Procrastination, Avoidance and Fear of Failure


I’ve spoken to many people lately who struggle with procrastination. With IFS (Internal Family Systems) Therapy, the story for procrastination is simple: part of you wants to do something, and another part of you, that you are sometimes less aware of, does not want to do it. The key is to understand and successfully address, the part of you that does *not* want to do it.

When examining this situation using IFS therapy, we often find that the part that would rather avoid a task, avoids because it fears failure. This makes sense to me. If failure is a scary, daunting and outright painful experience, then why even risk it?

But what if failure was not so scary and painful? Would we still feel the need to avoid trying?

Elon Musk, one of the most successful people of our time, at least in terms of business and entrepreneurship, has been said to attribute his success to one thing: his high tolerance for failure.

How can we have a high tolerance for failure, though? Isn’t failure inherently painful and therefore scary? Not necessarily, I would say. It all depends on the meaning that you place on failure.

For better or worse, most of us have kept whatever definition of failure we were given at a young age. Some of us learned that failure means that something is wrong with us, we are subhuman and not as lovable as someone who would succeed. For others, failure is simply a normal experience of being human and an opportunity for learning. For a few, believe it or not, there is no such thing as failure, only desired and undesired outcomes, both of which are feedback from our environment that we can interpret and use to adjust our behavior.

What would it be like to live in a world where failure was merely a sign of your humanity rather than your inferiority, or even better, a world where failure doesn’t exist and learning is inevitable?

When we were young we had no choice but to accept the meaning of failure that the world gave to us. We simply did not have the faculties to look to this critically. Now, we can begin to have a choice with how we view failure. Looking at it critically, what would you like failure to mean for you? Perhaps you can find a meaning that is both accurate, and helpful for all parts of you.

For some, it may take specialized tools to unlearn and change the meaning of failure for ourselves. Once we do, however, it becomes easier to take intelligent risks, knowing that it is natural to be imperfect as a human being, and that there will always be room for improvement. From there, we can begin to succeed by doing what many have called “failing successfully”- by seeking criticism, interpreting it in a healthy, useful way, and then using it to modify our behavior as we choose.

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​© 2020 Percy Ballard, MD