Tackling fear of academic failure

Today I wanted to address a pretty vulnerable topic which is especially virulent in women in Academia: feeling paralyzed by your own high expectations and the fear of failure they induce.

Academic failure, even repeated failure, doesn’t mean you’re stupid or not good enough. However, buying into that sort of thinking is going to make sure you’ll fail again. Especially if you’re a women.


Female bias towards “failing downwards”

Women “fail down”, whereas men “fail upwards” (as per the Feminist Fight Club, review to come). Meaning that when men fail, they’ll suppose they deserve something better whereas women tend to earn 24% less money in the next job after being fired. The same is probably true of academic failure. Us women who tend to take a hit on our self-esteem after a small failure need to learn that is is a systemic, socialized reaction, not at all the realistic truth! Otherwise we’ll keep perpetuating the vicious cycle as long we continue thinking like that.


Your reaction to failure is what really determines if you’ll fail in the end

I’ve seen many cases of women ending up really hopeless and feeling “too stupid to get a degree” after some small failures which ballooned up into bigger failures again and again. In the review of The Art of Learning, my only real takeaway was that your reaction to failure is often what actually makes you fail. It’s not the initial failure which would have a big impact. But if you allow your mind to frame it as a catastrophe and hurt your self-confidence, it will result in quite a catastrophe. If you can learn to rewire this thinking and get out of this cycle, your life will change quite drastically. But, of course, it’s not easy, especially if you already have a history of paralyzing fear of failure.


Building up a spiral of fear of failure

I had never had a problem with fearing exams. That is, until I started to study Greek. Not the small class required to study Latin but to study Greek to get a teacher’s education degree. Since I already had too much on my plate at the time, Greek was always the last addition I never had enough time for. The others had more time and energy left to invest in it and thus, were better (which is normal, after all). But, of course, I bow started to assume I was too stupid and they were just more talented, when really, looking back, they obviously invested far more time than I did, so comparing myself will never yield a satisfactory (or even fair) result.

But not only did this painful situation stay like it was (they never do) – obviously, it got worse the longer I was stuck in the vicious cycle. I developed a quite extreme fear of Greek exams. This was an utterly new and unexpected experience for me at the time. I had always been very good at taking exams which was probably due to the fact that I had lots of experience doing long distance running competitions: I knew how to re-frame the anxiety before a race into excitement.

But with Greek, it just didn’t work. I didn’t know how to react because a situation like this had never happened to me before. So I didn’t. I started procrastinating on exam prep. It got so extreme that I ended up going to exams practically unprepared. This, of course, made my fear of exams even greater because obviously, not having studied at all, the exam was quite a bit harder than it could have been and my results weren’t great, even though – as far as I remember – I always managed to get by scraping a (bad) pass grade.

How to escape and reset

But you can overcome this. If you’re lost, try reading our post on procrastination and maybe also Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for numbers, even if you’re not interested in math and science. I did just that and found it extremely helpful, explaining how to study to learn difficult material. I had always had really good studying habits which contributed to academic success but during my downward spiral of Ancient Greek, it seems that I took up some pretty bad habits. Reading up on good studying habits, I admit, also was a source of procrastinating on starting to get the work done. But I still feel it helped me pluck up some of my old confidence or at least reset a little. And so can you.


Why am I so sure you can overcome this?

Because I just had my final exam in Greek. I passed my master-equivalent degree in Ancient Greek. Yay! Did I not procrastinate anymore? Sure I still did. But I learned to manage it. I learned to manage the panic. I knew that I had to get this over with so I can focus on my PhD. I had been procrastinating on and postponing this exam for years now. At least one and a half years of active procrastination and before that, the last exam in Ancient Greek that I took was in 2017. So I didn’t do Greek for at least three years. That last exam already had been me procrastinating for a year.

So that means I’ve basically had my last official Greek class for this degree in 2016. And it took me four years to pluck up the courage and do it. You don’t pay much for being enrolled at university in Austria, but I still payed a study fee for at least 6 semesters! Just because of some stupid fear of failure?! How ridiculous. But if I was able to overcome this by now, so are you. What are you waiting for?

Start now but start slowly

If you have a really advanced case and deeply ingrained fear of failure from “years of practice”, don’t go too fast. If you’re like me, the intermittent time means that you’ll have to learn everything again from scratch. Fear of failure had already pretty much ruined my ancient Greek years before while I was still doing classes. But now, with no exposure for years, I practically had to start from scratch. It’s hard, I know. But you got yourself into this mess and only you yourself can get yourself unstuck. It just takes the decision to get started.


After years of no exercise, start slowly but train regularly. Take all the help you can get

Read a good book on learning strategies, like Oakley’s. And maybe get Mel Robbins’ Five Second Rule from the self-help section too. Take time to learn and practice the basic concepts again, start with 15 minutes per day if you can’t face more. The better you’ll get, the easier it will become. In the beginning, try to practice without a goal in mind if you can so you can recharge without pressure. Then make a doable long-term plan to get back into shape. It’s like with fitness: Don’t expect to go from couch potato to athlete in a month.

Plan half a year of training if you have to or can afford to. Be strict on yourself to put in at least an hour, better two per day. Focus on “process, not product”. Don’t think about the exam just now. Now you just need to put in those two hours of active work every day. Don’t focus on results. If you’re feeling bad today, at least look through the book (but don’t let passive learning techniques become the norm, they’re almost completely ineffective!).

It will feel like a horrible, ghastly struggle in the beginning, but you’ll start having more fun once you get some of your skills back and start to master the material once again. Maybe you could get away with less than those two hours per day. Maybe this is overkill. But if you’re really afraid, it’s always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. But also make sure that this practice is always directed towards your goal. Get a set date for the exam or you’ll go on procrastinating (believe me, I’ve tried this out for you).


Build up your confidence again

Start with the basics. Work on them as long as it takes. This will make you feel more secure. Make sure to test yourself regularly. Techniques like closed book free recall are more effective than commonly used techniques like rereading material or highlighting (learn more). Do what they call “deliberate practice”. Many times, bad exam success is just due to bad learning strategies which are passive (like rereading or highlighting material). Rather go for active recall and self-testing. It’s painful, but a 15% failure rate in self-testing is the most effective learning strategy.

Also learn to re-frame anxiety as excitement and cultivate thinking of failure as an opportunity to learn. Because the thing is: The only way you’ll learn is by failing. If you can’t stand to fail, you’ll never learn (!). So maybe your failures are a good thing – they taught you something.


Understand procrastination is stress relief

Procrastination is a form of stress-relief. It might not even come from the fear of the thing you’re procrastinating on but larger sources of stress in your life (like financial instability, see Mel Robbin’s books for that). That’s one of the reasons I recommended A Mind for Numbers or The Five Second Rule,- they have great tips regarding procrastination. Like, as the great Barbara Oakley points out, don’t allow yourself a nice little procrastination break when you haven’t done anything to deserve it. Teach your body and brain that they need to work hard, then you can get a well-deserved break.


Technology causes information overload

Consider getting rid of some distracting technology. I have found that since I got my dumb phone (lightphone II) and check social media as well as email much less (see the posts on Digital Minimalism), I get less information overload and thus, make better decisions overall. Information overload is a state of passive-reactive panic basically. But to succeed in this mission, you really want to be active, focused and in control.


So, this is it for now – maybe this helps someone tackle their own fear of academic failure.


Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2020, February 16). Tackling fear of academic failure. Epigrammetry. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/og6k

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1 Response

  1. 17/05/2020

    […] (see the post on procrastination and learning) or Mel Robbins (5 Second Rule, see these posts 1 | 2) […]

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