Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why I Fear Failure

It all began to come together while I was reading a chapter in the book The Mission of Motherhood. This particular chapter was about teaching kids about God, the Bible, morality, and so on. I found myself becoming very uncomfortable with some of the things that were being said. Even things that I'm sure were meant in an innocuous way "sounded" shaming and manipulative to me. Then this passage got me seriously thinking about figuring out what on earth my problem is:

Jesus also taught principles of right and wrong in simple, concrete ways that are easy for children to grasp and apply. His Sermon on the Mount instructions to treat others the same way you want them to treat you (Luke 6:31; Matthews 7:12) has to be one of the main training points of toddlerhood! I can't begin to count how many times I have separated squabbling little ones with gentle but pointed reminders that they should not snatch toys or hit-- because they wouldn't like it if someone did that to them... and "Jesus tells us to treat others the way we want to be treated."

As I read that paragraph, I felt uncomfortable, and I wanted to know why. I know these same words could be said in a shaming tone with the motivation to make the child feel bad or wrong, but I truly don't believe that's how the author meant it. So why was I automatically "hearing" it that way when I read it? This happens for me a lot when it comes to religious stuff aimed at children; I "hear" shame and manipulation where there may be none intended.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks-- the reason why I'm so afraid of failure, the reason I'm so driven to find the "best" choice so I don't mess up, the reason I struggle with stories like the one above.

It's because somewhere along the way-- I don't know where and I don't know why-- in my mind, I began automatically equating failure with disappointing people (or God) and being loved or liked less. And, as you can probably imagine, I also began equating doing the right thing with pleasing people and being loved more or approved of more.

And so even though I honestly do not believe that God loves us less if we mess up, or that he loves us more if we do what he wants, my mind still goes there when I hear stories like the one above. I read that and in my mind what it's saying is, "Jesus tells us to treat others the way we want to be treated-- and you aren't doing that. You aren't doing what Jesus said to do. You've failed, and you're a disappointment. Shame on you." And I balk because I cannot fathom saying that to a child, or an adult, or anyone (but I say it to myself).

It's pretty easy to see how I've ended up in a place where I fear failure or making less than perfect choices, isn't it? No, I don't believe that God loves me less if I fail. But there is something inside me that feels like a failure, like I'm worth less and deserve to be liked or loved less, if I don't do everything just right-- and that I'll be loved more or gain more approval or liked better if I do everything perfectly. Not by God, necessarily, but by myself and by other people.

Where to go from here, I don't know. But I think this has been a step in the right direction. I need to remember that my successes and failures do not determine my worth or how much I'm loved. We all mess up sometimes, every last one of us, and we are loved dearly by God all the same. And if God isn't going to love me less when I mess up, why should I love me less? Why continue to heap shame and guilt upon myself, why continue to pressure myself to be perfect, why continue to be immobilized because I fear failure?


  1. You make an excellent point. How would you handle a situation like the one the author mentions in a way that counteracts this shame and manipulation?

  2. I think it's important to be careful when it comes to bringing Jesus into situations that are coming from a place of developmental immaturity. In my opinion at least, toddlers don't struggle with things like sharing and hitting because they're being sinful or disobeying Jesus; they struggle because they're only two years old and are still learning so much. It's immaturity, not sinfulness. I understand the author's intention in bringing Jesus into it, to teach a reason why it's important to behave in a certain way and to teach about scripture and Jesus at the same time, but at that age I'd prefer to focus on teaching the appropriate behavior.

    Now, with Elijah, we have started discussing the scripture where Jesus says to treat others the way you'd want them to treat you. Hopefully not in a shaming and manipulative way. We've read the passage together and talked about what it means, and we've been pointing out times that we notice him treating other people the way he'd want to be treated so he connects things he already does naturally to the scriptural truths we've been talking about.

  3. I also want to point out that intention and tone of voice make a huge difference! When I'm just reading words on a page, like in this book, it's easy for me to hear a different intent and tone in my head than the author really meant. In person, those exact same words could be said with two totally different tones and intentions, and I'd probably not be bothered at all by one, and bothered very much by the other. :-)