Ask a Former Stress Addict: Dismantling Failure

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Dear Fiona,

I am constantly afraid of failing in school. I have worked so hard to get where I am now academically, and sometimes I feel like if I don’t do well on a piece of homework or a test or something, I have completely messed-up everything, and I will not be able to fix it.

I got a C on a paper and cried. C is still a passing grade, so why did it make me feel so worthless, so like a failure? If I can’t even handle a C, how am I going to handle an actual failing grade?

– Afraid to Fail


Dear Afraid to Fail,

I know how that feels. I set very high standards for myself as well, and when I don’t achieve them, I feel like a failure. There’s something to be said for being slightly perfectionistic and having high academic standards for yourself, but there has to be a limit. Sometimes these impulses to shame ourselves for less than perfect work or grades come from our own personality, and sometimes they come from what we were taught as children, but more often than not, I think, it is a combination of the two.

The realization that we must come to is that failing at something does not make us failures. A C on a paper made you feel awful because in your mind that is a failing grade. If you expect it of yourself to get A’s and B’s, then a C, of course, feels like failing, and that’s OK.

I don’t think you need to try to convince yourself that you shouldn’t feel bad about that grade. If it’s not up to your personal standards, it’s going to hurt. What you can do is try to understand that this one paper or assignment does not make or break either you or your college career.

Once that’s understood, we need to address why this happened in the first place. Either you didn’t try hard enough, you didn’t study hard enough, you started work on the paper or assignment too late or you tried your best and still didn’t get a good grade. To me, the last one is more upsetting than all the former. If you didn’t work hard enough on something and you got a not-so-good grade on it, then what you learn from the situation is simple. Next time you need to put in more thought, effort, time or a combination of those in order to do better.

If you tried your darndest, and for some reason that wasn’t good enough, it’s hard to know how to proceed. You’re not really at fault here, so how do you make it right? If it’s an assignment, test or paper with a professor that you will have to work with extensively in the future, it may be worth it to talk to them and outline your concerns.

If you’re not comfortable doing that, or you probably won’t have to interact with this professor much in the future, you have the option to just let it go. That can be hard, but sometimes it’s the best choice. Moving past it, knowing that it does not define you, can be very empowering. You can handle this. Even if it’s worse than a C, you will be OK.


Good Luck!