Fear of failure is something that almost everyone has experienced in some way or form.
If you know someone who claims to have never been affected by failure, you’ve probably met an alien in disguise…or it’s more likely that they’ve kept the truth to themselves.
We have all felt the pain of falling short of our goals, of struggling to keep motivation when all seems lost.
While it would be a sweeping generalisation to claim that we all suffer this fear of failure on a frequent basis, it is important to reiterate that you are not alone in your journey to overcome your fears.
Today we are delving deep into why many of us are crippled by fear of failure and what we can do to overcome it.
Defining Fear of Failure
In a clinical sense, there is actually a term for severe fear of failure.
“Atychiphobia” refers to a phobia of experiencing failure, often being related to other disorders such as mood disorder and anxiety. It can range from mild to severe and, for some, the symptoms can be physical: difficulty breathing, increased heart-rate, sweating, dizziness, etc.
Atychiphobia is a phobia akin to any other. It is said to affect 2-5% of the population, but while it may be more severe than the average person experiences, it gives a good basis for understanding where that fear comes from.
Just like anxiety, these symptoms are often brought on by a mixture of obsessive thoughts and rumination on failure. This is usually the result of childhood experiences that caused people to internalise shame and fear upon experiencing failure. These internalised emotions boil to the surface whenever the person attempts something new again.
Just like a safety mechanism, the brain deters the person from the risk of feeling those emotions again.
What Does Failure Mean to Us?
Each of us have a different definition for failure.
Throughout our lives, we develop different values and belief systems, as well as define our own comfort zones. This also applies to our personal definitions of failure.
To some, a devastating failure is merely a learning experience. For others, it lingers on in the mind for decades to come and acts as a source of anguish and shame.
How the fear actualizes in your life can vary. You might:
- Feel reluctance and resistance to trying new things.
- Shy away from challenges in your life.
- Engage in self-destructive habits, even without meaning to.
- Experience low self-esteem and a lack of confidence.
- Focus on perfectionism, to the point where it stifles creativity and progression in your projects and life. You might also be unwilling to try anything that you don’t feel perfect at.
However you actualise fear of failure, it is important to recognise these habits consciously and slowly move towards changing them. This begins with acceptance that these habits are there and represent the deeper-rooted trauma of experiencing failure.
From a place of acceptance, you can deliberately develop a more positive view of yourself. As you develop this stronger sense of self-worth, you will find that failure bounces of you far easier than it did before.
With time, you will turn failure into meaningful progress into life. We have some tips on how that as well, but before we get there, there is one more aspect of failure we need to consider.
It would be misleading to suggest that you can truly be rid of failure. It’s a part of life and a part of growth.
The only way to truly be rid of the risk of failure is to no longer take any risks. Those people who do so tend to live a shell of the life they’re capable of having; hardly living at all.
There is a silver lining, however, and it’s a good one.
It’s entirely up to us to decide how to look at failure.
The thoughts in our head regarding failure are often dramatized in order to keep us safe. We look at failure like it’s the end of the world, or evidence of our own inadequacies.
We attach negative meanings to failure, but is failure inherently negative?
When you break it down, “failure” is only an outcome of a situation. You try something, and you get an outcome. If that outcome falls short of what you wanted, there is a lesson involved. These lessons are what help us grow, and keep us from making the same mistakes over and over again.
When you view failure as an outcome, it allows you to reduce the fear attached to it. You can always try again, and the outcome usually offers a lot of value that will help you progress the next time around.
Ironically, failure is a crucially important part to becoming our best selves. Those who are masters of their field, whom you might consider “perfect”, have likely failed more times than they ever actually succeeded.
Failure helped them to realise what didn’t work, so that they could focus on what does.
A quick google search will find plenty of successful people who have experienced failure more times than you can count. For example:
Many people consider Michael Jordon to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But did you know his coach cut him from his high school basketball team because he didn’t think Michael had enough skill?
The man himself has stated he’s missed around 9000 shots throughout his career. Without those failures, he never would have been able to become the player that he is today.
Thomas Edison, perfector of the light-globe, was said to have tried 9000 times before he succeeded. Every failure was only another way to not make a light globe, and one more step towards finding success.
Walt Disney, pioneer of the Walt Disney Company, was fired from the Kansas City Star. The editor felt he “lacked imagination” and had “no good ideas”. He went on to found one of the largest corporations today.
We all stumble and fall on our way to success. Mistakes are inevitable and sometimes we will make bad decisions. But consider the people above and imagine if they had fallen and never to get back up due to fear of falling again.
Think of the opportunities you might have given up on, or will give up on in the future if you continue to let failures stop you from trying. Think of all the things you won’t experience if you don’t find a way to move beyond this fear.
Failure teaches us about who we really are. It connects us with others, humbles us, and gives us more fuel to the fire. The most valuable lessons and insights come from failing.
It’s time to change what failure means to us, and to find the empowerment in falling and getting back up again.
This is easier said than done, however. It requires courage and determination. So here are some ways to help reduce that fear and come to terms with how we truly feel on the subject.
Accept the Fear in All Its Forms
At the heart of fear of failure is the instinctual desire to avoid pain.
This pain is not a physical one, but an emotional one. Shame, embarrassment, inadequacy: these are all emotional pain points we want to avoid.
And yet, the more we try to suppress them, or avoid them, or scold them away by saying we “should” be this or “shouldn’t” be that, the more they tend to become amplified.
Life becomes an ironic form of self-fulfilling prophecy. As we avoid feeling these emotions, we sub-consciously create more situations in which to feel them. It becomes a negative cycle that is difficult to break.
Your focus is like a magnifying glass. As you focus intently on your fear of failure, you only make it bigger. Even if you try to handle these emotions away, they’re still being focused upon and amplified.
In meditation, the person quiets their mind and allows thoughts and emotions to slip away. In essence, they stop fighting with themselves.
This opens them up to the best approach to overcoming their fear of failure, which is actually accepting the fear.
Take some time to sit in a place quietly and do some deep breathing. Allow the thoughts to be there. Don’t fight the thoughts, even if they’re negative or uncomfortable.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel.
Be present in the moment. As you think about failure, whether it be in the past or something in the future, remind yourself that you are safe, and that they are just emotions. They are not good or bad. They just are.
Feel them completely. Accept that your body and mind are sending a message that there is a danger of failure.
Accept that message.
Appreciate that message.
And then let it go. Allow it to move on. The less you fight, the less you hold those thoughts and emotions to you.
Your fear is like a magnet, and it’s time to let it go.
With time, and practice, you will find that fear reduces significantly.
Be sure to apply this before stressful tasks, or before attempting new things. Take a five-minute break to the bathroom to feel through the fear. You’ll be surprised at the new leaps you’ll be taking into life.
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Start Opening Yourself Up to Rejection
For those who have a fear of failure, it is often related to the discomfort of being rejected.
It is never pleasant to be turned away, as it sends the message that you are not enough. Perhaps you have a painful memory of being shut out by others when you were sincerely trying your best to be friendly.
Yet by opening the door to rejection, even if you begin with only a crack, you can strengthen your sense of worth by realising you will be okay despite rejection from others.
Try one thing every day to seek out rejection.
Make small talk with a stranger. Ask them for a mint.
Send an email to someone you’ve been afraid of reaching out to, such as a mentor. Apply for that position that you’ve been too afraid to try for.
You never know the opportunities that you can find if you only reach for them.
As you do so, you might find others tell you “no”, or seem uninterested.
This is entirely okay.
Consider that a success.
You’ve been seeking out rejection, after all. You’ve made it into a game. After the first few tries, you’ll realise you’re still alive and breathing and doing okay. You haven’t become anything less just because you were rejected.
This will begin the important journey to self-worth that is the antithesis of fear of failure.
Change the Story You Tell Yourself
Sometimes our fears get stuck in our heads.
They become a negative spiral of self-hatred and anxious predictions about what could go wrong. This develops into a narrative about ourselves, and about life, that causes the world to be coloured one way, and one way only.
Try this out:
Look around the room you’re in. This tends to work better if you’re in an unfamiliar location, but it should still be effective even if you’re somewhere familiar.
Focus on all the brown things in the room. Make sure you remember every one of them. Then, come back to reading.
Okay, so now that you’ve remembered all the brown things in the room, close your eyes and think of everything that’s blue.
Did we get you?
You might have been able to figure out what we were going for, or perhaps you know the room well enough to remember what’s blue — or you might even have a great memory despite being somewhere unfamiliar. But the exercise helps illustrate the point that when we focus on the brown, we risk forgetting about the blue.
When we look for one thing, we tend not to notice the other things that have always been there.
Your reality is only as real as where you’re focusing your camera and the filter you put over it. As you focus on all the things that can go wrong, and all the pain you’ve experienced from trying things in the past, you won’t be able to notice the all the things that went right.
Be aware of the story you tell yourself. How you talk about yourself and what you’ve failed at will directly impact how you feel. As we all know, our emotions directly affect what we’re willing to try.
Don’t judge yourself for having negative thoughts. Awareness is key, and from here you can apply the same techniques we discussed earlier about accepting your thoughts and emotions regarding failure.
With some time and practice, you will be able to change negative statements to neutral ones, and eventually positivity will be natural to you. You will focus on the most positive things in your life.
Start small. Focus on small wins.
Eventually your story about yourself will be wildly different, and therefore so will your capabilities in life.
Use Pain as a Motivator…But Only at the Beginning
Your fear of failure is a motivator to avoid trying new things. But what if your fear of missing out on life was a motivator to keep moving through that fear?
Consider all the experiences that you don’t have in your life.
The love, the financial abundance, the friendships.
The joy, the smiles, the feeling of genuine satisfaction at a life well-deserved and well-lived.
It could be that you have these things, but we’re betting that if you’re reading this article, there’s a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that is driving you to seek out more.
If you find the satisfaction of thinking about your future successes is enough to drive you towards chasing them, then by all means, use it.
But for some, moving towards pleasure is not enough to overcome those instinctive pain points that keep them in fear. The joy of asking a crush out on a date is overshadowed by the potential (often imagined) pain of being laughed at and rejected.
Sometimes the best tool is to use pain to motivate us to move through pain.
Visualize what your life will be like without ever overcoming your fear of failure. Imagine what you look like in the mirror. Seriously, take some time to visualize the following:
It’s five years in the future. What does your life look like?
Are you happy?
What expressions do you keep?
Imagine your home, five years from now. Does it feel bright and open? Do you feel comfortable, or is there a dissatisfaction at where you’ve ended up?
Imagine your relationships. Do you feel confident and worthy? Are you able to create the bonds you want? Or do you see yourself as someone who was never found true and lasting love?
These questions may seem extreme, but they help you to realise what vision of the future you have for yourself.
If you had mainly negative pictures as you imagined the answers, it doesn’t mean you want those things, but it does indicate what you expect for yourself.
This exercise could be a negative one, if we kept focusing on the worst elements of our future. But in our case, it will be fuel for the fire.
Whenever you find yourself too afraid to do something, and all the above information doesn’t seem to work, use this process to motivate yourself to act. Imagine what you will be missing out on until it becomes almost unbearable, until you have to take action to move your life forward.
And then do it.
Take action. Even if it’s something small, use that pain to get you moving.
You don’t need to know where to start. Sometimes just doing anything productive will lead to other ideas.
Do note that this process is good for initial motivation, but doesn’t tend to last forever. You might find yourself moving only as far as you can until you get those basic feelings of satisfaction, and then bad habits slide back into place.
Use pain motivation when you need a push out of the comfort zone, and then reinforce that change with more positive thinking, visualisation and mindfulness techniques.
Still looking to take this deeper? We’ve done out best to give you a deep dive, but if you’re still struggling with fears and anxieties, not just around failure but in general life, check out this presentation for some further learning. It explores shyness, but can be applied to general anxities in all shapes.
We’ve explored fear of failure from many angles, but this isn’t everything on the subject. It should, however, help start you on the journey to overcoming your fears and living a better life of self-worth and self-love.
By redefining fear and accepting the underlying emotions that drive that fear of failure, you can change the story you tell yourself and improve your life for the better.