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Mothers and Fear of Failure

Christopher SardegnaNo one likes failing or the rush of negative feeling that comes along with it; it’s equally true that all of us—no matter how smart, gifted, or alert—will experience a variety of failures and setbacks over the course of our lives. Falling on your face, now and again—whether it’s a job or investment that goes south, a relationship that crashes and burns, a goal that remains unmet despite your every effort—is just part of the territory marked “being human.”

At a quick glance, it seems that the size of the failure accounts for how quickly anyone rebounds. It’s one thing to fall into a crack on the sidewalk and quite another to tumble into the Grand Canyon, right? Losing $200 is one thing, and being wiped out is another, right? Actually, not. While the size of the fail matters—small, medium or epic—what affects your ability to bounce back is something else entirely. Not just how we view failure but whether fear of failure motivates us can be traced back to our childhoods and what lessons—both explicit and not—we internalized.

A girl growing up in a supportive environment where she feels loved, understood, and valued will grow up to be largely motivated by approach goals—a theory of personality set forth by Andrew J. Elliot and Todd M. Thrash. Keep in mind that humans (along with earthworms, kittens, and single-celled amoebas) are wired to approach positive ends and to avoid situations with painful consequences. But the theory goes way beyond that.

Are you motivated by approach or avoidance goals?

The approach-oriented girl or woman sees life offering up a series of opportunities and challenges to be met. Metaphorically, she sees the mountain, imagines the thrill of reaching the top, and takes in the difficulties and obstacles that might get in the way of the climb. And it’s precisely because she’s appreciated how hard the journey can be, if she fails in her quest, she understands why without ascribing it to some personal fault or lack in her character. The experience of failing is unlikely to quell her enthusiasm for tackling the next mountain that comes along.

Compare her situation to the daughter who’s received no validation or support and heaps of criticism and who has internalized the message that pretty much everything she does is lacking. (Yes, this is the insecurely attached daughter in contrast to the securely attached one.) She’s likely to be motivated by avoidance—making sure that she avoids challenges that would end in failure and prove how incompetent and unworthy she is. She sees the mountain and imagines only the humiliation of failure—proof positive of every bit of self-criticism she’s ever internalized. Self-criticism—that mental habit of ascribing every setback to a generalized negative assessment of yourself—is often the unloved daughter’s default position.

So, with the mountain in view—and that challenge or goal could be in any realm of life including love, friendship, work or achievement—she tries to figure out a way around the mountain, opting to avoid failure at all costs. It is, as you can imagine, a tactic that is by its nature limiting and often self-defeating. Here’s how one daughter put it: “I know I back down from challenges and, in fact, even when I start something, I rarely finish. I didn’t finish college after going back twice and finally just settled for the two-year degree from community college which has set me back career-wise. The voices telling me I can’t because I’m too dumb or not good enough just drown out all my tries at inner cheerleading.”

Keep in mind that these motivations—approach or avoidance—often operate outside of our conscious awareness. It’s only by bringing them to light that we can understand them and change them.

One fascinating study by Andrew Elliot and Todd Thrash looked at whether fear of failure was generationally communicated—by parents to their children—in a study of college students. Guess what they found? That mothers who themselves feared failure used the threat of love withdrawal to discipline their young children and that, yes, these children would grow up to be young adults who were motivated by avoidance. (In their study, by the way, while fathers can communicate fear of failure, only mothers used the threat of love withdrawal.) Sound familiar?

Becoming aware if fear of failure is running your life

Keep in mind that some unloved daughters are able to be approach-oriented in one area of life—especially career and achievement—but are avoidance-oriented in the areas of relationship and connection. Daughters unloved by their mothers who have fathers or other people—grandparents, teachers, or other mentors—who champion their academic achievements or some other skillset may, in fact, be highly successful and approach-oriented in that realm. That was certainly true of me as a young woman and many other daughters have commented on the disparity between their outward achievements and their inner sense of self-worth. They still report difficulties truly loving themselves.

Most important, if you’re unhappy with your life because you’re not able to reach for the stars, you can change by recognizing the role self-criticism and fear of failure are playing in your life. And start working on changing those patterns that are keeping you stuck.

For strategies, see the post called “6 Strategies to Try to Still the Mother’s Voice Within You.”

Eliott, Andrew and Todd M. Thrash, “ Approach and Avoidance Temperament as Basic Dimensions of Personality,” Journal of Personality, 78, no.2 (June 2010): 865-906.

Elliott, Andrew and Todd Thrash, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Fear of Failure,”Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2004), vol. 30, no,8, 957-971,

Photograph by Christoper Sardegna. Copyright free.

Mothers and Fear of Failure

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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, . (2016). Mothers and Fear of Failure. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Apr 2016
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