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My fear of rejection and failure is just crippling. Is there any way for me to handle this? | Leading questions


I’ve been working on a novel (and a lot of other writing) for several months now and the time has come to do something with it. Or rather, I’d love to do something with it, because I really want to be a full-time writer one day. But the problem is I’m too scared to undertake action.

I think it’s normal to be a little nervous, but my fear of rejection and failure is just crippling. I can’t stop thinking it’s all not good enough, and that I’ll never make it. I try to break out of this negative pattern of thinking, but in the end I’m still too scared. Is there any way for me to handle this?

Eleanor says: Some of the most euphoric moments of my life have been right after my worst fears were realised. Once I got caught in a rip at Bondi beach at night and learned just how few seconds it would take to drown. Once I thought a horse was going to roll on to me and squish me alive. The others aren’t good stories but were just as frightening before they happened: I was right that I was being cheated on, I was right that so-and-so was going to yell at me, I was right that not everyone would like my writing.

When we’re preoccupied with fear, we spend so much time bracing for the moment when the bad thing happens we forget that there has to be a moment right after it, too.

Inside that subsequent moment I’ve found some of the wildest, silliest, most affirming sensations I’ve ever known. There is a thrilling uncorking that happens when a fear is realised – a red wine wash of giddy adrenaline. It’s the realisation that the dreaded thing happened and you’re still alive. I’m still here! I’m still here! Whenever I’m lucky enough to revisit that space, I think of how Zadie Smith describes feeling after finishing her first book: laying on her back half crying, half laughing in a garden full of apples, “overripe and stinky”.

You write that you can’t stop thinking that what you’ve written isn’t good enough, that you’re afraid of rejection and failure. OK. I could tell you that I’m sure you are marvellously talented and rejection is unlikely. But instead I say go and get rejected.

Promise yourself you’ll get 20 rejections by the time the year is up. Collect them, print them out. They will hurt – they might hurt a lot. But if you promise to get 20 rejections as soon as you can, I promise that not one of them will ruin you. The hurt will lessen every time, and each encounter with the pain you’re afraid of will give you something in return: the knowledge that you can bear what you thought would be unbearable.

I think changing the mission like this can be particularly helpful when what’s at stake is whether you’ll “make it”. It’s easy to get driven to despair by trying to run straight at success, because the skills at which humans excel tend not to be easy to perfect. This means that for the first six or 10 years of doing whatever it is you’re trying to be great at, it’s very unlikely you will be great. If your target is “success”, there’s no way to parse your failure to hit it besides “this is failure”.

But if you make something else the aim – racking up rejections, say, or getting as much feedback as possible – suddenly you have a much less frightening goal to run at.

You don’t have to stop being scared. I don’t think anyone really great at their craft ever does. BB King always said he was only as good as last night’s show. But your fear doesn’t get to be bigger than your goals – and the more encounters you have with it, the more you can teach it that it isn’t bigger than you.


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