Anxiety, Shame and the Fear of Failure

Welcome to the May edition of the Phoenix Wellness Coaching blog. If this is your first visit, it is good to have you here; if you have been following us for some time again it’s great to have you here, and I hope you enjoy reading this month’s instalment. Throughout May on our social media we are looking at anxiety and menopause, but I wanted to take a slightly different look at anxiety in my blog by sharing my own story with you. For me, anxiety is very much bound up with my feelings of shame.

It all started as a child

For context, throughout my life I have always been viewed by parents, and by proxy by myself, as the high achiever of the family. I was the one who felt the weight of expectation which has driven my fear of failure and desire to “match up”. This started way back with the then 11+ test, which I successfully passed and went to grammar school; so the weight of needing to achieve as the “clever one” kicked in then. Throughout my education I was always top of the class, and sometimes picked on for that reason. When I wasn’t top of the class, I berated myself and pushed myself to achieve more – it was as if failure just wasn’t an option – enter my massive self-limiting belief that has been my “dark secret” for many years.

After pushing myself to achieve my then GCE O levels, I went on to study A levels and secretarial skills in the sixth form; this was a gruelling timetable with very little time for me but still I pushed on. When I didn’t achieve the results I wanted in my A levels, and also didn’t reach the dizzying heights I wanted in typing and shorthand, I felt like I’d let everyone down and had failed in some way. I would add that no one put this on me – I wasn’t pressured by my parents at all – but I felt the need to succeed and not getting those grades really hit home. I felt like I’d failed.

And continued as an adult

I’ve been running from the fear of failure and letting down those around me for years. In my professional life, the desire or need to keep achieving resulted in me falling off a metaphorical cliff about 11 years ago.

I’ve talked about my battle with anxiety and depression before – I do this not for sympathy but just to remove some of the stigma around mental ill health. My bout of depression was a dark time for me, and whilst I now know the role that menopause played, the biggest contributing factor was my workload and stress. I was working on a very difficult restructure, surrounded by negativity and high emotions which took their toll on me. Because of my desire to not let anyone down, I didn’t ask for help and pushed myself to the point of burn out. I was signed off for over 4 months and put on antidepressants to help me to heal.

Anxiety became my dirty little secret

At the time I didn’t want my family beyond my husband to know about my struggles. I said this was because I needed to come to terms with what I was suffering before I could explain it to anyone else, even those closest to me. I didn’t tell my brother. I didn’t tell my parents. I asked my husband to cover for me and I lived a lie for almost 6 months – everyone other than my husband, thought all was well with me and that I was going to work. When asked how my day was, I responded non-committedly with a “oh you know okay” and felt that I was literally getting away with it.

Looking back I can see why I kept this a secret – my fear of failure wouldn’t let me admit that I’d failed (in my eyes) and I didn’t want anyone to know. I said it was because I didn’t want to have to talk about what I was feeling as others wouldn’t understand; but really it was 100% because I was ashamed that I couldn’t cope, that I’d let everyone down and that I was a failure! This is the stigma of mental ill health; believing you cannot share how you are feeling or that some how it means you are less of a person. This all makes your mental health even worse.

I didn’t realise it was shame that I was running from, that I was denying and that was eating away at me. I was ashamed that I needed help; I was ashamed that I couldn’t cope; I was ashamed that I’d let people down; I was ashamed that I’d failed. All these feelings and emotions were there under the surface, but I can only acknowledge them now 11 years later. My shame was compounded when I finally owned my experiences and talked to my parents about what I’d been through. My shame was doubled by their disappointment in being shut out, or not being able to help their child. For me asking for their help was my ultimate failure – something I didn’t want to face.

What now?

I am now able to be open about what I went through. I know about my failure demon and my shame demon that sit within me, but I’ve made friends with them. I’ve started to see them as my inner children who only want me to feel great and happy, who want to protect me but aren’t mature enough to manage the emotions that come with that protection.

I know now what triggers my anxiety and how to cope with it. I am aware of my self-limiting beliefs and my shame, which is an emotion we all feel but rarely acknowledge – shame is part of the human condition and causes us to react in strange ways to the situations around us. When you can make your peace with your shame then you can move forward. I spend my time now talking about my mental health, and through my experiences help others to manage their anxiety, stress and overwhelm. You just need to understand where these feelings are rooted, acknowledge, and accept them. This is the road to self-compassion that will soften the shame.

For more information

If you have read this blog and it resonates, and you want more help then do reach out and contact me. As a qualified Mental Health First Aider and wellness coach, I can hold a safe space for you to talk and provide you with the support you need to move forward. Do not hesitate to email me at