The fear of failure involves excessive worry, negative thoughts, and a lack of action or reluctance to put in the necessary effort to accomplish a goal. Failure can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy – you fear so much that failure becomes the only possible outcome.
You think that you are not good enough, that you won’t be able to face the challenges, that you won’t live up to the expectations. You fear that you will disappoint others not because you won’t do well enough accomplishing a task, but because you see no other option but to completely fail.
All people fear failure to a greater or lesser extent. When our fear of failure is a "healthy" one, it motivates us to become better, to persevere in achieving our goals, to evolve. When the fear of failure is severe, it immobilizes us and makes us feel unable to act, creating, within us, other fears.
How does the fear of failure manifest?
- you feel helpless, powerless and you feel that you can’t achieve your goals;
- you frequently procrastinate what you have to do, and this affects your performance or you fail to finish on time your tasks;
- it may be difficult for you to make decisions;
- you tell those around you that you will most likely fail, to lower their expectations;
- you worry that you will disappoint others if you fail, you are concerned about what they will think about you;
- you avoid trying new things or taking risks because you don't believe you can succeed;
- you self-sabotage – for example, by chronic procrastination, by being easily distracted, by making minimal efforts and making various excuses instead of developing the skills you need ("what's the point of trying if I'm going to fail anyway?");
- you have intense feelings of anxiety, fear or panic when you take on new tasks whose outcome you are not sure of;
- you tend to excessively think before doing something and you assume the worst;
- it can be difficult for you to relax, you have sleeping problems because of your anxiety and your negative thoughts;
- when you face unexpected situations, you can start to feel more and more panicked, have difficulty breathing, sweat excessively, get a headache, feel muscle pain and have digestive problems.
Perfectionists have a very strong fear of failure, they set very high standards and, most of the time, are extremely critical of themselves and others. Both in the case of perfectionism, but also in the case of fear of failure, there are problems related to self-esteem, self-confidence but also with the difficulty of accepting criticism.
How does the fear of failure affect your life?
- it is difficult for you to recover or to adapt to difficult situations or changes;
- you have low self-efficacy (you think that no matter what you do, you won’t be able to achieve your goals);
- you also experience difficulties in other aspects of your life, including your personal relationships, you are rather passive, you miss different opportunities - failure can make you feel ashamed and inadequate, so if you avoid trying to do something (because you think that you will fail), you "protect" yourself from feelings such as shame, disappointment or sadness. In fact, being passive is not a solution, but rather changing the way you relate to "failure" if that happens;
- you lack motivation – if you are afraid of failure, you may not even have the necessary motivation to start new things or things that seem difficult at first.
What causes the fear of failure?
- negative past experiences - an event from the past that you perceived as a failure and that impacted you very much can cause you a strong fear of going through the same kind of situation again. For example, if you had to give a presentation, but that presentation didn't go as you expected (perhaps you felt humiliated or ashamed), you may develop a great fear of exposure or public speaking;
- if you grew up in an environment where you were constantly criticized and your mistakes were not tolerated, feeling that you can’t live up to the expectations of those close to you, you can also be terrified, as an adult, of making mistakes, of failing. Also, if you were abused, if you were humiliated, if you were neglected or didn’t feel supported by your parents, you can develop this fear of failure. Stress and traumatic experiences underlie many types of disorders and fears, and the fear of failure is one of them;
- perfectionism – if you are a perfectionist, failure is the worst thing that can happen to you, it’s unacceptable and hard to bear;
- anxiety – a person who has a generalized anxiety disorder will very likely fear failure. At the same time, the negative scenarios in which countless situations almost always end in failure amplify the panic and anxiety;
- low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence - if you don't trust yourself and your abilities, you will always fear that you won’t be able to fulfill your desires, objectives and goals;
- social pressure – family, friends, bosses and society’s expectations can be felt as a pressure to succeed. The greater this pressure is, the greater the fear of failure can be. Of course, in this situation what matters most is why and how important it is to you to meet those expectations;
- the way you define "failure" - for example, some people have very high, even impossible standards, and when they fail to reach them, they feel worthless and ashamed. To them, failure means not doing things "perfectly" or up to those extremely high standards. For other people, failure is a chance to learn or an opportunity to become better. When you relate to failure in this way, you no longer fear it, you no longer allow it to define you.
What can you do?
- become aware of what exactly you are afraid of - for example, the fear of failure can be a fear of the unknown or a fear of feeling shame. What beliefs do you have that tell you that making mistakes or "failing" means you are worthless, "wrong"? Where do you get these beliefs from? Is there another way you can relate to yourself?;
- ask yourself what is the worst thing that can happen - often, even that scenario is not as tragic as you see it. In your lifetime, a failure is only a small point, so ask yourself how much it matters or how much this failure will affect you five or ten years from now;
- ask yourself what will happen if you succeed – the fear of failure stops you from taking action, but also imagine and visualize how you will feel and how your life will look like if you make the decision to act in that direction;
- redefine failure – instead of seeing failure as a complete disaster, start building a new perspective. Thus, failure can turn into an opportunity to learn valuable lessons and grow, a chance to get in touch with your inner resources, mobilize and move on, a temporary obstacle that can be overcome etc. Another perspective may be this: instead of running away from failure, pursue success in your actions, that is, focus on success, instead of focusing on failure and all the ways you can fail;
- focus on your qualities and strengths – instead of obsessively thinking about what is wrong with you and putting yourself down, focus on your skills, qualities and strengths, and if you want to change something about yourself or acquire or develop certain skills, start doing that. Self-criticism and self-depreciation do you no good;
- question your beliefs - many of the beliefs people have stop them from exploring their potential and living a fulfilling life. These limiting beliefs are acquired as a consequence of difficult or unfavorable life experiences, they are taken unconsciously from one’s parents or from other important people in one’s life and end up becoming "truths" even if they are not true;
- focus your efforts on the things you can control – if you have to do a certain task or if you want to achieve a certain goal, if you direct your attention to the things you can control and that depend on you, you feel more confident in both the process and the end result. If you get stuck from the beginning thinking "it can't be done because..." (and here you find all kinds of reasons), you'll feel discouraged and disempowered. As you go through the necessary steps, you will notice how many things depend on you, one of the most important being your attitude towards that situation;
- set realistic goals and make a step-by-step action plan - if you want to achieve a certain thing that is important to you, you may feel overwhelmed and doubt whether or not you will be able to succeed, tending to give up from the start, but if, in order to reach that goal, you make a step-by-step action plan, and then start dedicating yourself to each step, you will notice that everything will become much clearer and easier for you;
- ask for help - talking about your fears with a trusted person or a specialist can help you understand yourself better, acquire new perspectives, find solutions to overcome those fears.
Overcoming the fear of failure takes time and, most importantly, action. To begin with, you can set small goals that, once accomplished, help you feel stronger and more confident. Don't wait for your fears to magically disappear, but act in spite of them, act even if you are afraid. Take a small step today and don't forget to take care of yourself and be compassionate and understanding with yourself in this process which can be one with ups and downs. Good luck!
Dr. Ursula Sandner