How do you overcome fear of uncertainties, and the shame and guilt of past failures?

A student asked:

How do you overcome (1) fear of uncertainties, and (2) the shame and guilt of past failures?

The first step to overcome fear of uncertainties is to recognise that a lot of things in life are not linear. If you didn’t get X now, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do Y in the future. The doors of opportunity for Y may present itself later on.

The second step to overcome fear of uncertainties is to carry out this thing called Risk Mitigation. We know that uncertainties exist. We know that we don’t like some of the consequences. And we know that some things are beyond our control. So what can we do so that we don’t end up in the worst case scenario? For starters, have a backup plan. Heck, come up with multiple backup plans. E.g. What do I do if my thesis topic turns out false? Then write about why it didn’t turn out the way you intended! There we go, a backup plan! All is not lost.

Psychologically, when you have backup plans, the pressure to get X right reduces because you know you can fall back on the backup. This is helpful because we often crumble under high stakes pressure. So the backup plan also helps in making you feel less stressed about the situation, thereby allowing you to perform better.

Now, there’s a whole literature about risk mitigation strategies that go beyond backup plans. They cover things like how to accept risk, avoid risk, control risk, monitor risk, and more. It’s too lengthy to cover it here, which was why I started with a simple concept of the backup plan. Go Google and read up more about risk mitigation, and master that as a skill. Once you know how to manage and mitigate risks, your fear of uncertainties will reduce greatly.

As for overcoming the shame and guilt of past failures, we have to recognise that a lot of it is in our heads. We are prisoners of our minds. And it’s important to remember that how we feel and perceive our failures is not how other people feel and perceive them. In fact, most people don’t remember the stupid things we do, or the incredible failures we’ve committed. I’ve said many embarrassing things and done a lot of stupid things to other people. I used to live in fear that these things will come back and haunt me. But 10 years later, nobody remembers them. This also includes the people whom I hurt or upset in the past. It never ceases to amaze me how forgiving (or forgetful) people are. You must do something of evil villain proportions to be remembered for those misdeeds. Most of us aren’t even close to that. So people will be forgiving, and we just have to be a bit thick skinned about it and just pretend it didn’t happen. You’ll be amazed at the degree of magnanimity and graciousness that most people are capable of. So… Don’t be afraid!

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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