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 (20)
  • MichaelP wrote This month
    Sarah, sitting downed having a margarita sounds like a good failsafe. Thank you for sharing.
  • Sarah wrote This month
    Here's what I do:
    http://55minutedrive.blogspot.com/2015/01/career-disappointment.html
  • Midgie wrote This month
    Hi Fis1,
    Thanks for the feedback. Pleased to hear that you find it 'refreshing'.
  • Midgie wrote This month
    Hi Kristina,
    It can be tough to build our confidence in our abilities, even when we have studied in an area and know how to do the job!

    In addition to all the links in this article, one thought is to look at building and strengthening your confidence. We have many resources to help with that and you can search for them using the search box in the upper right hand corner. We're here to help so please let us know if you have any questions.
  • Fis1 wrote This month
    This is refreshing!
    Fis
  • Kristina wrote This month
    I went to school for public relations and it's something I'm very good at. However, when I've attempted to venture out and do freelance work I tend to run away. For example, I'll post an ad for my services, get contacted by a potential client about what they're looking for (all things I can do), and then I wont respond. I immediately start thinking, "what if I can't do what I say I can or let them down" or, "what if they think I'm incompetent". Eventually it turns into "I don't know what Im doing" and I back out. I can't even build a decent portfolio. Not sure how to go about getting around this
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Ghadir, we are all on a journey and the future, with all of its uncertainties can both be frightening and exciting! You need to focus on some of the many benefits that the future may hold. Build a positive mind set focused on success, find supporters.

    Documents, deadlines, requirements need to be addressed one at a time in a disciplined manner adopting some project management strategies usually help. Look for opportunities to use the same content to satisfy different requests, set your personal deadlines a week or two ahead of the 'official ones. Start now.

    Good luck - Michael

    http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newPPM_05.php
  • Ghadir wrote Over a month ago
    I am a high-school student, applying to universities, and i am ABSOLUTELY terrified from the thought of not being accepted to any university. Every time i open a university site and look at the admission requirements, documents, deadlines and all that, my heart starts beating so fast and ideas start swirling in my head and i start crying. I am so terrified and i hate that and i want it to go away. Any suggestions?
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi adityabala,
    Indeed low self-esteen is a factor in 'fear of failure'. When a person can be ok if something fails and know that at least they tried and did their best, then that helps. Stretching our comfort zones will help with personal growth and happiness!
  • adityabala wrote Over a month ago
    Low self-esteem or self-confidence is the main cause of fear of failure, it brings negative thoughts and these thoughts will reduce the self-confidence and courage. That' the full stop for growth & happiness.
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