Fear of failure can be one of the most self-sabotaging, crippling feelings we can experience.
But why does it have such a powerful impact on us that it can make us stop chasing our dreams, avoid starting new relationships and be hyper-vigilant all the time?
How can we allow fear to exert such control over our lives and, most importantly, how can we overcome this fear?
What is fear of failure?
Fear of failure does not mean being afraid of not achieving the desired result for a big idea or project, for example, being afraid of going bankrupt, failing in your marriage, or getting fired. These are common anxieties that everybody experiences when making decisions or pursuing goals.
Think smaller; fear of failure is being afraid of making a small mistake, having setbacks, or being humiliated in front of others. It is being afraid of not knowing an answer, forgetting a name, or even admitting that you simply do not understand something in front of others. Some people experience fear of failure with specific situations, such as public speaking, while others might experience it with every little decision they need to make.
Most importantly, fear of failure deters you from living a fulfilling life; it sets you back from pursuing your goals and stepping out of your comfort zone.
What causes fear of failure? An Example
Fear of failure stems from the unhealthy beliefs we hold about failure itself. Since childhood, we have adopted ideas about failure that we carried into our adult years. These beliefs were probably said or implied by our parents or teachers. Or sometimes, we foster these beliefs by observing how people in our life experience and react to failure. Finally, they can also be derived from our personal experiences of failure and the emotional baggage they left behind.
For example, take that you gave a wrong answer to a teacher’s question, and then your peers started bullying you because of it. Consequently, you developed a fear of speaking out, which would deter you from pursuing many opportunities in your adult life. Similarly, think about how our teachers or parents used to terrify us, saying that we always must gain an A or B grade to succeed in our academic life and that our future careers will be doomed if we do not receive good grades. This overgeneralized threat was scary for us back then. It possibly got ingrained in our psyche, making us believe that failure is this permanent tragedy that will characterize the rest of our lives.
The Psychology Behind Fear of Failure
So, how does fear of failure work? What kind of unhealthy beliefs cause us to develop a fear of failure?
A research study in a New Zealand school investigated students’ views about failure. The students were divided into overachievers and underachievers. In other words, students with high academic performance vs. students with low performance. The researchers found that students with high performance had different beliefs on failure than low performers.
Overachievers believe that failure is temporary, something that simply happens, and you must dust yourself up and keep moving. In contrast, underachievers believe that failure is permanent, that it stays with you forever. They also found that overachievers see failure as valuable feedback about what is going wrong, what needs to change, and whether they are moving in the right direction. Meanwhile, underachievers believed that failure is criticism, not feedback. Lastly, high achievers thought that failure says something about the task, while low performers felt it says something about themselves and their personality.
This study demonstrates that people hold different views about failure and that they can affect performance. Most importantly, researchers found that unhealthy beliefs about failure caused fear of failure. For example, they observed that believing that failure is permanent and that you will be forever stigmatized by it caused fear of failure.
Let’s explore some other limiting beliefs that cause us to feel afraid of failure.
"Failure is shameful"
We tend to believe that failing is shameful. We think that if we fail, we will be deeply ashamed of who we are. This happens because we believe that failure and performance are attached to our identity. We believe that all our previous victories, successes, and achievements will be instantly erased when we fail. We think that people will not remember us for what we have achieved; they will remember us only for our failures and dismiss the complete picture of our journey.
"Once a failure, always a failure"
We also tend to believe that if we fail, we are doomed to fail all the time. Once a failure, always a failure, the old adage says.
We believe that failure will make us unworthy of any chance of success because one failure automatically means we do not deserve success anymore. We believe that if we fail, our whole life after that failure will be an unsuccessful, miserable, below-average life. We believe that we do not deserve to be respected if we fail. We suddenly become a category B person that doesn't deserve respect anymore.
"I deserved it because I didn’t try enough"
Sometimes we also believe that if we fail, then we probably deserve it because this happens to people who are not competent enough, smart enough, or whatever not enough. We also believe we failed because we did not try hard enough, even though this is not necessarily the case. It is possible to have tried our best, but the conditions that led to the final failing result were beyond our control.
"Success is a linear process"
We hold the unrealistic idea that success is a linear process, a straight line with no setbacks and doubts. We believe that if you start something new, you should have only successes and certainty in your way, with no failure anticipated.
"Failure is for losers"
We also believe that failure is for people who are not good enough in what they do or are not meant to do what they are doing. We do not see failure as an unavoidable part of the human experience. Everyone, from CEOs to teachers, to doctors, has struggled with many times in their lives. We also think that people will be talking about us behind our backs if we fail. We usually view these people as authority figures such as parents or bosses and fear that they will be disappointed. Or we regard them as people with more experience than us, and we value their opinion. Hence, we do not want them to see us fail.
Fear of failure hurts.
Last but not least, we are afraid of failure, and we avoid it as much as possible because we know what will follow after it. We think that our self-esteem will be damaged, that we will feel sad, disappointed, ashamed, and doubt our skills or even our decisions. But what we do not know is that this is natural after failure. It happens to everybody, and it only lasts momentarily, for a couple of hours or days. After some time, our survival mechanisms kick in, and we will move on from these unpleasant feelings.
As we have seen, the most fundamental cause of fear of failure is not failure itself but our perspective on failure. When you read all these beliefs aloud, you can observe how unreasonable these thoughts are. That is why we call them irrational, limiting beliefs. These thoughts limit our potential; they restrain our hopes, dreams, future, and decisions towards the desired destination.
Overcoming fear of failure
There are many reasons and beliefs that cause us to fear failure. However, one of the most important ones is the fact that we never learned how to actually deal with failure. We never learned how to stand up after we fall and learn the lessons that come from failure. We never received a course at school where they taught us how to turn mistakes into opportunities.
To overcome fear of failure, the first step is to change the way we view fear, especially if it sabotages us from going after our dreams and anything that would make our lives more meaningful. Fear is a normal, self-protective mechanism that prevents us from doing risky and dangerous things. So, being scared is normal, and we should anticipate a degree of fear every time we are about to step outside our comfort zone and are about to do something important for us.
Then, we can begin to adopt a more realistic perspective about failure and see it through the right filter. For instance, we can learn that failure is temporary, that it is not about your personality, it is not shame, and it does not mean you deserve it. Failure is feedback for what we are dealing with, and the present failure does not define future success. These are your new, healthy beliefs. Keep these thoughts in mind next time you feel you are stopping yourself because of fear. Repeat these mantras when you venture outside your comfort zone. It is normal to feel fear, but let’s not let it obstruct us from living a meaningful, joyful life.
TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE.