Fear of failure (clinical term atychiphobia) is a fear that’s more common than you might think. It causes otherwise well-adjusted individuals to stop dead in their tracks when they are uncertain of an outcome. The stress of living with this fear can weigh on these individuals and impair the quality of their lives in devastating ways.
People who fear failure often tiptoe through life avoiding challenges and participating only in situations in which they are certain they’ll succeed. They are afraid to explore new places or try new things because they are paralyzed by their fear. As a result, they are held back from living life to its fullest.
How Does Fear of Failure Feel?
According to Psychology Today, sufferers of fear of failure experience intense emotions that run a spectrum from disappointment to full-blown anxiety over the failure. These include the following:
- Disappointment in themselves
- Anger or frustration with the situation
- Sadness when they fail
- Regret or second-guessing if they could have done better
Those who suffer from fearing failure don’t fear failing the activity or task at hand, per se. They fear the reactions of other people to their failure. In fact, they expect that people will think negatively of them for failing. Therefore, they experience intense anxiety and shame when they fail. This can range from a mild anxiety to debilitating shame, depending on the individual’s level of fearfulness.
Plan for Success
First, plan for success by analyzing a situation. Then, visualize how it could turn out.
For example, you have a work deadline in 10 days and you’re paralyzed with fear that you won’t meet it. You could break the deadline down into 9 daily tasks and create a checklist. As you check off each task, you’re taking a baby step towards preventing an eventual failure. On day 10, submit the work early and breathe a sigh of relief.
People who fear failure expect negative outcomes. Setting up daily goals with the expectation of a positive outcome is flips the situation in a 360 spin. Once you’ve had several small successes in new situations, you’ll begin to expect success and eliminate the negative self-talk from your vocabulary.
Confront Your Fear
Babies aren’t born with a fear of failure. People develop fears through experience. Look deeply inside and try to find what caused you to feel this fear.
Perhaps you had a parent or grandparent who had unrealistic standards or expectations. Perhaps you once experienced an epic a failure when you tried something new. When was the beginning of this fear? You’ll likely realize the fear is deep-seeded and may take some uncovering.
Once you’ve identified it, analyze it. Write down how you felt, who made you feel ashamed for failing, and why you felt this way. Once you’ve broken your fear down to its root cause, it’s not quite as scary anymore.
Understand That Everyone Fails
Try to understand that everyone fails from time to time. Even the most powerful people in the world, from kings to athletes to business executives, have chalked up failures on their boards.
You may think that if you fail that you’ll stand alone. Or you think that everyone will think poorly of you. The truth is, everyone has a failure in their lives. Look around you. You’ll see failed marriages, people fired from jobs for messing up, or sports losses. These are all forms of failure.
The difference is that people who fear failure look at it as an absolute shameful event, even when it’s really not a big deal. Realizing that everyone fails will help you realize that you actually are on a level playing field—you have just as much chance for success as the person next to you if you give it a try.
You Must Experience Failure in Order to Learn
Life is about trying new things and being the best that each of us can be. In fact, we all learn by failing from an early age.
The first time a toddler tries to walk, he falls. But if that baby hadn’t tried to take those first precious steps, he would never have learned to walk. You must experience failure to learn from it. It teaches us how to correct our mistakes and move forward, trying until we succeed.
It is virtually impossible to learn any new skill without some level of failure. An acceptance of this is necessary to overcome the fear of failure.
Understand Physical Danger vs. Imagined Danger
Fear of failure is very real to the sufferer. But it’s a danger that’s in the mind and not a dangerous imminent physical threat. This is easy to distinguish.
Imagine that you are fearing failure because you must deliver a document to your boss’ desk by 10 am. You fear you’ll be late. If you don’t deliver, you might get a slap on the wrist or even a “don’t worry about it.”
Now imagine that you have to deliver that document to your boss. Except he’s not at the office. He’s on his boat, in a swamp, surrounded by a pack of hungry alligators. You have to wade out to the boat to deliver the document. Now you don’t fear that you’ll be late; you fear that the alligators will eat you for lunch. That is real physical danger.
That was a silly illustration, but the difference between physical danger and imagined danger is very real. Understanding that fear of failure won’t cause you harm can set you free from those intense feelings.
Once you understand some tips on how to conquer fear of failure, it’s time to take those next steps. Begin to work on using these techniques and keep your expectations on a positive outcome.
If these don’t help, seek professional advice. There are many people who experience this phobia and professionals can help you. There are therapies that help you work through this fear and put it behind you.