Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Overcome My Fear of Failure?

Hi Doc, long time reader, thank you for putting out so much good stuff, you’re a big help for a lot of people.

A bit of backstory for me, I had an interesting childhood, abusive father, bullied in school etc. which really hammered my self esteem. I basically bottled everything up for years until it all exploded. Ended up spiralling into depression, had a passive suicide attempt about 3 years ago and hit rock bottom really. The good news, since then I’ve had 2 spells of counselling and my mental health is now much better. I’ve also worked quite a bit on myself, to the point where I’ve come from never having a date to having a couple of short relationships, couple of casual things and I’ve improved immensely in that part of my life. This is way more success than I ever thought I’d have.

The thing that’s inspired me to write in today is that even though I can see how far I’ve come and all I’ve achieved, I still find everything absolutely, painfully difficult. Socializing exhausts me in general, but especially in bars and clubs. I always seem to be on guard and frankly it’s all wearing me down. There is still this block I have mentally, where I’m so scared of getting hurt again or opening up that I can’t really just let myself go and make the moves I want to, or I shut down interactions/ relationships that could go somewhere due to fear basically. I’m also incredibly nervous about doing anything that would jeopardize my mental health. I left my last job because it was causing me to slide again and I don’t want to risk ever getting near to where I was 3 years ago.

Another thing that’s laying it on right now is that I’m currently traveling. A couple of my friends are absolutely amazing with women, they make it look ridiculously easy and go from one hot girl to the next like they get handed out with the cereal. They are great guys who absolutely deserve their success and I’m happy for them, but it just highlights to me that even after all this work I’ve done I’m still no better than bang average on a good day at all of this. This is what is getting me down. I’ve read all the articles you’ve written about staying internally validated and not comparing yourself to others and it’s all good advice, but I’m struggling to keep everything focused on the right things, which ends up with me taking nut shots to my self-esteem over the frustration.

I’m still young, mid 20s in decent health and everything, so I know I have the time, but it’s just so draining to actually realize how far I’ve still got to go after all this work. My motivation to keep going with the whole self improvement thing is waning, I’ve stopped approaching, don’t do speed dating or anything else that I had success with. I went on a couple of dates with this girl 2 months or so ago and just had no emotional energy left to give. I just see it all as a grind and I struggling to deal with it at the moment. I know you went through similar sorts of challenges back in your “bad old days”, so any advice you could give would be hugely appreciated. How would you recommend I get through this?


Tired of The Grind

First of all, ToTG: congratulations on all the work you’ve put into your mental and emotional health, and all the progress you’ve made. That takes a lot of grit and courage, and you should be proud of just how far you’ve come.

In fact… that’s part of what I want to talk to you about. See, you’re doing one of the things that I used to do back in my bad old days: you’re so focused like a laser on the end goal – being able to get women like your buddies – that you’re missing just how much progress you’ve made. The problem with what you’re doing is that you’re working under the assumption that you and your friends started at the same place and the fact that you’re not doing as well as them means something’s wrong with you. But that’s not it. That’s not it at all. You didn’t start at the starting line; you had to sneak your way past guards, climb over walls and through air ducts just to get into the goddamn arena, never mind into the race itself. 

But here’s the thing: you fucking got there. You made it past all of those hurdles, things that would make most other people say “fuck this noise” and turn around, and got your ass into the game. Yeah, you’re not at the same point as people who had some advantages you didn’t… but they didn’t have to fight the way you did or as hard as you did. So you need to take a moment and recognize that you’ve fought long and hard to get where you are and that is goddamn amazing. You’re not some third-string bench-warmer, you’re Rudy, man.

Of course, all of this means that you’re going to have some scars. I mean, c’mon: you’ve been through the fires of hell and you’ve got the ashes to prove it. But that block you’re dealing with right now isn’t fear, it’s the anticipation of fear. You’re so worried about the feeling of “Oh god does this mean it’s going to happen again” that you’re trying to avoid anything that might trigger that fear… including the things that you long for. And that’s understandable. That part of what makes us human. But the fear is an illusion. It’s a phantom. It’s the exaggerated, funhouse mirror version of reality. The fear is honestly worse than the reality.

Right now, you’re spending a lot of your energy trying to avoid your fears – more energy than it would actually take to confront them, in fact. You just keep convincing yourself that you’re going to lose, that you are inevitably going to fail, so there’s no point in trying. Small wonder you’re drained; you’re letting that fear sap everything from you, without even taking the little victories that tell you that you’ve got far more going for you than you realize.

The sooner you learn how to grapple with that fear and push through it, the sooner you’ll realize you’re further along than you believe you are.

And the easiest way to deal with that fear? Plan for failure. Expect failure. Because you know what? Failure’s gonna happen. A lot. To everyone. Even your buddies, who attract women the way cheese attracts mice, fail. You just don’t notice it because you’re paying too much attention to their successes. But success doesn’t teach you anything. A lot of times success is just luck – or you end up taking the wrong lessons from those successes. When a plane comes back from a mission shot full of holes, you don’t patch those holes and assume you fixed the problem; those are clearly places where it could get shot up and still make it. You want to pay attention to the places where getting shot full of holes brought down the plane and work on those areas.

So it is with failure. Failure teaches you valuable lessons. You learn to recognize what went wrong and how to avoid it next time. You start to learn your real strengths and weaknesses, not the ones you think you have. And the most important lesson you learn is this: failure isn’t fatal. You can mess up – badly, even – and still survive. You may not get with that one woman… but you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again with someone else. 

Pain’s inevitable, my dude. Nobody can avoid getting hurt. But while pain may be inevitable, suffering is optional. And you suffer far more from trying to avoid pain than you do learning how to take the hits, roll with them and pop back up again because you’ve given up on even the chance of success.

These are choices you’re making, my dude. You’re choosing to believe that you will fail and it will break you. It won’t. You’re stronger than that. Yeah, you’ll fail. It’s part of the learning process. Everyone fails. But when you learn from those failures, when you dare to push yourself  back up to your feet again? That’s when you win.

You have to believe that you can survive. You hold that power in your hands.

You can win if you dare.

You’ve got this.

Good luck.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

I have an ethical question.

The short version: a decade ago I met someone, we talked online a lot, those chats got steamy, and I saved them. Now I’m debating if I should get rid of those saved chats.

Long version: when I met J, I was in a terrible place: 25-year-old virgin with body image issues and depression, under-employed, and self-harming. J (who is gender-neutral) essentially made helping me a short project, out of the goodness of their heart, and we had what I call a “two-month-long one-night stand”. Since we lived in different cities, we communicated online only, until J invited me to their city for a weekend of sex and sex ed. This did wonders for my confidence, and our friendship helped me stop cutting. (Nine years clean!) A critical step in the process came when J laid out for me, in considerable detail, what they would do in bed with me once we were in the same place. Until that moment I had not really believed I was physically attractive to anyone. I saved that chat so I could look at it again later and remind myself it actually happened, and I saved other (sometimes steamy, usually very personal) chats as well.

Ever since then, we have been supportive friends. We don’t talk all the time, but we always know the other person will always be there. We’ve watched each other go through all sorts of relationship ups and downs. When we’re both single (and only then) we flirt, though this hasn’t happened in a while and nothing comes of it.

J’s in a relationship “up” — getting married to a truly marvelous person — and I’m in a relationship “neutral” — single for a year. The wedding has made me think about those saved chats. I look at them maybe once or twice a year, if that, but while they aren’t the same level as nudes, they are they are personal and intimate, and critically I don’t think J knows I have them, so it feels a little non-consensual. So on the one hand, it seems like the ethical thing to delete them.

On the other hand, I’m a very history-oriented person, so deleting those chats would be like deleting all evidence of a key turning point in my life. Also, while my depression is much more under control, it’s never gone — so having evidence of J’s validation is sometimes very nice.

On the third hand, I know I’m still attracted to J, so I’m a little suspicious of my judgment on this.

What do you recommend? Delete the sexy chats, or preserve the historical artifacts?

Ethical Historian

Y’know, there’s a lot of debate about that to do about the artifacts of our past relationships. Almost all of us tend to have keepsakes of our happier relationships; letters, photos, little trinkets that remind us of the good times we had. Most of the time, these are fairly harmless bits of nostalgia that we can take out, enjoy that warm hit from times past, then put ’em back and call it good. Now there are often people who feel threatened by the evidence of past relationships – the story of the Jealous Girlfriend is a well-worn routine from the early days of the Pick Up Artist scene – but for the most part, these are just reminders of days gone by. Getting rid of them just because the relationship ended smacks of trying to pretend the relationship never happened, an emotional damnatio memoriae that ultimately denies how we became the people we are today.

But some of those mementos can be of a sexual nature, and that’s where things get tricky. We live in a culture and society that’s profoundly sex-negative, and sees sexual expression as something shameful and degrading, even when it’s in the context of a committed, monogamous relationship. And in the aftermath of a break-up, the question of “what should we do about with these mementos” gets thorny. On the one hand, there are those who insist that they should be destroyed; after all, you (so the theory goes) no longer have that person’s consent to see their naked bodies. But at the same time, if you take this argument to it’s logical extension, then you’re no longer allowed to remember them or the way their skin felt or their hair smelled because hey that relationship’s over. On the other hand, there are those who will say that these were given consensually between two partners and like all gifts, there’s no obligation to return them later. But then there’s the fact that they were given under a specific context; if the relationship ended badly, those relationship artifacts can go from being mementos to weapons that can be used against the giver.

And sometimes, those memories can be weaponized by a third party. In this day and age, securing those particular relics is difficult. Cloud storage sites get hacked, computer repair services regularly steal people’s nudes from their hard drives and sexy files of unsuspecting innocents get shared far and wide. One only need look at The Fappening or boards on Reddit, 4chan, 8chan and elsewhere that are dedicated to sharing “found” nude images. Even purely physical keepsakes can get out into the wild; the infamous Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton sex tapes were on physical media, not digital storage.

These are all issues that’ve become part of the modern dating landscape. If we share those sides of ourselves with our partners – as many, many people do – there’s the chance that they won’t just stay with our partners.

Now in your case, EH, the odds of some spicy chatlogs getting out and causing problems is low. Not zero, but pretty darn low. So the bigger issue here is: why are you holding on to them? As you say: you still have some feelings for J. Is this a way of holding onto the relationship, instead of letting it be part of your past? There’s nothing wrong with the occasional naughty trip down memory lane, but if this is a way of keeping the hope alive, even as they’re getting married… well, that’s not healthy. It may be good to interrogate your feelings on this and see if your desire to keep that validation and evidence of your past is exactly that, or the fig-leaf you use to justify keeping them.

The other question involves the ethics of having them in the first place. While it’s generally a good rule of thumb to assume that anything you send to another person is likely stored and archived somewhere, a lot of folks tend to assume that hot chats and sexting conversations are lost to the ether; hell, that’s part of the whole point of services like Snapchat. As far as violations of trust go, it’s pretty far down the list, but some folks might still feel weird about knowing that those records exist.

So with all of this in mind, here’s my guiding principle when it comes to things like nudes and sexy pics from past relationships: if you’re on good terms with your ex, ask what they’d prefer you do. Of course, in your case, EH, first you’re going to have to explain that you have them in the first place. Which is gonna be awkward. But honestly? I suspect this will cause more amusement than consternation.

Some people are cool with their exes – especially ones they’re still friendly with – keeping the pics. After all, just because the relationship ended doesn’t mean that you now hate that person and want to retcon the relationship into having never happened. Others may prefer that you’d delete them, if only to keep them from ending up on dodgy blogs and subreddits.

So, you don’t need to explain about how they give you validation or that they’re an artifact of your past. Just say “Hey, turns out I have logs of some of the chat sessions we had, would you prefer I delete them or is it ok if I save them?” and let them have the final say.

And as a general rule: if you aren’t in contact with your ex – it was a bad break-up, you never want to hear from them again or vice-versa – go ahead and securely delete them. It’s better all around to err on the side of “get rid of them” than it is to have trouble down the line.

Good luck.

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