How To Overcome the Fear of Failure: 5 Experts Share Incredibly Proven Tips + Strategies To Conquer the Fear of Failure
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
― Maya Angelou
A sincere thanks to all the awesome experts who shared their best tips, insights and strategies on how to overcome the fear of failure.
It’s strange how in our minds, failure seems to transcend physics.
The statement “I am a failure” exists now, today, forever – the size of a continent, as permanent and visible as a tattoo across your forehead.
In my clinical training, I spoke with people recovering from drug addiction who were so afraid to fail that they severely compromised their treatment. If they put in 75% and fell short – well, they could still imagine that there’s a chance they would have succeeded if they gave the full hundred.
But if they gave it everything they had, and still fell short? That brought up unbearable thoughts.
What would it say about me if I really can’t do it?
Not being good enough to make it is too scary to contemplate.
What if I’m just not capable of succeeding?
Our brains, particularly if they’re at a low ebb, like to obsess over failure.
We’re wired to both problem-solve and be concerned about how we appear in the eyes of others, after all – a double evolutionary whammy that makes failure stick in our brains. And for many of us, it’s a really short neurological step from “I failed in this particular attempt at doing something” to “I am a failure”.
But once we examine the idea of ‘failure’ in the cold light of day, separated from the ugly blaring anxiety attached to it, the whole concept starts to dissolve.
Here’s a low-stakes example: I intended to have this article written before Christmas, and as I write these words I’m a week late. I have failed horribly at meeting my deadline. That’s an indisputable fact. But am I a failure?
If I attached a huge amount of importance to this deadline, I might be inclined to think so. If it meant I didn’t get my dream job, or a book deal, or something similarly high-stakes, the temptation to label myself a ‘failure’ would creep up.
On the other hand I also ‘succeeded’ in doing a whole lot of other things prior to Christmas. Interestingly, we never seem to label ourselves ‘successes’ when we manage to reach our goals – even the big ones like getting a promotion or running a marathon. Sure, we’re happy and proud for a while, but it’s always a temporary state. Soon we’re looking toward the next ‘success’, forgetting all about how much it meant to us at the time.
We don’t tend to take in a given success, hold onto it tightly, and let it define who we are.
So why do we do it with failure?
Any time you catch yourself thinking “I am a failure” after a disappointment, try and shift that thinking just a tiny bit to “I failed at this particular attempt at doing something.”
Move failure to its proper place – a particular happening at a particular time, not a permanent proclamation about your basic competency or self-worth.
It’s a bruise – not a tattoo.
Leah Royden, Psychotherapist - www.therapyauckland.com
“What if … I fail?” This simple phrase has plagued many of us. It can take a simple idea or task and twist it around into something scary; something to be feared. This fear of failure weakens our ability to grow and change. Positive change is possible for all of us … let’s look at 3 ways to shift away from fear.
1. Externalize Failure.
It can be easy to go down the rabbit hole … “I failed at this task, therefore … I am a failure.” This thought process is devastating to our self-esteem. Instead, externalize the failure … “I failed at the task.” When we pay attention to the way we frame failure, we can understand areas where growth is still possible while keeping a positive sense of self.
2. Accept Failure as Part of the Journey.
Failure loses its power when we normalize it as a part of our journey. Failing is a healthy part of the learning process. We can achieve many goals when we tolerate the idea of failure.
3. Celebrate Successes.
It can be easy to focus on what went wrong. When we notice and celebrate success, we reinforce the idea that positive change is possible. Success does not have to be all or nothing. When trying something new, set small, achievable goals. When you reach a milestone along the way take a moment to celebrate your success.
Fear is powerful. Shifting away from fear is possible and it takes commitment. The more you practice these steps, the more natural they will become. Utilize this way of thinking in small and big areas in your life. As you shift away from fear, enjoy your reenergized confidence.
Carmen Garrison Counselor, MS, LPC - www.rcgcounseling.com
As human beings, we fail. A lot.
It’s part of our nature to learn by trial-and-error, especially when we are young, but also throughout the span of our life. From the first experience of trying to take our first steps as toddlers, we fail, again and again, until we eventually get it right.
Yet if failure is so common and something we ALL experience, why is it so difficult to consider the prospect of failing at something?
Consider the expectations placed on us in society. We are expected to learn a lot of new skills as children, to become adults, have a great career, and build a family, all the while experiencing failures and setbacks along the way.
And what about the expectations we place on ourselves, or that we feel from others?
These can be so overwhelming to the point that we develop a type of mental health issue known as performance anxiety. This type of anxiety is a subtype of social anxiety which can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-V). Experiencing performance anxiety can cause uncomfortable physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches, cause a person to avoid situations that may undergo scrutiny like speeches or group situations, and even cause self-esteem issues or a sense of worthlessness.
Have I deliberately been avoiding situations that I could fail at?
How could failing at [blank] task impact on my well-being?
If the answers to these questions cause you to worry that you might be experiencing a fear of failure or a more concerning mental health issue such as performance anxiety, consider speaking to a health or mental health professional for more support.
In addition to having more support, consider the option of embracing failure as a way of not only coping with the fear of not getting something right, but also thriving and growing in an area of your life that perhaps you were being held back in.
Consider the example earlier about the toddler taking their first step. Chances are, you didn’t land your first step on your initial attempt. You got up and tried again and again until you got it right, and your parents were there supporting you and cheering you on along the way.
The next time a situation comes up in your life that you are paralyzed with fear and worried about expectations from yourself or others, consider these steps for embracing the potential to fail:
1. Recognize the fear.
Anxiety is a normal experience to have, yet in some situations it might not be very helpful because it’s not a life-or-death situation (eg. talking in front of a group of people). Labeling this experience as anxiety can be helpful to identify and understand more about what is happening in this situation.
2. Practice grounding strategies.
Anchor yourself in your environment by using your senses to feel more connected within yourself. Spot an object near you and describe it in detail (the colour, texture, what it’s used for, the sentimental value, etc). Or use your body to connect to your surroundings (pretend your legs are tree trunks and you are rooted to the solid ground and are safe in this moment).
3. Remind yourself that it’s okay to fail.
Bring awareness in your mind to the fact that failing is a typical part of human nature. Rather than focusing on the expectations or opinions of others, turn your attention inwards to consider how this experience could be strengthened by learning from a potential failure. And if you succeed, how would this feel? What kind of growth would this allow you to have?
Trust yourself to try something new or scary with the option to embrace failure, rather than fear it, so that you can continue to have the chance to grow and flourish in your life.
Additional Reading: Defining & Understanding Anxiety
Heather LeGuilloux, MA, RCC - www.heatherleguilloux.ca
Many of us have grown up viewing failure as an awful consequence that we should avoid at all costs.
Well-meaning parents and teachers celebrate good grades, winning, and first place awards and show major disappointment for failure and losing.
Children learn pretty quickly that failing is an unpleasant experience. Unfortunately, some of these children try to avoid failure as much as possible. They begin looking for the easy way out and pass up on challenges, as to prevent the negative feelings associated with failure. Eventually, these patterns follow them along to adulthood where the fear of failure becomes more evident than they once were.
Adults who are scared of failure might pass up difficult career opportunities, flee from relationship conflicts, or just do the bare minimum to get by. Giving up these challenges means passing up meaningful opportunities for growth and change.
Feelings formed during childhood could be difficult to overcome, but not impossible.
When we start viewing failure as part of a process, we could begin to see that failure is not so scary and it’s easier to tolerate some of the uncomfortable feelings associated with it. Failure is a necessary part of life that allows our brains to do what they are created to do, despite the end result.
Our brain has a remarkable capacity to change.
This ability is due to neuroplasticity (think plastic!). However, it can change much more rapidly when we challenge it by doing difficult tasks. When we do something that is more difficult, a new “path” forms in the brain. We call these paths neural pathways. These neural pathways help us to complete tasks more proficiently. These paths become stronger each time we attempt a new activity.
The key word here is "attempt."
Even if the final result is failure, you have begun to build a new pathway that can be built upon in the future.
For example, someone who is scared of failure might avoid going on interviews for the career they truly want. Therefore, they stay in the same mundane job year after year. Once they decided to take a chance, this would happen.
When they first start practicing interview skills, a new neural pathway would start forming. The first job interview will further build this pathway. Even if this person did not succeed in obtaining the job, they would have successfully established a new neural pathway that will significantly assist in their future interview endeavors.
It’s important to focus on the process and not the end result.
In the end, the brain changed and skills formed. The word "failure" was a very small part of a very large process. Changing the brain is a pretty big deal!
Stephanie Lauer, MS, LMHC - www.stephanielauerlmhc.com
If we can reconcile with this idea on a deeper, philosophical level, we can relax —-there is nothing to ‘overcome’.
Before you drown in shame about your perceived past ‘failures’, and the fear that you have or could ‘fail’, consider, even just for a moment, the possibility that you have not.
The argument to whether or not we have ‘free will’ has been a longstanding philosophical debate.
I am not trying to prescribe a definite answer here, but it is worth considering the possibility on both ends. Our modern world, since the time of the Enlightenment, has focused very much on the results we could harvest from human-doing, from busy-ness, from our activities and productivity.
We start to all believe that we have the power to control everything— from our thinking, behaviors, to the outcome.
The other side of the puzzle, however, points to a different reality- that in any given moments, all of us are being influenced by a complex matrix of external factors, some conscious, most of them unconscious.
This perspective invites us to think of ourselves not as the captain of the ship, but as a boat drifting along in the ocean, being pushed along but held at the same time by the tidal force. That tidal force is life itself. These forces are formed by the people you meet along the way, the family that you were born into, opportunities and surprises that were presented to you.
Another way of understanding this perspective is to consider the belief that at any given moment, you have been and still are, doing the absolute best you could.
You might have over-eaten, over-spent, threw a tantrum, been impulsive, or done something that you later regret.
You might think you have done ‘the worst thing ever’.
But here is the news:
You have not ‘screwed up’.
You have not failed anything.
You have not 'done this to yourself'.
We ought to learn to see and embrace our inner survivor- who, within the impossible predicament of the ‘tidal waves’ from multiple direction, still does the best they could.
What worse thing might we have done without these self-soothing devices?
Perhaps we went on a shopping spree so we would not self- harm.
Maybe we started an argument with our partner so what needed to be aired would not fester.
Perhaps we let off some steam with our close friends, so neither of us resort to passive aggression.
Whatever compulsive, reactive and reactive behaviors we had, they were exactly what needed to be there.
They helped to digest the anxiety, fear, or other emotions that were too overwhelming for our system.
And until we have expanded our capacity big enough to hold it all, we will always need some behavioral strategies to manage the precarious nature of life.
Because none of us is the perfect human. It is not weak, or a moral failing. Therefore, there is no room for shame or guilt.
Always trust that there is a part in us- our inner survivor- that has our best interest at heart.
Even when we cannot quite perceive how they work, or the hidden purpose of some of our actions.
We are self- organizing, self-regulating organism. In truth, there is no ‘failing’. At any given moment, we are doing the best we can, with all the physical, emotional resources we have.
Just like anything in nature- a flower or tree that needs to grow in their way, find their place in the field- that is what we are doing.
What looks ‘wrong’ to our judging inner critic, is entirely natural and innocent in its true nature.
From the perspective of nature, nothing is out of place.
Something that looks like a mistake, a turmoil on the surface often represents something different on a deeper level. It may look like we have destroyed something.
Well, perhaps our soul is yearning for something new, that could not be reborn until we have radically dismantled the old.
It looks like we have meddled with something.
But maybe we are also capable of seeing the perfection in imperfection.
We might have lost what was precious.
Although we might be grieving, at some point we will also be able to tap into the excitement about a renewal.
If we widen or elevate our perspective, imagine seeing our tiny human body from high above, including the whole of the cosmos, we see how limited our judgement might be.
What looks like chaos at our level is harmony when we consider the grand scheme of things.
We are not saying that we relinquish responsibility entirely, or that we take a helpless victim-stance for what is happening to us. But see if you can consider the possibility that you are safely held by the universe. There is truly no failure, as nature does not make mistakes. No matter what happens, you can be an observer of it all- including your own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
Let’s have faith in our process, our spontaneous actions, and our intuitive sense.
Trust that there is always a good intention behind whatever it is that we do.
There is a possibility that it is all going in the right direction, and all things will eventually find their ways. Our faith in the process is, if not truer, is at least as valid as the idea that we have, or could, ‘fail’ at anything.
Embrace the whole of ourselves- including our shadows, what we previously rejected, our precious inner survivor.
There is always, always a part in you that is thriving for healing and greatness. Honor that.
For the fact that you are still standing, you are a triumph.
Imi Lo, MBSR, MBCT – www.eggshelltherapy.com