Fear of Being Wrong

When I attended college, I was not a very good student, and it was largely due to fear. Professors would ask a question and look out at those of us attending the class, waiting for someone to respond. I knew the two or three people who would raise their hand and contribute—those same people always contributed—and I was thankful for them. I diverted my eyes from the front of the classroom, studied the margins of my notebook, pretended to take notes, and hoped that one day a cloak of invisibility would really exist for such occasions.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn. It wasn’t that I didn’t have an idea of what the answer would be. It wasn’t that I was being humble about my knowledge. The reason I didn’t participate was simple: I was afraid of not being right.

Not being right meant being wrong. It meant looking stupid. It meant admitting that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else in the classroom. Those were my secrets. I could fake my way through lecture halls and avoid discussions and nobody would have to know the truth.

That fear of being wrong kept me from discovering that the biggest step in learning is admitting what you don’t know. Once I accepted that much can be learned from not being right, my whole world changed. I stopped pretending I knew everything and acknowledged how little I knew about the things that mattered to me. And then I set about changing that. Instead of being embarrassed because I was wrong, I started asking why I wasn’t right.

The fear of being wrong is much like the fear of failure. Why try to accomplish something that isn’t a guaranteed risk? Why set yourself up for ridicule and criticism? Why expose your shortcomings?

Why not?

 

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11 thoughts on “Fear of Being Wrong

  1. Great post, Diane. Too many of us feel this way and therefore limit our abilities to learn and grow. It’s brave just admitting this in the first place. Cheers!

  2. Diane, I know exactly how you felt! When I was younger (pre-college), I wasn’t the funny/popular kid, so I took a lot of comfort in the fact that I was smart. Of course, if I was wrong in front of people, that was just one more reason for them to mock me – so I eventually stopped answering up because of the fear of being mocked. Fortunately, I had a college professor who broke me of that fear (very kindly, but very firmly). Of course, now my fear is “getting it wrong” in front of workshop classes or critique partners, so I guess I still have some work to do on that front!

  3. Great post, Diane! I was always one of those people who spoke up in class … until I went to college. Then, unless it was something I was 100 percent sure about, I didn’t say anything. I was used to having teachers really happy to have my participation in high school, but suddenly being in such a different place with tons and tons of people made me suddenly have an attack of the fear of being wrong. It’s so funny how you can be on a campus of 25,000 people (in my case) and feel like with one misstep EVERYONE will know. And wonder about you. Ugh. I’m happy that fear hasn’t followed me into my adult life, but I’ll never forget it!

  4. Indeed, why not? Thanks, Diane! I had a perfectionist streak, but a Zen Buddhist friend in Seattle finally taught me to be happy about not knowing something. It was an opportunity to be authentic, to learn, to explore. For awhile afterward, I would proudly state, “I don’t know.” It was liberating.

  5. It’s funny how that fear follows us around or even sometimes comes out of being in a new situation, isn’t it? These days I try to remind myself that I’m not the only person who has questions and that asking them might help someone else. I guess I’m more okay with looking foolish these days too…:)

  6. Great post, Diane. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.
    Fear is the one thing that can stop us from fulfilling our dreams. As writers/authors it can be the thing that keeps us frozen and worried to release our “babies” into the world. As I’m getting older, I’m realizing that it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to march to the beat of my own off-beat drum. It’s even okay to take the road less traveled.
    If you don’t conquer the fear you’ll never know success at least on some level.
    Peace, love, and keep dreaming big.

  7. Interesting post. One of the reasons I think people commit crimes is their terrible fear of looking like fools. It’s the extreme version of being afraid to be wrong. That’s why I love writing crime fiction–it gives me a chance to take a good look at this driving force.

  8. Thoughtful post, Diane! Thanks for sharing. Many of us can relate to that feeling.

    What you probably didn’t know at the time was that your professor probably had a fear of someone asking a question s/he couldn’t answer, too. ;)

  9. Cynthia, I think it was more that the professor had a fear that nobody was paying attention to her carefully planned lecture!

  10. Ha ha! Indeed.

  11. Lisa, that is a profoundly useful philosophy!

    Terry, excellent point about extreme fear…and perfect for the mystery theme we favor around here!

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