely specific, but the question probably should have been asked.
Often we’ll voice our worries with all sorts of “what if” questions. Therefore, to get over your fear of failure, actually answer the question: If your fear came to pass, what would you do? How would you cope? Who could comfort you? If you’re worried about failing your midterm, think about how you’d cope if that actually happened. You’d get help from the TA, plan out a study schedule for the final, and not stay out until 3 a.m. before the next exam.
If you’re worried about getting fired, think about how you’d cope if that actually happened: you’d tighten your budget, look for another job, and ask friends and family for connections and opportunities. When you answer the “what if” question, you work through the worst-case scenario and come out the other side with a plan. Suddenly, you know how you would either rectify the situation or take care of yourself and move on, which instantly makes things less scary.
3: Don’t just visualize success. You heard that right. Conventional wisdom says to lose weight, picture yourself in that crop top. To get your dream job, picture yourself nailing the interview and putting up your feet in the corner office. To hit your PR, picture yourself crushing it with every mile. Right? Perhaps not. A series of studies by Gabrielle Oettingen, a psychologist at the University of Hamburg and NYU, challenged that wisdom. For study participants who were looking for a job, anticipating an exam, or facing other challenges or opportunities, having positive fantasies about those things was, on average, associated with lower effort and performance.
Our positive visualizations are idealized versions of our goals—in our mind’s eye, success is total and complete, costs are negligible, exertion is light, and the number of newbie ‘oopsies’ are few. With this idealized image in mind, we may lose motivation to dig deep or focus our energy. Starry-eyed dreamers sometimes forget to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
What to do instead? Oettingen pioneered a technique you might have heard of: mental contrasting. Therefore, in addition to picturing the achievement of your goal, also visualize the obstacles that stand in the way.
For example, imagine the satisfaction of accepting your diploma to “Pomp and Circumstance,” but also picture the hours of studying and the number of times you’ll have to resist the urge to scroll through TikTok instead. Do indeed visualize the applause after giving the concert of a lifetime, but focus on the toil of practice and waitressing to make ends meet while launching a career in music.
In short, picture your desired future, but also reflect on the obstacles that stand in the way of that future. When you only do the former, you’re fantasizing. When you only do the latter, you’re perseverating, neither of which balances the drive and hard work that make you succeed.
4: Focus on the process, not the final product. Shooting for the stars is admirable, but sometimes you have to cool your jets. Setting a punishing, sky-high goal seems like it should fire up your motivation, but all it causes is procrastination.