The Times of London: Overcoming the Fear of Failure
From The Times
March 25, 2008
Overcoming a fear of failure
A mother’s dilemma over studying for a PhD
Lizzy Bernthal (pictured), 46, is an Army nurse who is currently on a year’s study leave while undertaking
a PhD at the University of Southampton. She lives in Salisbury, Wiltshire, with her husband Paul, 55, a
biomedical scientist who recently retired from the Army after 39 years’ service. They have a daughter,
Rodena, 6, who was conceived by IVF.
“I am a perfectionist who has always given 100 per cent to everything I’ve done, but that was before I had
Rodena. Now I’m being pulled both ways. We spent six years trying to have our daughter and I feel I
should be a mummy at home making chutney, but my work is also important to me.
“We would have loved to have had more children and, in a way, I had viewed the PhD as my
compensation – something I would not have been able to do had we had a bigger family. But I live in
constant fear of failing and often wake up in the night thinking that I should be giving it up.
“My husband and daughter are having to bear the brunt of my stressed and distracted state. I need to find
a way to relax more and to stop wasting so much emotional energy on guilt.
“I spend three days a week in Southampton and two days studying at home, but will be back at my fulltime
post in primary health care administration from September.
“I’d like to stop feeling guilty and shake off this fear of failure before I resume my career.”
Lizzy’s typical working day
6.45am Drag myself out of bed, say a quick hello to my daughter, wash my face, wolf down some cereal.
7.15am Drive to Southampton.
8.30am Start work at desk. Morning is a mix of studying, meetings and lectures.
2pm I try to take a break most days and go for a swim.
2.45pm Back to desk and maybe an afternoon lecture.
5.15pm Drive home, arriving about 6.30pm, and sort out homework, bath and story time for Rodena. If
I’ve been studying at home, Paul will have taken Rodena to and from school. She arrives home at about
5.15; I’ll take over from there.
8pm Once Rodena is asleep, I’ll check e-mails and sort out washing and ironing while Paul cooks.
8.30pm Supper. We always try to eat together and have half an hour to talk through our days. Paul had a
very full life in the Army and going from that to doing the school run has been a culture shock. I know he
finds it hard that I am so preoccupied. He is planning to go back to work, but for both of us the past year
has been hugely challenging.
9-11pm Chores and catching up. I never watch television in the week,and I don’t have the concentration
to sit and read a book.
Ginger says . . .
I asked Lizzy if focusing on guilt and fear is preventing her from enjoying her time with her husband and
daughter. She said it was absolutely true that the stress created by the doubt prevents her from relaxing.
She said it is putting a real strain on all of them.
I asked her what the fear was about. “I am afraid I’ll fail my PhD, partly because I am not able to spend as
much time studying as other students who have no family responsibilities. When I am studying, I feel
guilty that I am not giving 100per cent to my family or my job and, when I am at home with my family, I
feel guilty that I am not studying. I have always wanted other people’s approval that I am doing OK.”
I asked her on a scale of one to ten what the odds were that she would fail in getting her PhD. She
answered eight out of ten. I asked if her past experiences indicated an 80per cent chance of failure. She
said that throughout her life she had feared she would fail, but she had always succeeded.
It was only then that Lizzy took a deep breath and realised that, looking back on her past, she has
“proved to be very capable and so should get confidence from that”.
We discussed whether living in fear of failure is a truthful way for her to live. She said that it wasn’t and
asked how to stop the “false voice” that spews all those negative thoughts. Since Lizzy is so great at
creating solutions, I turned the question back on her. She said when she felt fear of failure, she would
immediately think of her past successes to banish the “false” voice.
How are they faring?
Gerry Wilkinson, 53, owns and runs a hotel in Wales that he bought four years ago after more than 15
years as an executive in risk management. He contacted Ginger when he realised that he was struggling
to separate home life from work life. She advised him to set aside specific days to spend with family
without any mention of work and to say “no” to tasks at the hotel which could be delegated. What was the
Gerry: “I implemented a plan based on the discussion we had, although circumstances have worked
against us so far, as we have reduced our staff to save money and increased our workload. My wife,
Linda, and I are both more aware of the need to spend time away from the hotel, either together or
separately, and we do not talk about work on our days off. We are also looking to employ a couple to take
over much of the daily grind. The three things that I have stopped doing are; cooking (I love to cook, but
it’s all-consuming); doing jobs that I have employed other people to do; working longer than absolutely
necessary (Linda finds this very annoying, as she still insists on working long hours).”
Ginger: “Gerry made the first step in getting his life sorted by acknowledging that he wanted to make
changes. It is encouraging to see that he has already implemented several of the strategies that we
discussed. One of the boundaries that couples who work together need to set is not talking about the
business when they are away together. That was a commitment that Gerry and Linda have implemented
to help them to enjoy and sustain a healthy and happy relationship. Also, by eliminating several of his
chores at the hotel, he has cleared space for more free time for himself.”
© Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.