Overcoming The Fear of Failure

I sacrificed a lot to follow my dreams and move up to Leeds to study an MA in Theology, including the opportunity to undertake a doctorial level research program in Political Economy in Oxford and live, rent-free, with my girlfriend and her Mum. Instead, we would be moving up to a new city to live together for the first time, and due to her disabilities, I acting as her carer while studying a new subject at masters level full time. I was making a definite decision to take a path that was less clear and less well trod.

One of the lessons I have learned from this is that the pressure of pursuing any undertaking in life is very much like the global banking system; when it gets far too big to fail it probably will. This was certainly the case in getting my MA. During the year the mental health of my partner and, in turn, my own, took a knock and all of a sudden the pressure of it all got to me. My work suffered and as I was suffering I hid myself and my work from my tutors as best I could. I just couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing them. I did exactly the same with my family and my partner.

Eventually this became too much and the decision was taken to wipe the slate clean and I would effectively start my degree again the next year. This offered a fresh start. My partner moved back down to Oxford to be with her parents where she could get the support she needed and so I could focus on my degree.

However, the pressure of being in a last chance saloon got to me. My anxiety had not gone away and I admitted this to myself far too late. My work wasn’t getting done and I kept everyone in the dark about it. Fear of failure paralysed me completely and not just in terms of my work. I felt so guilty for not working that I felt unable to take any real pleasure in anything I had enjoyed doing. It was no longer just stress that I was attempting to deal with but full on anxiety and depression.

On top of this my girlfriend was taken to hospital suddenly with severe burns to her head and face due to an incident with a candle. I jumped on the next train down to see her, uncertain whether my partner’s life might have to be risked in surgery. This kind of event does tend to focus the mind somewhat on what is important in life. In the days I spent by my girlfriend’s bedside I finally had an excuse to forget about my studies and genuinely enjoy human connection with someone special who could so easily have been lost. This began a process whereby I was slowly able to put my situation in context. I was able to admit to myself that I was not going to complete my degree, and that that might be okay.

Telling my family and tutors was what I was fearing more than anything. Or rather, the fear of letting them down. Yet, I told them, and to my great surprise I continued breathing in and out. The sky did not fall in. The phrase, “I told you so” was uttered far fewer times than expected. My family still loved me, my friends still liked me, and God was still with me as He always had been. I just had an increased awareness of these facts.

Instead of going back to academic work I continued, with newfound energy, the lay work I was doing for my church and even got a new job working in the Universities Chaplaincy in Leeds. I realised that not having a nice bit of paper to prove that I had gained knowledge from my MA did not in fact hinder my ability to apply that knowledge for helping change peoples’ lives for the better. I had not just survived failure, I had thrived despite of it!

However, I have learned some hard lessons. We have to end a culture in academia that refuses to recognise the possibility that people will fail to complete courses of study. There are no easily accessible resources on how to fail your degree well. No advice about how best to include this considerable amount of time and effort on one’s CV. Nor advice as to if you can still access the university services that would be open to graduates like careers advice and support or even alumni access to the library. Even general advice on the internet from people who have gone through such situations is ridiculously hard to find.

One day I want to see if any of the credits I manged to get have been banked. I still have not given up hope of getting my Theology MA. In fact, as I am going to be applying for ministry training later this year, I will have to attempt it again sooner rather than later. If it happens, I know that I will be at peace with going about it in an unconventional way. I may even allow myself to feel slightly proud about it.

If you're struggling with any of the issues raised in this blog, such as chronic or severe stress, anxiety, depression or another mental health condition please contact your G.P. or talk to a friend or trusted family member. Your university Chaplain may also be available to chat with. The Samaritans helpline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for people who want to talk in confidence. Call 116 123 (free). You can find out more about stress, anxiety and depresion on the NHS website.