Fear of Failure and the Fragile Ego

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This is a topic that is fresh on my mind as well as critically important for any person’s success. I had many conversations with practitioners over the weekend regarding the inability of a client to follow diet and exercise advice- regardless of how sound and valid that information (if supported) may be. When a practitioner would voice his/her assumption as to why a patient may struggle to follow through on clear dietary advice, there were some common threads.

The patient isn’t motivated
The patient isn’t ready to change (the pain is not painful enough)
The patient doesn’t have enough tools/support

These along with quite a few others

I’m not going to suggest that there isn’t any truth to these assumptions. A person might very well lack motivation, not be at an ‘action’ stage of readiness, and could lack the necessary tools and support for meaningful change. But there is another underlying issue that I find is the much more common root of a ‘failure to launch.’ That is that the underlying (and potentially even subconscious) fear of failure is so intense that it prevents the person from trying.

Here is the thing about human beings: we have mighty egos. Egos that we viciously aim to protect. When I say ‘ego’, I am not talking about the root source of vanity and egocentrism that we commonly think of. I am referring more to the Freudian/Jungian definition of the ego. The constant inward awareness of ‘self’ that drives our most neurotic worries.

Chances are that if you have an interest in taking better care of yourself, you have spent a lot of time trying and failing. Every time you’ve tried and failed, you’ve made a little crack in your ego. For every break in your ego, you need to increase the lengths you are willing to go to protect it.

As you get heavier (and sicker) and make more attempts at taking control of your health, you make that attempt with less commitment and more excuses. You do this to protect the fragile ego.

If you went into an attempt to turn your health around and said to yourself, ‘I can do this. I am ready, able, and I WILL succeed. And then ended up failing, your ego would completely shatter. But if you went into an attempt to turn your health around and said, ‘I am willing to give this thing a try, but I doubt it’ll be any different than before.’ Or ‘Ok, I’ll try this diet, but I’m not willing to give up vice X, Y, or Z’ what you are doing is protecting yourself from the failure you are expecting. For if you do indeed fail, you can say ‘yes, but’.

Yeah, I failed, but I knew it wasn’t going to work.

Yeah, I failed, but I never REALLY tried.
Yeah, I failed, but I didn’t give up this, that, or the other, and I’m not willing to.

You buffer yourself from the shattered ego, but you put a giant barrier between you and success.

The cruel joke is that if you could let go of protecting the fragile ego and were able to say to yourself ‘I am just going to do this thing, and do it to the best of my ability because I love and care about myself. I’m not going to track pounds lost or create time-based expectations. If those things come- great. But that’s not what I am doing this for. I am taking healthy actions because it is the gift I deserve to give to myself’- you’d never fail.

The lengths we go to protect our ego will always be the most significant barrier between us and success, regardless of the area we are aiming to succeed in.

So when someone comes up to me and says ‘my client/patient just won’t take my advice’ the first thing I think about is the fragile ego and the deep fear of failure that is seeded deep within that person.

Get a person past that, and success is inevitable.

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Tommy Caldwell

Tommy Caldwell is the Founder of Hybrid Fitness and the bestselling author of the books Heavy Brain and the MetFlex-Rx diet. He is a performance coach, specializing in behaviour change and self-discipline that are necessary for achieving health and fitness goals.

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