The Fear of Failure and Performance-Based Identity

by | Sep 20, 2017 | Blog

The fear of failure is an unfortunate byproduct of a performance-based identity. People who are governed by a performance-based identity react to their fear in four very typical ways[i]:

 1. Shame

When the athlete doesn’t perform or if something doesn’t go their way, they turn inward and begin an internal dialogue that says “I’m just not good enough. I can’t believe I screwed this up. I just need to train harder. This is my fault. I’m an idiot.” It’s this negative self-talk, this anger, and frustration with being unable to meet their own expectations. Turned inward, it starts to eat away at the psyche until it affects all other aspects of life.

2. Blame

The opposite of shame, in a sense, the same negative dialogue is turned outward. Now it’s more like “It’s not my fault at all. I am angry at the coach because the coach could have helped me prepare better.  They should have given me the proper tools to win.”

3. Control

Control is another thing we see in the performance-based mindset. This is a trait common to the athlete that feels shame. They turn inward to shame and say “I’m just going to work harder. I am going to control every aspect of my life and nobody is going to take this away from me.”

4. Chaos

With the chaos mindset, we see people who are looking for ways to numb the pain. This is where we find athletes who have become addicted to drugs or other self-destructive behaviors that begin to create chaos in their life. They pursue these harmful behaviors in order to dissociate from the pressure to perform.




“People who are governed by a performance-based identity react to their fear in four very typical ways”

Healthy relationships remind us that we are loved for who we are, not for how we perform.

Mindfulness challenge

To help facilitate a new perspective, what I will ask you to do is to find a comfortable position. I want you to just relax, and close your eyes. When we close our eyes, it shuts off the visual stimuli and allows us to become more aware of our surroundings and of our inner self.

Take three deep breaths in: breathe in through your nostrils. When you breathe out, breathe out through your mouth, and allow your stomach to expand as it does naturally. Try it: Take a deep breath in, and then all the way out.

Now, what might be hard when you begin to shut your eyes and quiet yourself is that the mind does what the mind does. It thinks, it takes you to all these places – but all I want you to do is just focus on your breath. If your mind starts taking you somewhere, just come back to this breath.

Let’s just focus on breath: just breathing in, just breathing out.

Where do you feel this breath? some people feel it in their nostrils. Some feel it in their stomach when it expands. Let’s just stay here with our breath for just a second …

We are always breathing, but we are rarely aware of it. Be aware of it now: is the air cool as you inhale? Or is it warm? Focus on the breath and the breath alone.

I am going to invite you now to form a picture in your mind. In this picture, I want you to imagine yourself standing with somebody who knows you and loves you unconditionally. There is nothing you have to do to prove anything to this person. You can simply sit with them, stand with them, be with them. Notice how it feels to be with this person. Try to be still and linger a while in this way. Think of 3 words that describe you in that moment with that person who knows you and loves you.

Again, if you feel it slipping away and it seems difficult to hold that image, come back to your breath, and then return to that moment with that person before coming back to your breath.

You can slowly become aware of the room again. Open your eyes only when you are ready and write down the 3 words that describe you in that moment.

Healthy relationships remind us that we are loved for who we are, not for how we perform.

I also recognize that many of us have had people in our lives who have spoken negatively towards us or about us, and we have taken that negativity and internalized the voices that have created these mindsets. As a therapist, as a counselor, as somebody who works with people and athletes all the time, I want to assure you that it is absolutely possible to challenge this negativity and transform it, to arrive at a place of hope and health in relationships.

That is my ultimate wish for you, and I hope you begin to experience.

*This exercise and blog comes from a talk given by Dr. Ben Houltberg at a Hope Sports event.

[1] T. Hargrave and F. Pfitzer. Restoration therapy: Understanding and guiding healing in marriage and family therapy (New York: Routledge, 2011).

by | Sep 20, 2017 | Blog

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