One question that we coaches love to ask is “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”.
This question helps the mind think beyond boundaries set by the fear of failure. However, responses to this question bring up two contrasting pieces of information. On one hand there are bold and magnificent dreams and on the other there is fear of being judged unfavourably for pursuing these extraordinary dreams and big goals.
What if I am not good enough?
What if I am ridiculed?
What if, what I have to offer is nothing spectacular?
“You can either be judged because you created something or ignored because you left your greatness inside of you.”
The origins of the fear of being judged can be traced to the evolutionary psychological elements meant to protect us. Our primal need to “belong” to a tribe in order to seek protection from threats (real as well as imagined) leads us to adopt behavioral patterns that increase the probability of us being “liked” by those around us. Being “accepted” and “liked” have been important aspects of our social conditioning. While raising children, parents and those in authority feel responsible for ensuring that children understand and adhere to certain norms to avoid exclusion. Use of strong language to ensure adherence and criticism when there is non-adherence, begins the process that shapes our Inner Critic – the mouthpiece of our scan-for-threat system. We begin to look at criticism and judgment as threats we need to watch out for.
The Negativity Bias
Psychologist Rick Hanson, who has explored the phenomenon called “negativity bias” says “The mind is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones”.
Our fear conditioning mechanism stores and embeds any negative information into our long term memory so that we can use it to scan for potentially harmful circumstances. Our primitive brain creates this tendency because when we were in the wild, our survival depended on our ability to scan for negative information. It is this fear conditioning mechanism that makes it almost effortless to internalize judgment and criticism.
However, this very mechanism meant to protect us, becomes a roadblock to the pursuit of our potential in the modern world where unless we take a pause and assess the perceived threats, our conditioning can hold us back from every step that we take towards realizing our dreams. The good news is that we can choose to engage more evolved parts of our brain, and also subdue the flight-fight-freeze instinct which may not be serving us well in the current day and age.
Research shows that mindfulness based practices help us employ higher order brain functions like awareness, concentration and decision making while gradually shrinking the amygdala – the part of our brain responsible for fight or flight responses.
Mindfulness – If we were to create a toolkit to help us upgrade and update our default primordial processes to adapt to the modern world, in my opinion, mindfulness would be one of the key tools. It can help us transition from living in the survival mode to making conscious choices moment to moment.
Mindfulness helps us tap into our inherent ability to bring high quality attention to the present moment such that we are able to zoom out and distance ourselves from our situation, and look at it “as it is”. This helps disrupt our critical internal dialogue or make a choice to process external criticism in a rational way. Over a period of time, mindfulness helps us develop clear and balanced thinking. We are able to see what our inner critic is trying to do – protect us as a result of primitive habitual reactions to stimuli.
“Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that – thoughts”
– Allan Lokos
Thoughts aren’t necessarily facts or reality – while we all know this at an intellectual level, this knowledge alone doesn’t help us curb self-limiting thoughts.
This is where mindfulness helps. Mindfulness helps us accept that our mind will produce negative/self-limiting thoughts and that we don’t necessarily have to believe them. This acceptance paves the way for the next step, which is making a “choice” about what to do with the thought. Knowing that we have a “choice” to not act on the thought or not respond to the thought gives our power back to us rather than letting it reside in the realm of self-limiting thoughts.
In addition to the highly effective mindfulness practices, I’d love to share other great tools that help combat the fear of judgment
1) The Surprise Journal – The surprise journal has been said to be powerful tool to fight confirmation bias. It can be an effective took to fight confirmation bias towards fear of judgment too. Author Denise Jacobs recommends its use to help notice distorted thinking patterns. She recommends journaling instances where negative expectations were not met. We could use a similar construct to fight fears towards taking steps towards our big and bold dreams. We could begin with small actions towards our bigger goals and journal all instances where we were surprised by positive outcomes instead of the negative outcomes that we were expecting. Once we accumulate a significant number of such instances (lets say 15 such instances), the next step could be to ask ourselves about what these surprises tell us about ourselves. The answers could hold a new set of empowering beliefs that can counter the fear the judgment.
2) Compile your success stories – Let us take a pause to compile all our success stories, all the appreciation that we have received and look back at the body of work that we have produced. This compilation can be our source of fact based inspiration to help us see our potential. Everytime fear creeps in, we can refer back to this very real list of accomplishments to gain momentum towards our goals.
3) Be the voice of support – Much like we feel the need for encouragement and support, those around us, have pretty much the same needs. When we choose to slow down, and accept people for who they are and support their passion wholeheartedly, we feel great about being a part of their journey. That support comes back to us in form of goodwill. Also, it becomes relatively easier for us to be encouraging and kind to ourselves. We get better at not judging ourselves and those around us. Ironic as it may sound, the antidote to fear of judgment is to hold back from judging those around us and tap into compassion. Here mindfulness comes in again because mindfulness creates the mental space for compassion – towards others as well as ourselves.
Let us now ask ourselves a different question – What would we do even if we knew we would fail?