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. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (30)
  • Midgie wrote This month
    Hi Kiwi1499,
    Many people can be almost paralyzed by their fear of failure and don't even get out to the game, let alone out to bat! There is not easy simple answer to overcoming this, other than developing a new habit.

    Developing new habits takes some time, attention and effort. So, rather than focusing on the negatives, why would it be like if you chose to focus on the positives, on the possibilities of what could happen and what could go right?

    Midgie
    Mind Tools Team
  • kiwi1499 wrote This month
    I feel like I crush myself so bad with my negative thoughts.I don't want people to see me as a failure in life and I want to be the best at everything I do. I am getting closer and closer to overcoming my fear of failure I'm just missing something that will push me out of my negative mindset. For example, when I play softball I get so scared of failing when I get up to bat I end up striking out and end up getting really upset at myself and I try to tell myself positive things like you will for better next time or its not the end of the world but the negative emotions just flood me. Is there anything else I can do to help get me out of this mindset?
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Isabel, I would encourage you to focus on what you can achieve and find some balance, so there is no energy left for doubt and self sabotage. I am also looking forward to reading your novel when it is published.
  • Isabel wrote Over a month ago
    Hey there.

    I have been dealing with fears of failure all my life. Every time, though, I overcame those fears and pushed myself further. This time, however, I am at a loss of strength and ideas.
    Over a month ago I started as a trainee for 1st assistant director. Film and Tv used to be my big passion, now it isn't anymore, now it's second place. What I really want to do is to write novels. I have enrolled in a distance learning course to pursue my ultimate goal, but nevertheless I wanted to continue my career in entertainment. After all, it's what I've been living from until now.
    Well, there is one problem, being an assistant director requires challenging oneself, especially me. I am quiet, calm and at first glance not the biggest extrovert. I have led projects before, even teams. But here I really need to come out of myself, supervise everything, have a loud determined voice and be a link between all departments. A very appealing job, on the one hand, and a chance for me to train a part of me I haven't known so far.
    However, on the other hand, I have never in my life been so scared. I sabotage myself by finding reasons why I should not do the job, I get "ill" so I have an excuse to miss work... I hardly recognise myself, I have always taken on every challenge yet this time it's as if I were chickening out all the time.
    I could abandon it completely, give up, but I don't know what to then. I can't focus solely on writing without an income, at least not yet. Is the job, that is not my great passion but something I might enjoy doing once I have got passed the learning part and "know" how to do, worth all the effort? If I decide to follow through with this path, it is going to be a hard, long way of learning... where I will hate making mistakes, overthink what I do, duel on it etc.
    Is there something that can help take away the fear? The fear of not being good enough and worthy?
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Well lol6879, just by reading up about fear and how to face your fears means that you are already making work of it. Prepare properly and practice your speech and everything should go just fine.

    Yolandé
    Mind Tools Team
  • lol6879 wrote Over a month ago
    fear fear fear i am writing a speech and i am kind of confused i have a fear that if i present my speach i will do really bad well i mean everyone in this world has a fear its not only me if you have any thoughts or a fears share it and see how you will feel i tryed it and it feels good.
  • Josh wrote Over a month ago
    I face my fears now so that one day there will be nothing left to fear
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi newchallenge and Trivedi_Effect,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that visualizing is a powerful tool to help people achieve their goals, and to deal with any fears about the obstacles or challenges that might come along the way.

    We have a great article explaining visualization - http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newHTE_81.php

    Midgie
    Mind Tools Team
  • newchallenge wrote Over a month ago
    Hello,

    Challenging oneself to see beyond where you currently are,by visualizing what you want the end to look like and know that there are bumps along the way. they are not there as a set back they are there to help you grow. learn from your hiccups and know that you can and will be successful.
    thank you
    newchallenges
  • Trivedi_Effect wrote Over a month ago
    Hello,

    Deeply visualizing your success. You will create vivid mental images of yourself achieving your goals, winning, and achieving the success you really deserve. This will help to make it much more real to you, and in turn make it just seem natural to think like this and un-natural to think any other way about yourself.Develop the confidence and skills needed to overcome fear and be a leader in today's marketplace. In order to do this, you need to identify and eliminate bad habits, and replace them with strategies that work.

    Thanks

    Trivedi Effect

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