What is fear of failure?
It’s normal to feel a twinge of anxiety or have some butterflies in your stomach when you try something new. But for some people, fear of failure prevents them from taking chances, trying new things, and accomplishing their goals.
When we experience failure as painful and permanent, we’ll do anything to avoid it. We procrastinate and play it safe — avoiding anything that we might not be good at. We shy away from making decisions because we might make the wrong one. Or we give up too quickly because we’re not immediately experiencing success.
When we let our fears control us, we get stuck; we can’t move forward, learn, and grow.
What causes fear of failure?
You may fear failure for any or all of the following reasons:
- You were criticized or punished for making mistakes.
- You base your self-worth on your accomplishments or performance.
- You feel inferior.
- You doubt your abilities and aren’t sure you can succeed.
- You’re sensitive to criticism and easily embarrassed.
- You expect perfection.
- You have all-or-nothing thinking and a rigid definition of success and failure.
In general, fear of failure stems from the way we think about failure. When we view failure as a normal and helpful experience, there’s no reason to fear it. On the other hand, when we see failure as catastrophic, shameful, or as evidence of our inadequacies, we naturally want to avoid it. So, in order to overcome a fear of failure, we have to take a more helpful and healthy view of failure.
How to Overcome Fear of Failure
Try using some of these ideas to shift your beliefs about failure.
- Don’t personalize failure. It is critical that you differentiate “I am a failure” from “I failed to achieve my goal”. Everyone makes mistakes and has failures. This doesn’t mean we are failures as human beings. Quite the opposite; failure is part of what makes us human. We have an amazing ability to learn from our mistakes.
- Failure is normal. Failure is not proof that you’re inadequate or deficient. Everyone fails. The only way to truly avoid failure is to not try, to play it safe and only stick to thinks you know you’re good at. It’s helpful to think of failure as part of the process – part of the human experience –not something to be ashamed of or to try to avoid.
- Look for the upside of failure. For example, there’s almost always something to be learned from failure. Consider what other positives you can take away from a mistake, failure, or less-than-perfect performance. Often, the upside is hard to see immediately, but give it time and revisit the experience to see if you can later find some good amongst the disappointment.
- Eliminate all-or-nothing thinking. It’s not helpful to label everything as a success or failure when there’s a lot in between. Instead, consider whether calling something a setback, mistake, or partial success would be more accurate. This helps us to notice what we’re doing right and see our progress rather than focusing on the negatives.
- Take baby steps. We don’t want to let fear control us, but we also don’t want to push too hard, too fast. This can backfire and damage your self-confidence. For example, if you’re afraid of public speaking, don’t try to overcome it by doing the scariest thing (giving a speech to a full auditorium) first. Start with something more manageable, like asking a question during a small meeting.
- Strive for progress, not perfection. I find it motivating to remember that even when you’re not perfect, you’re making progress towards your goals. If I set a goal to write in my journal six days per week but actually journal four times, I can choose to look at this as a failure. Or I can choose to look at it as progress because it’s more journaling that I was doing last month.
- Don’t get hung up on the outcome. When we define success or failure, we’re generally basing it on the final outcome, whether we achieved our goal or met an expectation fully. But instead of focusing solely on the outcome, notice what’s beneficial about the process. Perhaps you had fun, made a new friend or business contact, learned something new, or persevered when faced with an obstacle. Often, we gain a lot in the process, even if the outcome wasn’t’ what we hoped for.
Now it’s your turn. How will you start to change your thoughts about failure? What small steps will you take to challenge your fears? And how can you be kinder to your self when you do fail?
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©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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