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 developed a fear of failure about 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 to 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 a Fear of Failure
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 have a fear 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. In the article “Tantalizing Fantasies: Positive Imagery Induces Negative Mood in Individuals High in Fear of Failure” (published in the journal Imagination, Cognition and Personality, Vol. 21, No. 4), researcher Thomas Langens showed 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