Why Fear of Failure is Like an Allergy

Fear of Failure Wildflowers and Progress BlogThanks to California’s recent rain after the long drought, this has been my first season with allergies. I was in denial when the symptoms first hit, but it was (and continues to be!) allergies. I feel like I’ve turned into a walking billboard for Claritin.

Allergies are a funny thing – especially as a metaphor. I’ve been thinking about the term “allergic to failure” recently. I’m not sure where it came from, but perhaps it started with Eminem’s lyric: “I must be allergic to failure, ’cause every time I get close to it, I just sneeze.”

While Eminem may be allergic to failure in a metaphorically healthy(?) way, not giving it much attention, I think I’m allergic to failure in more of a clinical way.

By which I mean, I completely overreact.

When you have allergies, your body misidentifies an external element as dangerous and attacks it violently, which causes the symptoms we see on the eyes, nose, throat, skin, etc. Through this process, your immune system creates antibodies that sound the alarm every time you’re exposed in the future, and your body continually overreact every time you’re exposed to the allergen.

Even though the allergen is harmless. There’s no threat.

That is how I am allergic to failure. Not in a cool Eminem-I-just-sneeze-at-it kind of way, but in a I-completely-overract-and-will-cause-chaos-to-avoid-it kind of way.

Neither failure nor allergens warrant the overreaction I give them.

Neither have ever done any lasting damage.

Instead of recognizing their harmlessness, though, I overreact or get embarrassed – not just about failures that have happened in the past, but about failures that might happen in the future. It’s a standard “fear of failure” case. Like someone not going outside because that’s where the allergens are, sometimes I’ll even avoid attempting something where failure seems imminent. If I do attempt something where failure is a possibility, I’ll definitely avoid publicizing it; I don’t want everyone else to know that I failed. Like leaving the room when a sneezing attack comes, I’d much rather fail in private.

Thus I perpetuate the idea, for myself and others, that failure is a big deal worthy of a big reaction (i.e. an overreaction). 

How much lighter my life would be if I could take the failure in stride and see it not as something to be avoided, discouraged by, or embarrassed about, but simply a stepping stone along the way to wherever I’m headed.

I remember the first time I got a ticket. I’m still not sure I deserved it, but that’s beside the point. The point is that my record was tarnished. All the dreams I had of someday being a murder suspect and them pulling up my record and saying, “She couldn’t possibly be the murderer! She hasn’t even had a ticket!” was ruined. was ruined. I had failed at maintaining a perfect driving record. I was a failure. I was imperfect.

I made my little brother walk the rest of the way to school (it wasn’t that far), and I bawled in my car and then drove home, too distraught to face high school just yet. My amazing parents were understanding and didn’t get mad. They let me compose myself at home, and I went to school in time for my second class.

And I brought my overreaction with me.

After sulking all though class, my friend Julia (the woman now behind lifestyle blog Capitola Jewels!) asked what was wrong. When I told her that I had gotten a ticket, she said, “Is that it!?” Apparently the size of my gray cloud had indicated a bigger problem.

When my wallowing continued, she did the best thing anyone could have done for me. She grabbed me by the shoulders and she shook me. She sternly said something like, “Lila, this is not a big deal. Nobody died. These things happen every day. This is not the end of the world. Snap out of it.”

Now, I’m not advocating you go around shaking anyone throwing a pity party. I probably shouldn’t advise shaking people at all, technically.

But in this case, Julia provided just the Claritin I needed. My overreaction was over.

Julia had provided perspective. Nobody was dead. These things happen everyday. Snap out of it.

Perspective, the Claritin for an allergy to failure.

I often go to Ken for perspective about could-be failures. He hears a lot of questions like, “Is it okay that I didn’t do the dishes? I’m not a failure as a wife?” He doesn’t get tired of me asking these questions (I checked!), and how sweet it is gain the perspective before the overreaction.

I can also (and probably should more!) go to scripture for my perspective in this regard. We are not expected to be free of failure. In fact, Christ shines best in our weaknesses and shortcomings, not in our perfection. What a beautiful perspective this is, turning every situation into a win-win! We’re on the road to success, great! Our achievement can glorify God. We’ve fallen into the ditch of failure, great! He can meet us there with abundant grace and power.

But he [Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

There are also probably hundreds of books on overcoming failure, whether personal development or (auto)biographical, as well as podcasts or educational CDs.

Being adverse to failure is not a new problem, and people have been overcoming it for essentially as long there has been people.

There’s no shortage of perspective, just like there’s no shortage of allergy meds. And yet, somehow when allergy season hits, there are still people sneezing and snotting all over the place. Likewise, there are still people going around with their gray clouds, a symptom of overreacting to failure.


Now, I keep a bottle of Claritin in my purse for my allergies to pollen. I also have a book and my phone for my allergy to failure.

While I’m not perfect and definitely have slip ups, there’s no reason for me to be caught sneezing (or wallowing) because of an overreaction to something harmless.

Perspective is only a page or a phone call away.

How do you feel about failure? Do you welcome it as a stepping stone? Or actively/destructively avoid it or mourn it when it happens?

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