How To Overcome Fear of Failure?
One of the basic and powerful of all human emotions is fear. There exist many classifications of fear. But one of the most compelling categories is the fear of failure.
Extreme fear of failure can be highly disruptive. It can deteriorate performance, induce individuals to self-sabotage to avoid fear, and can generate a sense of shame thereby impacting an individual’s self-esteem.
But there are studies that indicate that fear of failure may also function as a positive reinforcement for individuals. Accordingly, it may provide the necessary drive to push and persist in the face of challenge and extreme adversity.
However, extreme fear of failure can be debilitating for certain individuals as it may lead to high levels of anxiety. This is despite the fact it may function as a positive reinforcer for performance in such individuals.
Thus, persistent anxiety may eventually prevent such individuals from attaining their maximum potential to achieve academic, career, or personal goals.
This means that fear of failure is good for certain individuals as it drives them to achieve and persist in the face of challenge and adversity. However, it may also render such individuals vulnerable to setbacks, thus making the journey to success challenging for them.
On the other hand, fear of failure clearly has debilitating consequences for many as it leads to high anxiety, feelings of underachievement, reduced resilience, and helplessness.
So, let’s try to understand how you can overcome fear of failure, what theories define fear of failure, what are its causes, and how can one overcome it.
Overcoming Fear Of Failure
Many of us fear failure no matter how brilliantly we perform, how much hard work we put in, or how successful we have been in our past endeavors. The anxiety of fear of failure restricts many of us to focus on our goals and achieve the success that we deserve or have been desiring for way too long now.
Here is a simple 6-step process that will help you deal with the irrational fear of failure.
- Step 1: Become Aware of the Present Moment
The first step in getting over a fear of failure is to calm down and become aware of the present moment through the “Breathe in Breathe Out” exercise.
You can do this exercise by first finding a comfortable place for yourself where you can sit and relax. Once you are seated, then you need to close your eyes and relax all your body parts, one by one. Then try to listen to the various sounds surrounding you one by one. This will help you to cut off from your worries and become aware of the present moment.
Once you feel relaxed, the next step is to take deep breaths slowly. As you breathe in you need to say ‘I can do it’ and as you breathe out, you need to say ‘I have no fear’. Repeat this exercise six times.
- Step 2: Label Your Thoughts
Once you become aware of the present moment, the next step is to watch the fearful thoughts that are coming into your mind. Try to observe those horrifying thoughts and capture them one by one. For instance, you may have the following fearful thoughts:
- “Will I Be Able To Make It”
- “If I Fail, Something Catarophic Will Happen”
- “What Will I Do If I Fail in This Endeavor?”
- “I Will Lose Everything If I Fail As my Everything is at Stake”
Make a note of these thoughts in your journal or notebook. This is how you label your thoughts. Thus, this exercise will help you become consciously aware of the fearful thoughts that are coming into your mind and causing you excessive worry.
- Step 3: Separate Yourself From Your Fear of Failure Thoughts
Once you are consciously aware of your fearful thoughts, the third step in overcoming the fear of failure is to separate yourself from the fearful thoughts.
For this, you first need to understand that you are not your fearful thoughts. In fact, you are distinct or separate from the thoughts that are coming into your mind. Your thoughts are just thoughts. They do not define who you are as a person. They have just come to your mind based on the experiences you had in the past.
Moreover, there is no certainty whether the content of these fearful thoughts is real or not. But the bitter part is that you are taking the content of such thoughts as true or literal.
Since you are taking the content of these thoughts as real, as a consequence you feel scared. You get horrified thinking about the outcomes of this pseudo-reality that you have created in your mind. The reality is, the fearful content you are getting scared of, is just your thought.
For instance, the thought “If I Fail, Something Catarophic Will Happen” is just a thought. But you have considered the content of this thought as real. And as a result, you get horrified or scared.
Thus, it’s just your mind or your thought process that has made this pseudo-reality such a monstrous thing. Your fear of failure is just a by-product of your very act of considering the content of the fearful thoughts as true or literal.
So try to just observe these thoughts like thoughts from a distance. Don’t consider these thoughts to be your real self or a part of your real self. Once you achieve this, you will be successful in separating yourself from your fearful thoughts.
- Step 4: Clarify Your Values
Once you start watching your thoughts without considering their content as literal, the next step is to remind yourself of the values that define your life. Now what are values?
Values are freely chosen qualities of being and doing. For example, being kind and loving unconditionally. These principles guide every action you do or every behavior you display in your day-to-day existence. Thus, it’s your values that prevent you from getting detoured or deviated from your life’s purpose.
Now, this exercise of writing down your values will remind you of the principles that you believe in. It will also dismiss all the complexities, doubts, confusions, and worries yielding in your mind and help you focus on what you really desire in life. In short, the very exercise of writing down your values will bring CLARITY.
Say for instance, integrity, determination, success, self-reliance, honesty, curiosity, authenticity, fairness, trustworthiness, stability, faith, influence, growth, happiness, love, loyalty, wisdom, and self-respect are your core values that define your life. Write them down in your journal. Now, recall all the fearful thoughts that were coming to your mind:
- “Will I Be Able To Make It”
- “If I Fail, Something Catarophic Will Happen”
- “What Will I Do If I Fail in This Endeavor?”
- “I Will Lose Everything If I Fail As I’ve Put Big Stakes”
Make a note of these fear of failure thoughts as well in a column right next to the column where you have noted your values. Now, examine these values in relation to your fearful thoughts. Do these thoughts coincide with your values? Are they helping you to get one step closer to your life’s purpose?
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the lowest and 10 is the highest, rate how much closer these fearful thoughts are bringing you closer to each of your values. Look at the rating that you have assigned against each of your values.
Now analyze, is it worth it to have these fearful thoughts. Is it worth having fear of failure? If this fear of failure is contributing nothing towards you practicing your values, then why are you getting impacted by it? Understand, this fear is just self-created. It has nothing to do with your reality or your future. It is the consequence of the pseudo-reality that you have created in your mind.
- Think of Concrete Thoughts
Now that you are clear about your values, the fifth step in overcoming the fear of failure is to pen down the concrete or useful thoughts as alternatives to your fearful thoughts in a third column next to the column where you have put down your values.
Remember, these thoughts have to be mandatorily useful or appropriate. That’s because whenever you are going to have unfavorable thoughts of fear of failing in life, you are consciously going to replace them with these useful thoughts. This will help you overcome the fear of failure and focus on fulfilling your life’s purpose.
Now, what are the concrete thoughts that you can consciously think of in place of your fear of failure thoughts?
- “Will I Be Able To Make It” can be replaced by “I Will Be Able To Make It”?
- “If I Fail, Something Catastrophic Will Happen” can be replaced by “If I Fail, Something Will Happen From Which I Will Learn Lessons”
- “What Will I Do If I Fail in This Endeavor?” can be replaced by “I’m Capable Enough to Pursue Something Else If I Fail in This Endeavor?”
- “I Will Lose Everything If I Fail As I’ve Put Big Stakes” can be replaced by “I Must Accept the Risk of Losing Everything If I Fail”
There’s a caveat here. Overcoming the fear of failure does not guarantee that you will not suffer a loss in your endeavors. These endeavors are the ones that you choose out of your personal choice. As a result, you need to accept the responsibility that is attached to making such choices.
For instance, if you have made a choice to run a small business, then one of the most significant responsibilities that you need to accept in pursuing such an endeavor is the attached risk. If you do not have the capacity to undertake risk, then you must not take the decision of running a small business in the first place.
However, if you choose to run a small business out of your own will, then you must also accept the risk attached to such an endeavor. In that case, if you experience fear of failure, then remind yourself of the last concrete thought we mentioned before that goes like this “I Must Accept the Risk of Losing Everything If I Fail”.
But there’s a caveat here. Acceptance should be without attachment to any conditions. You should not just verbally acknowledge the risk attached to running a small business. Rather, your subconscious should also approve of the belief.
Remember, if you are destined to fail, then no one can stop that failure from coming your way. But a concrete thought might provide you with the necessary courage and strength required to undertake the risk. This is unlike the unfavorable, fearful thought that may even take away that courage from you.
- Pivot Towards Action
Now, everything is in place to help you overcome the fear of failure, except for one thing and that is Action. Action is the most important of all the steps that we have mentioned above in overcoming the fear of failure.
What we mean by Action here is that each time you have the fearful thoughts of failing in your endeavors, you must follow the above process in order to develop the habit of thinking useful thoughts and eventually overcoming the fear of failure in life.
As Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the book ‘Outliers’ says, “It takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop a skill”. Consequently, thinking favorable, useful, or concrete thoughts is a skill that comes with practice. So, don’t forget to act consciously each time you experience fear of failure. Practice is the only thing that will help you master your fears.
Now that we have understood the procedure for overcoming the fear of failure, it’s important to know the psychological theory behind the fear of failure.
What is Fear of Failure?
There exist many theories that provide us a starting point to define fear of failure. But the psychological theory of fear of failure originated from J.W. Atkinson’s Need Achievement Theory.
As per this model, fear of failure is defined as an “avoidant motive which is aroused by debilitating anxiety”. What this means is that individuals who showcase a fear of failure are doubtful of their capacity to be successful in their endeavors. Such individuals associate negative consequences with the very experience of failing at a particular task. These consequences may include:
- feeling embarrassed or ashamed
- having a diminished self-worth
- experiencing uncertainty about the future
- loss of interest of those important to the individual, and
- fear that the relevant significant other would get angry or upset.
Thus, those individuals who believe that failure may lead to the above negative consequences may view situations involving evaluation as a threatening event. Further, they may avoid situations where they may fail because such individuals fear the shame and humiliation which they may have to experience if they fail in their endeavors.
Apart from the Need Achievement Theory, another theory from which the theory of fear of failure originates is David E. Conroy’s cognitive links between fear of failure and perfectionism.
As per this model, the fear of failure is defined as “a tendency to appraise threat and feel anxious during situations that involve the possibility of failing.”
As a result, individuals demonstrating such a tendency often avoid or try to avoid situations where failure is a possibility. Moreover, such individuals are often depressed, anxious, confused, or angry. They lack self-confidence, have low self-esteem, or experience marital conflict.
Perfectionism and Fear of Failure
In addition to the above theories, one of the journals of sport & exercise psychology by Sagar and Stoeber proclaims that fear of failure and perfectionism are related to achievement motivation.
Perfectionism is a personality trait of an individual that compels him or her to strive for flawlessness. Further, it also induces the individual to set exceedingly high standards of performance that are accompanied by overly critical evaluations of an individual’s behavior.
Thus, individuals demonstrating high levels of perfectionism aim to be perfect and avoid mistakes of any kind. Furthermore, such individuals focus on evaluating their own behavior and achievements.
Also, they set extremely high standards of performance for themselves, with no room for mistakes. Thus, such individuals are rarely satisfied with their performance. They do not tolerate their own mistakes and are overly critical of themselves. Such neurotic perfectionists are driven by extreme fear of failure and their primary concern is to avoid mistakes.
According to Hewitt, there are three kinds of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism.
- Self Oriented Perfectionism
Individuals who demonstrate self-oriented perfectionism set high and unrealistic standards of perfectionism for themselves. Upon experiencing failure, such individuals may overly criticize themselves.
Now, in the case of self-oriented perfectionism, the motivation for perfectionism is inherent and specific to the self only. That is, individuals having such kind of perfectionism take pride in their work and are high achievers. Such individuals can be regarded as normal perfectionists as they allow themselves to make reasonable mistakes depending on the situation they are in. Further, they allow themselves to be inaccurate or incorrect at times.
However, there are certain individuals who are rarely satisfied with their performance. Such individuals do not tolerate their own mistakes and are overly critical of themselves. As a result, they are regarded as neurotic perfectionists as they are driven by a fear of failure. Moreover, their primary concern is to avoid mistakes.
- Other Oriented Perfectionism
This category of perfectionism is the one wherein an individual expects others to be perfect in what they do.
Thus, the primary concern of individuals demonstrating other-oriented perfectionism is not their own perfectionism, rather it is the perfectionism of others around them. That is, such individuals, expect the people around them to be perfect and flawless.
As a result, these individuals do not accept any of the mistakes of others. Thus, they have high expectations from others and also set high standards of performance for others.
- Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
Socially-oriented perfectionism is the one where individuals aim to be perfect only out of the belief that important others expect them to be perfect. It is primarily this belief that motivates them to be perfect and avoid mistakes.
Thus, individuals demonstrating socially prescribed perfectionism are always pushed by the beliefs and standards set for them by significant others. As a result, such individuals were extremely vulnerable to procrastination.
So, from the above categories of perfectionism, it is clear that individuals aim to be perfect in whatever they do when they are motivated to achieve something. As a result of demonstrating this achievement motivation, the individuals may also have an inherent fear of failure.
Now, this fear may not necessarily be destructive in nature. In fact, it may help individuals attain perfection. Then how does perfectionism give rise to fear of failure which can be debilitating for an individual? Well, perfectionism originating out of the belief that important others expect them to be perfect gives rise to the feeling of fear of failure.
Causes of Fear of Failure
There are many factors that lead one to experience fear of failure.
- Low Self-Esteem
One of the primary contributors to an individual having the fear of being a failure is his low self-esteem.
As per research, individuals with higher levels of self-confidence and feelings of personal worth are capable to develop and utilize more adaptive coping skills. Such individuals are more likely to develop or switch to alternatives when they do not achieve success initially.
Also, these individuals tend to be more successful academically, demonstrate more persistence, put in more effort, and have better coping skills when faced with difficult situations.
On the contrary, individuals having low self-esteem anticipate personal failures more. Such individuals have a tendency to ruminate over their own perceived deficiencies and have a more negative view of life as compared to those with higher self-esteem. In fact, research suggests that people with higher feelings of self-belief showcase accomplishment, determination, self-monitor, and effort.
- Lack of Control
Another factor that may lead to an individual experiencing fear of failure is a lack of control. Here, the term control refers to an individual’s ability to take actions that will lead him to success and avoid failure.
Accordingly, individuals with a lack of or low feelings of control over outcomes often feel that they do not have the ability to be successful or avoid failing. Thus, a feeling of control is correlated with the level of persistence an individual demonstrates, his level of participation, and the quantity of effort that he demonstrates.
So, individuals who feel they have less control over outcomes tend to be lower in their achievement, mastery, motivation, competence evaluation, and autonomous judgment.
Perfectionism is also one of the important contributors to the fear of failure in some individuals. As mentioned above, perfectionism is a maladaptive personality characteristic that induces an individual to strive for flawlessness.
It is typically considered a negative characteristic because individuals demonstrating the characteristic of perfectionism often experience detrimental and adverse consequences stemming from the perfectionistic qualities. In fact, fear of failure can also be a significant motivator that causes the development of perfectionism.
As mentioned before, there are three categories of perfectionism, namely, self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially oriented perfectionism.
Self-oriented perfectionism is the one where individuals develop unattainable or unrealistic goals for themselves. As a result, such individuals are overly critical about their own performance or behaviors as a means of a drive to achieve perfection and avoid failure.
Research says that individuals demonstrating this category of perfectionism may eventually encounter destructive consequences including suicidality, eating disorders like anorexia, depression, rumination, burnout, dissatisfaction with personal performance, and emotionally maladaptive responses to feedback regarding failure.
Then, other-oriented perfectionism is the second form of perfectionism. Individuals demonstrating it not only create unrealistic goals for other individuals but also set irrational expectations that the other person must be perfect. This results in the stringent evaluation of performance for perfection.
Thus, this type of perfectionism is more external in motivation. That is, individuals showcasing such perfectionist behaviors judge other persons through the use of their own high perfectionist standards against their personal individual performance.
Finally, the third form of perfectionism is socially-oriented perfectionism. This category of perfections gives rise to the feeling of crippling fear of failure.
Socially oriented perfectionism is the one that occurs when an individual suffers the necessity to attain perfection due to high standards established by significant others. Such individuals fear being negatively evaluated, which in turn creates a strong motive for circumventing failing.
Research has shown that socially oriented perfectionism leads to lethal consequences like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, feelings of suicide, and poor response to changing situations.
- Feelings of Shame
Fear of shame in anticipation of failure is another important contributor to the feelings of fear of failure.
Individuals having feelings of shame in anticipation of a failure typically avoid situations where they feel they can fail. Such individuals are overly critical of themselves. In case these individuals are unable to meet the performance standards they had set for themselves, they consider themselves as innately bad and negative since they could not meet those standards.
As per research, individuals who lack success may develop shameful feelings of incompetence and emotions. Also, research suggests that the origin of childhood shame regarding failure emanates from individuals’ parental reactions to their failing behaviors.
- Parenting Styles
It is argued that the fear of failing avoidance motive begins to develop in early childhood. One of the significant contributors to the fears of failing during childhood is the parental treatment of children.
Research indicates that boys who have a mother with high fears of failing often place higher values or principles regarding success and achievement on their sons. However, such mothers typically hold beliefs that their sons cannot attain their achievement goals.
Also, parents who punish failure but respond neutrally to success and achievements have also been found to lead their children to develop high fears of failing.
Further, parents demonstrating extreme fear of failing themselves become the major contributor to children developing fears of failing.
- Martin, A. J., & Marsh, H. W. (2003). Fear of Failure: Friend or Foe? Australian Psychologist, 38(1), 31–38. https://doi.org/10.1080/00050060310001706997
- Nelson, K., & Mcdaniel, J. (2023). Scholarly Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Fear of Failure: Why is Pursuing Success so Scary? https://doi.org/10.32474/SJPBS.2023.07.000254
- APA PsycNet. (n.d.). Psycnet.apa.org. Retrieved May 11, 2023, from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2007-18332-002