Overcoming Fear of Failure

Facing Fears and Moving Forward

You can overcome fear of failure

Learn to overcome your fears.

© iStockphoto/lili41

Have you ever been so afraid of failing at something that you decided not to try it at all? Or has a fear of failure meant that, subconsciously, you undermined your own efforts to avoid the possibility of a larger failure?

Many of us have probably experienced this at one time or another. The fear of failing can be immobilizing – it can cause us to do nothing, and therefore resist moving forward. But when we allow fear to stop our forward progress in life, we're likely to miss some great opportunities along the way.

In this article, we'll examine fear of failure: what it means, what causes it, and how to overcome it to enjoy true success in work, and in life.

Causes of Fear of Failure

To find the causes of fear of failure, we first need to understand what "failure" actually means.

We all have different definitions of failure, simply because we all have different benchmarks, values, and belief systems. A failure to one person might simply be a great learning experience for someone else.

Many of us are afraid of failing, at least some of the time. But fear of failure (also called "atychiphobia") is when we allow that fear to stop us doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals.

Fear of failure can be linked to many causes. For instance, having critical or unsupportive parents is a cause for some people. Because they were routinely undermined or humiliated in childhood, they carry those negative feelings into adulthood.

Experiencing a traumatic event at some point in your life can also be a cause. For example, say that several years ago you gave an important presentation in front of a large group, and you did very poorly. The experience might have been so terrible that you became afraid of failing in other things. And you carry that fear even now, years later.

Signs of Fear of Failure

You might experience some of these symptoms if you have a fear of failure :

  • A reluctance to try new things or get involved in challenging projects.
  • Self-sabotage   – for example, procrastination, excessive anxiety  , or a failure to follow through with goals.
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence   – commonly using negative statements such as "I'll never be good enough to get that promotion," or "I'm not smart enough to get on that team."
  • Perfectionism   – A willingness to try only those things that you know you'll finish perfectly and successfully.

"Failure" – A Matter of Perspective

It's almost impossible to go through life without experiencing some kind of failure. People who do so probably live so cautiously that they go nowhere. Put simply, they're not really living at all.

The wonderful thing about failure is that it's entirely up to us to decide how to look at it.

We can choose to see failure as "the end of the world," or as proof of just how inadequate we are. Or, we can look at failure as the incredible learning experience that it often is. Every time we fail at something, we can choose to look for the lesson we're meant to learn. These lessons are very important; they're how we grow, and how we keep from making that same mistake again. Failures stop us only if we let them.

It's easy to find successful people who have experienced failure. For example:

  • Michael Jordan is widely considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. And yet, he was cut from his high school basketball team because his coach didn't think he had enough skill.
  • Warren Buffet, one of the world's richest and most successful businessmen, was rejected by Harvard University.
  • Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin empire, is a high school dropout.

Most of us will stumble and fall in life. Doors will get slammed in our faces, and we might make some bad decisions. But imagine if Michael Jordan had given up on his dream to play basketball when he was cut from that team. Imagine if Richard Branson had listened to the people who told him he'd never do anything worthwhile without a high school diploma.

Think of the opportunities you'll miss if you let your failures stop you.

Failure can also teach us things about ourselves that we would never have learned otherwise. For instance, failure can help you discover how strong a person you are. Failing at something can help you discover your truest friends, or help you find unexpected motivation to succeed.

Often, valuable insights come only after a failure. Accepting and learning from those insights is key to succeeding in life.

Overcoming Your Fear

It's important to realize that in everything we do, there's always a chance that we'll fail. Facing that chance, and embracing it, is not only courageous – it also gives us a fuller, more rewarding life.

However, here are a few ways to reduce the fear of failing:

  • Analyze all potential outcomes – Many people experience fear of failure because they fear the unknown. Remove that fear by considering all of the potential outcomes of your decision. Our article Decision Trees   will teach you how to map possible outcomes visually.
  • Learn to think more positively – Positive thinking is an incredibly powerful way to build self-confidence and neutralize self-sabotage. Our article Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking, and Positive Thinking   is a comprehensive resource for learning how to change your thoughts.
  • Look at the worse-case scenario – In some cases, the worst case scenario may be genuinely disastrous, and it may be perfectly rational to fear failure. In other cases, however, this worst case may actually not be that bad, and recognizing this can help.
  • Have a contingency plan   – If you're afraid of failing at something, having a "Plan B" in place can help you feel more confident about moving forward.

Using Goal Setting

If you are afraid of failure, you might be uncomfortable setting goals  . But goals help us define where we want to go in life. Without goals, we have no sure destination.

Many experts recommend visualization   as a powerful tool for goal setting. Imagining how life will be after you've reached your goal is a great motivator to keep you moving forward.

However, visualization might produce the opposite results in people who have a fear of failure. Research shows that people who have a fear of failure were often left in a strong negative mood after being asked to visualize goals and goal attainment.

So, what can you do instead?

Start by setting a few small goals  . These should be goals that are slightly, but not overwhelmingly, challenging. Think of these goals as "early wins" that are designed to help boost your confidence.

For example, if you've been too afraid to talk to the new department head (who has the power to give you the promotion you want), then make that your first goal. Plan to stop by her office during the next week to introduce yourself.

Or, imagine that you've dreamed of returning to school to get your MBA, but you're convinced that you're not smart enough to be accepted into business school. Set a goal to talk with a school counselor or admissions officer to see what's required for admission.

Try to make your goals tiny steps on the route to much bigger goals. Don't focus on the end picture: getting the promotion, or graduating with an MBA. Just focus on the next step: introducing yourself to the department head, and talking to an admissions officer. That's it.

Taking one small step at a time will help build your confidence, keep you moving forward, and prevent you from getting overwhelmed with visions of your final goal.

Note:

Sometimes, being afraid of failure can be a symptom of a more serious mental health condition. If it affects your day-to-day life, it's important to speak with your doctor to get advice.

Key Points

Many of us are sometimes afraid of failing, but we mustn't let that fear stop us from moving forward.

Fear of failure can have several causes: from childhood events to mistakes we've made in our adult lives. It's important to realize that we always have a choice: we can choose to be afraid, or we can choose not to be.

Start by setting small goals that will help build your confidence. Learn how to explore and evaluate all possible outcomes rationally and develop contingency plans; and practice thinking positively. By moving forward slowly but steadily, you'll begin to overcome your fear.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

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Comments (9)
  • MichaelP wrote This week
    Holly, having jumped a couple of times in my past I can appreciate your situation. I have never regretted jumping even it was a bumpy landing and with so many resources to help us connect and share whenever you think or hear impossible remember to entrepreneurs all we see is bad grammar since it's really saying I'm Possible good luck.
  • Yolande wrote This week
    Hi Holly

    Starting out on your own is indeed daunting - but well worth it and something that a number of our members have done. Talking about their fears and successes on the forums is a good way to get objective input.

    Yolande
  • Holly wrote This week
    It is hard not to be scared, but bravery is when you are scared and you do it anyway. I am scared because I am starting a business, and between work and home I needed more time if it was ever going to happen. Yesterday, was my last day at my regular full time job. I'm scared but, I know that whether I succeed or fail McDonald's is always hiring, and I couldn't stay where I was. The option was to find another job or go off the deep end. I jumped. I always liked thrill rides though.
  • sam_dubai wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you James for reply. I think I should take a really serious step and start to apply some of those strategies. The most important thing is to take action. I believe I have taken the first step towards overcoming my personality shortages by joining this club.

    Thanks for your support.
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Sam

    I think everyone gets a bit scared every now and again before a big event - the trick is to have strategies in place to deal with this.

    Professional athletes, for example, pre-prepare relaxation imagery that they use just before an event to calm their nerves, and they have refocusing plans for getting back in control when things go wrong. Speakers have routines in place such as taking ten deep breaths, and reminding themselves that "it's about the audience". And, in all sorts of situations, people rehearse very thoroughly so that performance is semi-automatic, and isn't harmed by nervousness.

    The trick is to acknowledge your fear/adrenaline response when it happens, recognize that it's your body's primitive way of preparing for action, and then control it with the strategies you've practiced.

    Hope this helps!

    James

    (A minor note: All of our resources are created as a result of team effort, and quite a number of people contribute in different ways. I'm very proud of them, but I can only take my fair share of credit for them! )
  • sam_dubai wrote Over a month ago
    Hi There,

    I don't shy away from the fact that I feel I have that "fear" that resides somewhere in my mind and keeps popping up in certain situations. It is really uncomfortable! I have been tracking down on most of my personal weaknesses( not that I'm full of weaknesses!) to find that it originates from fear. The strategies mentioned by James are difenitely suitable to handle fear. I'm determined to unroot it and I will. Sometimes though, I get confused as to whether I should fight it or ignore it. Sometimes I feel the more I fight it the more I aknlowedge it but when I ingore that it is there I just find myself living my life naturally.

    I'm talking about those moments when you are about to meet someone new or make a presentation and a voice you hear in your mind and tells you: " You should be frightened now!" and then you get frightened as a result!

    What do you think? Should I fight it? or ignore that it is even there?


    Thanks
    Sam
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Zuni,
    Thanks for sharing your three simple questions "What do I need to keep doing?", What do I need to stop doing?", What do i need to start doing or do differently?"

    Although these questions may be 'simple', the answer can be profound life-changing revelations!

    We could all benefit from reminding ourselves of these questions when faced with a difficult situation.

    Midgie
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all,

    As the article states, failure is a matter of perspective. I have long studied leadership and leadership development. Many leaders face failure at some point in their careers and it is how they characterize the event and work through it that builds character.

    Resilience is an important leadership attribute. I describe resilience as the ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, learn from the experience and tackle the next challenge with greater courage and wisdom. I have certainly had my share of setbacks in my work and personal life, but despite the bumps and bruises, I have come through it all a stronger, wiser and more compassionate person.

    The strategies outlined in the article to address fear of failure work. Keeping a positive outlook, taking "baby-steps" and setting yourself up for "small wins" helps reduce the fear factor. Most important, identify what you learn from the experience. I ask myself three simple questions: "What do I need to keep doing?", What do I need to stop doing?", What do i need to start doing or do differently?". These three questions have served me well and ensure that I take away important lessons and keep growing.

    Zuni
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    I love the idea of failure being a matter of perspective. We do learn some of our most valuable lessons when "failing". Something that is important to me, is not to let other people and their opinion of failure influence me too much - it may be way different than what I see as failure. Yet, if I allow that influence to be too big in my life it can make me very unhappy (and has done so at times!).

    Regards
    Yolandé

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