Aunt Agony and Uncle Upset: Trying in the Face of Failure

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By Glenda Hua (24A01C) and Ki’En Lim (24S06J, Peer Helper)

Your resident Aunties and Uncles are back with our Ask Aunt Agony and Uncle Upset column, this time as a collaboration between Raffles Press and Peer Helpers’ Programme (PHP)! Ever wanted to rant about that someone you just can’t stand? Overwhelmed with too many feelings? Submit your confessions to and we’ll give them our best shot. This column will be published at the end of every month.

“How do you start trying and putting in effort when you have not been trying, because of the fear that when you do try, you will fail and not be able to achieve your goal successfully?”

Fearful Felicity

Dear Fearful Felicity,

Failure is one of the most widespread fears that can follow one in all of one’s ventures during all stages of life. As a student, you are afraid of failing your exams and disappointing your parents. As an adult, you are afraid of failing at your job and losing out on that promotion. This symptom is so commonly experienced that it has been coined a medical term, “atychiphobia”. It seems that whatever you do, there is always that possibility of not being able to succeed that looms over your shoulder and threatens to pull the carpet of self-assurance from under your feet. 

Let us first assure you that we completely understand how difficult this fear is to overcome. Often, we do not try hard not because we are lazy or could not care less; it is because we are afraid of the possibility that we try and still fail. For example, if we do not put effort into studying, then when we fail our test, we can give ourselves the familiar excuse of “I could’ve done well if I wanted to” or “it’s not that I don’t understand, it’s just that I didn’t study”. On the contrary, what if we do put in every drip of our effort, study late into the night, complete all our assignments and more – but still fail? What can we tell ourselves then? What are we going to do?

And those are the questions that we will help you answer today. That scenario may seem like a scary one at first, but it doesn’t have to be. By recognising the roots of your current problem and tweaking your mindset, you will be able to overcome your fear of failure and start trying. 

The doubtful benefit of the benefit of the doubt

Just like how if you didn’t try and subsequently failed to achieve your goals, you can choose to believe that you would have succeeded if you had tried. Although called the “benefit” of the doubt, this coping mechanism is not actually very healthy or useful, for it is an excuse to dissuade yourself from putting in actual effort.

Firstly, by deliberately not trying, you might feel better despite performing worse because you believe you could have done better if you had put in more effort. However, remember that other people are not aware of these hypotheticals. From teachers to parents to coaches, all they will see is a lack of effort from you. One does not get credit for things that one could have done; one gets credit for things that are on the table. The only person this routine may comfort is yourself, but it is also a false sense of comfort as your true abilities are hidden.

The most important thing is to be truthful to yourself, and constantly giving yourself the benefit of the doubt prevents just that. You might always be under the impression that you could do better if you tried, but by never actually trying, you would be unable to check the validity of this belief and assess where you currently stand. 

Additionally, there will eventually come a day when you are unable to give yourself the benefit of the doubt anymore, and you instead have to put in all your effort and display your actual abilities, such as during the A-Levels. Therefore, we should not wait for the “snowball effect” to kick in — where the problem becomes larger and graver at an increasing rate — but rather give ourselves a realistic perspective of our actual situation. This way, we can recognise and work on our shortcomings early before it reaches a “point of no return”. 

Something is better than nothing

You might be afraid to study for your exams and end up scoring only 30%, but remember that if you didn’t study at all, you will certainly score less than that! Sometimes we think that the effort we put in doesn’t seem to have any visible impact on our results, but in reality, we always move one step closer to our goals every time we try (as clichéd as it sounds). Even recognising the existence of our procrastination is the first step towards improving. Never lose sight of your main objective at the end of the day, which is not to escape failure for now but to succeed in the long run — effort plays an essential role in that. 

Failing is not necessarily a bad thing

As Paul Coelho once said, “You drown not by falling into a river, but by staying submerged in it.” Encountering failure is inevitable, but rather than seeing our failures as shortcomings, we can instead take them as stepping stones for us to improve. What matters is that we understand our failures instead of letting them bring us down.

Failure to many comes in the form of a bad grade, but more often than not, the grade doesn’t really give us pointers to improve. Instead, try looking at failures from a different angle. So, instead of being fixated on results and grades, we can shift our efforts and focus towards more process-oriented goals such as improving our study habits, taking better notes, or making a more organised schedule. This perspective seeks to get rid of our existing bad habits (e.g. last-minute work), while cultivating more positive ones. While you may not see immediate changes on paper in the form of grades, it is important to see yourself making progress in your habits, as opposed to basing your progress solely on the outcome, which may take a while to change. 

At the end of the day, improvement takes time and consistent effort. After all, old habits die hard, especially the bad ones. Focus on maintaining constant progress while improving your habits through time, and you will already be halfway there! 

Aunt Agony and Uncle Upset

If you need anyone to talk to about any issues you might be facing, do drop by My Rest Space near Marymount gate and talk to one of our peer helpers! We’re open on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 3 – 5 p.m. and Wednesday 11.00 a.m. – 1.00 p.m. If you would like to meet a peer helper on a regular basis, do email us a request at or fill in our request form at our website!

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