Depression and Fear of Failure
Do you ever feel afraid to try? Do you ever fear the responsibility that comes with success? Do you evaluate your worth based on your performance?
I recently read an article as part of a class assignment on depression. I wanted to understand why people with depression have such a hard time moving towards goals that they want to achieve.
The article suggested that people who are prone to depression tend to tie outcomes to their worth. Let’s look at a few examples that could all be true for men or women. So if Joe often struggles with depression and has the opportunity to apply for a better job he may engage in avoidant or sabotaging behaviour for a couple of reasons. Joe may be concerned that if he were promoted that he wouldn't be able to handle the responsibility. Or he may fear being rejected for the job and associate such a rejection as proof that he has low worth. Either way the result is likely that Joe will not apply for the job or he will in some way sabotage his application so that he can avoid associating the rejection with his sense of worth.
The same feelings could be present in anyone who associates their worth with their performance. Those who suffer from depression are also likely to set standards for themselves that aren't realistic. Martha, a mother who bases her worth on her ability to provide a hot cooked meal every day, will be more likely to feel inadequate as a mother then a mom who separates her performance from her worth.
A young adult could tie their self-worth into how they perform at school. They could have a fear that their grades will be poor no matter how hard they try. This may cause them to choose to sabotage themselves by choosing not to study. This allows them to justify their failure as a consequence of circumstance (not studying) instead of tying it to their worth. It avoids a scenario where the student tries very hard and still doesn’t reach their desired outcome.
All these cases involve an avoidance of "new evidence of inadequacy." A depressed person is more likely to choose easy tasks that give them a high confidence of success, preferring to defer to an expert, rather than to risk embarrassment from failure. One example of this could be a father who defers all childcare to the mother instead of learning how to succeed at childcare related tasks. Since the mother is the “expert” a depressed man may see no reason to risk failure.
These hypothetical people all connect their self-worth to their perceptions of their performance. Acknowledging their success in certain areas only provides them with temporary relief until they experience the next perceived failure. So how can a depressed person escape this cycle that always bring them back to questioning their worth?
Let’s compare beliefs commonly held by depressed people compared to those without depression.
Beliefs held by depressed people: My abilities cannot improve. My abilities are consistent across a variety of situations. My self-worth is dependent on my performance.
Beliefs held by those without depression: I can learn to be better than I currently am. Learning new skills can translate into new abilities that can be used in a variety of settings. My performance will get better as I learn.
People with depression focus on proving their worth, while those without depression focus on improving themselves. Someone with depression is more likely to view new situations as a threat while someone without it will view the same situation as a challenge.
How can someone change this? (Some ways to shift from relating performance to worth, to viewing opportunities as learning experiences not tied to worth)
Start by looking for opportunities where you have a better chance of success then failure. Succeeding at something you know how to do doesn't build confidence. Failing at something when you expected to fail can also cause discouragement. Succeeding at a new task with a greater chance of success can help build confidence. Failure in these situations can be viewed as learning opportunity. "I will do better next time."
Develop a sense of worth that isn't tied to performance. It is so natural to tie our worth into our performance that it can be hard to think of our worth without relating it to our performance. Some people associate their value with statements like "I am a nice person. I always help others." In this case the person is associating their worth with their ability to be kind and help others. So if they have a bad day and are unkind and unhelpful then their feeling of worth goes down.
Religious beliefs can provide the best examples of human value that aren't associated with performance. If you believe that you have value because you were created by God and you reflect the image of God, then your worth is based on intrinsic value instead of on something you could do.
When trying new things give yourself credit for taking a risk, putting in effort, and learning from mistakes. Train yourself to attribute failure to a need to improve instead of assuming that you will never be good enough. Putting in effort is likely to increase your abilities and performance over the long term. Can you think of skills that took time for you to develop mastery? Can you think of others who had to work to improve and develop the skills they have? Learning how to walk takes most babies several weeks or months to learn how to walk without falling, but as adults most people don’t consciously think about walking as a learned skill. They just do it because they have years of practice.
Suggestions for pastors or church leader: Preach/teach about the importance of finding your value in God instead of performance. Help your church members consider their lives from an eternal perspective. It's hard to develop new skills in the short term, but over time new skills can be developed and mastered. Encourage people to trust God with the results and focus on being faithful to trying.
Back to our original examples:
Joe ties his value to his performance at work. He’s afraid that if he tries new tasks that he will feel a sense of worthlessness. Joe can overcome his feelings if he views pursuing a new position as a challenge to learn and develop new skills. When he experiences failure this perspective allows him to bounce back by asking himself: What have I learned? (acknowledging progress) What do I still need to learn? (setting learning goals)
Martha knows that she loves her children. She has been basing her value on her ability to provide a high standard of care for her children (performance). Instead of believing that her love is only visible based on her actions, Martha can base her value simply on the fact that she loves her children without relating it to her performance as a mother. This way if she has a difficult day and snaps at her kids she can distance her behaviour from her identity. She can affirm this with thoughts like, “I’m a loving mom, but sometimes I could manage my emotions better.” This would help her separate her identity from her performance, making it easier for her to address it when she doesn’t feel that she’s performing well. It can also help with acknowledging unrealistic expectations.
A young adult student may lack confidence because they don’t have the experience that most people rely on to build their confidence. It may help to find role models who have accomplished the types of things the adult would like to accomplish. It can provide them with a blueprint for how their role model learned the skills they are seeking to develop. Focusing on skill development over the long term can help reduce fear associated with upcoming deadlines.
A depressed dad can encourage himself to be more involved with his children by reminding himself that his wife also had to learn how to be a good parent, even if she seems like a natural mother. In most cases the stay at home parent can seem more comfortable in the role of parent because of repetitive practice they gain from being at home full time. Acknowledging that repetition leads to improvement can help with developing a learning mindset instead of basing your worth on your current ability. You may not know it now, but you can learn it!
 Rothbaum, F., Morling, B., & Rusk, N. (2009). How goals and beliefs lead people into and out of depression. Review of General Psychology, 13(4), 302–314.