Imagine going through life with all these goals and aspirations, only to never accomplish them because of an underlying fear you will fail. Rationally, it doesn’t quite make sense due to the certain fact you will not accomplish your goals if you don’t even try.
But, for those who suffer from a deep fear of failure, not trying is a relief from the pain felt by their constant worry. Fear of failure can take many forms depending on the individual.
Some will experience it and not even try to take action. Others will feel it in the middle of doing that which they fear. No matter how the fear of failure presents itself, one thing is for sure, it is a crippling and demoralizing feeling that no one should have to endure.
However, it is real and many people, no matter their profession, will come face to face with it at some point in their lives. Before we go into the steps an individual can take to combat this fear, let’s take a closer look at what exactly the fear of failure is.
What is Fear of Failure?
Fear is not always bad and is an ingrained feeling in us for a reason, helping avoid dangerous situations and people. It can also serve as a motivator, indicating areas in life that need to be improved.
However, this type of fear is not what defines the fear of failure. Also known as atychiphobia, fear of failure occurs when an underlying fear becomes so great that it keeps you from moving forward to achieve your goals and aspirations.
The reasoning for this deep fear comes from the aversive consequences that are perceived if you were to fail. Everyone views failure in a different light, and similarly sees threatening consequences to be different.
While one player may not care if the coach yells at him or her for making a mistake, another player may be so petrified by this threat that he or she decides to quit the team.
Five reasons can be pointed to as to why individuals avoid fear. The first one is the expectation of feeling ashamed due to failure (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016). Shame can take hold of an individual in many ways, all pointing back to one very specific thought process: allowing others to determine your value.
This is seen a lot in athletics when someone wants to impress their teammates, coaches, or parents. If they were to fail, then a deep shame would come over them like a dark cloud because of the disappointment they believe others have in them.
Secondly, failure tends to create negative self-talk in one’s head that makes them doubt their intelligence and talents (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016). This type of reaction to failure leads to a never-ending cycle.
Say someone perceives their performance in something to be a failure. Negative phrases then begin to form in the mind, such as “I suck, I knew I couldn’t do this, I’m not really that good anyway,” etc. Self-talk such as this only worsens an individual’s confidence and perpetuates their fear of failure, so to avoid further personal insults.
Third, failure can negatively impact someone’s future plans (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016). This is an aspect of fear of failure that gets really interesting. Suppose there is a college baseball player whose greatest goal is to get drafted.
To accomplish this, he must perform well on the field. However, one game he struck out five times and began to really doubt his abilities. Now, he fears failing more times because that could really hinder his hopes of being drafted.
But, by avoiding this fear, either through not playing or self-sabotaging his performance, he is worsening his chances of achieving his goal.
Fourth, many believe that success is the most important criterion for parents, peers, teachers, and coaches, meaning failure will result in a loss of their esteem (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016). Once again, this plays into allowing others to dictate your value.
At a very fundamental level, many individuals feel this aspect of fear of failure when it comes to their parents. They have this belief that their parents will only be proud of them and will only truly love them if they succeed. Fear such as this takes the focus off the task at hand and redirects it to external circumstances.
If you are always worried about what others will think then you will never truly reach the flow state that so many athletes and individuals are after.
Lastly, individuals often see failure as not only losing the regard of others but also causing them stress (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016). This can take form when a parent becomes overly invested in their child’s performance to the point where they get visibly upset when he or she fails.
Especially at a young age, this type of reaction from parents can drastically impact a child’s confidence and make them overly fearful of failing again.
As you can see, fear of failure can be quite devastating to any individual. The emotions that result from this type of thinking can make even the most dedicated and talented individual quit their respected work or sport just to avoid it.
So now that fear of failure has been outlined in more detail, it is important for you to understand what the signs and symptoms of it are in order to point it out in either yourself or someone close to you.
Fear of Failure Signs & Symptoms
Fear of Failure is a phobia, and like many phobias, there are a set of signs and symptoms that will be displayed by an individual who possesses it. Symptoms can be either physical, emotional, or both. Understanding the symptoms allows you to pinpoint what is causing it and helps in alleviating your phobia. Below is a list of likely signs and symptoms you will encounter if you suffer from fear of failure.
- Elevated heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Feeling cold
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Stomach aches
- Panic or Anxiety
- Feeling like you need to escape the situation
- Feeling powerless and controlled by your fear
- Feeling as if you’ve lost all control of the situation
Being able to self-identify these symptoms is the first step in overcoming your fear of failure. Often others will describe you as stiff, looking nervous, or generally uncomfortable when you are performing the act that which you are afraid to fail.
Just know that you are not alone, and many people have dealt with these feelings in the past, including me. The good news is there is a strategy that you can use to overcome these feelings and regain control over that which you enjoy doing.
Steps to Overcome Fear of Failure
Now that you have a better understanding of what fear of failure is, and the signs and symptoms of it, I am going to introduce you to a three-step formula that will help you overcome this dreadful phobia. Like anything, there is no quick fix. However, if you follow these three steps, and stick with them, then you will have the best chance at overcoming your fear.
Step #1: Acceptance
The first step in the process of overcoming your fear of failure is acceptance. So often when an individual experiences the fear of failure they immediately try to fight it. This usually manifests in them trying to convince themselves that they are not nervous and that they do not fear failing.
However, this technique will only keep you focused on the fear itself. So, the most powerful step is to accept you do have a fear of failure.
Now, this can be very difficult for many, especially in the sports culture. No one wants to admit there is something wrong with them, but I am here to tell you there is nothing abnormal about the fear of failure.
Many people deal with it at some point in their lives, and the truly courageous act is to face the fear and accept it. By accepting your fear, you are putting yourself in a position to move forward in overcoming it, rather than attempting to convince yourself it does not exist.
Along with accepting your fear, it is important to become self-accepting at this step. Self-acceptance refers to acknowledging your own strengths and weaknesses and becoming consciously aware of your current talents, skills, and capabilities.
You then must accept and feel satisfied with yourself, despite your flaws, which at this moment would be the fear of failure. In doing this, you regain power over your own thoughts and how you perceive yourself.
While many would argue you should never be satisfied with yourself, I believe satisfaction with who you currently are is the only true way to grow and become the person you wish to be.
Step #2: Locate the Cause
The second step in overcoming your fear of failure is to locate what is causing it. This goes back to the earlier discussion regarding the five reasons people avoid fear. To quickly recap, the first one is the expectation of feeling ashamed due to failure (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016).
Secondly, failure tends to create negative self-talk in one’s head that makes them doubt their intelligence and talents (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016).
Third, failure can negatively impact someone’s future plans (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016). Fourth, many believe that success is the most important criterion for parents, peers, teachers, and coaches meaning failure will result in a loss of their esteem (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016).
Lastly, individuals often see failure as not only losing the regard of others but also causing them stress (Alkhazaleh & Mahasneh, 2016).
In order to conquer this fear, you must decide what it is that is causing you to fear failure the most. It may be difficult to pinpoint just one, because a few or even all these reasons may be impacting you. But do your best to locate the ones that really stick out.
For me, negative self-talk and the threat of losing out on my future plans played an impact on my fear of failure. However, these honestly grew out of an initial reason that had the greatest influence on my fear; believing that success is the most important criterion for parents, coaches, and peers.
Succeeding for me grew to the point where I was aiming for it solely to not disappoint other people. During practice, I was constantly worried about what my coaches and teammates were thinking of me.
And during games I thought the same, only I added the concern of what the fans and my parents thought of how I was doing. Holding onto such worries completely inhibits any hope to play in the moment and pulls focus away from the task at hand.
It was not until I became aware of what was causing my fear of failure that I was able to gain control over it.
It may take some serious soul searching to uncover the deep-rooted cause of your fear of failure. Here is where writing can really become valuable. Sit down and write out all the things that come to your mind when you think of why you can’t fail.
After doing this a pattern will start to form that will align with one of the five reasons listed above. Be prepared, though, because this type of self-examination may up-root emotions and make you question yourself.
Just stay strong and true to the process, because from this step we move to the final one, where you will learn about the tools needed to finally overcome your fear of failure.
Step #3: Implement Tools to Overcome Fear
The third and final step in the process of overcoming your fear of failure involves implementing tools that will allow you to achieve two things: trust in your skills and focus on yourself only. Let’s start with trust in your skills. This is a core component of the fear of failure because a lack of faith in your skills, whether they be athletic or anything else, will cause you to continually doubt yourself. This doubt opens the doors for fear of failure to sneak in.
So, how does one develop trust in their skills? Well, the initial thinking is to practice the skill. However, I am not going to spend any time focusing on that because it is likely you have spent countless hours practicing. I know for myself this was initially the technique I employed. I would over-train, spending hours upon hours hitting in the batting cage and taking ground balls. While practice is important, it does not get to the root of the psychological problems that are causing the fear of failure.
The first powerful process you can develop to gain true trust in your abilities is positive self-talk. Since you are dealing with the fear of failure, it is likely your internal dialogue is very negative. So, you must work to change it. The only way to do so is with the repetition of positive affirmations regarding yourself and your skills. Positive self-talk leads to greater confidence and a more optimistic outlook. There are many proven benefits of such talk, including:
- Increased confidence
- Less stress
- Lowered levels of anxiety
- Better cardiovascular health
It can be difficult when starting out because positive affirmations can feel silly at times. But once you do them long enough you will start to realize your internal dialogue is changing. The best way I have found to do this is to look in a mirror daily and repeat your affirmations to yourself. Some examples of good phrases you can use include:
- “I am confident in my abilities”
- “I am strong”
- “I am proud of myself”
- “I trust in my abilities”
- “I am successful”
- “I love myself”
The list goes on and on. The most important aspect is that the affirmations are meaningful to you and you believe them. Also, do not limit yourself to saying them once a day. Memorize, and repeat your affirmations many times a day, and especially when you are in the midst of a situation where you tend to doubt yourself.
The second process you can implement to become more confident and trusting in your skills is visualization. It is likely that you are already using visualization and you don’t even know it. Unfortunately, with the fear of failure comes negative visualization.
I know from my experience that whenever I would be afraid to fail, all I could picture in my mind was myself making a mistake and I would already feel as if I had failed. This type of visualization often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy where you are destining yourself to fail.
So, what if instead of picturing yourself failing, you could actually visualize success? In a study performed by an exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, Guang Yue discovered that people who visualized themselves performing a workout over a three-month period increased their muscle strength by 13.5% (Gill, 2017).
Now that you know the power of visualization, there are a few steps you can take to master the skill.
Step #1: Get clear about what it is you want
In this step, you must decide what it is that you want. For a basketball player, it may be making free throws, or for a speaker, it may be delivering a speech clearly. Whatever your skill set is that you would like to build trust in, write it down in detail the way you wish it would go.
Step #2: Visualize it in detail with emotion
The second step is to start visualizing. The best way to do so is to create a quiet space for yourself free from distractions. Take a few deep breaths to clear your mind, close your eyes, and begin to see yourself performing the task perfectly.
Bringing emotion into visualization is very important because it allows you to feel what it is like to succeed. Feel the joy, excitement, and success like you would if you’d already accomplished it.
Step #3: Make it a routine
In order to change your perception of yourself from one of negative to positive, you must make visualization a routine. It does not have to take up a tremendous amount of time, just five to ten minutes a day. Make it a habit, and soon you will begin to feel your confidence and trust in your skill set grow.
The second component to overcoming your fear of failure is shifting your focus off other people and onto yourself. This allows you to not worry any longer about what others are thinking of you and tackles one of the main causes of fear of failure. Two strategies to do this are mindfulness training and goal setting.
Mindfulness refers to the ability of an individual to be fully present, fully aware of where they are and what they’re doing, and to not be overly reactive or influenced by external factors.
By becoming more mindful, you will eliminate many of the concerns that influence the fear of failure. Being present in the moment will allow you to focus on yourself and the task at hand, rather than all the perceived thoughts of others around you.
There are many ways you can cultivate mindfulness, but the most important aspect to remember is that it is already inside of you. Everyone has the capability of being mindful, it just can be improved. The best method I have found to improve your mindfulness is through meditation.
Meditation may seem like an obscure act if you have not tried it, but it is really quite simple and can be done anywhere. The easiest way to start is to set aside five to ten minutes, sit or lie in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and breathe deeply.
You want to bring all your attention to your breath. Allow thought to come and go freely, without any attachment to them. From here, try to become more aware and in the moment in all you do in life. It is a way of life that you will become better at the more you are consciously focused on it.
The second part of bringing your focus onto yourself involves goal setting. The type of goal setting I am referencing here involves defining what success will mean for you. It can be at a large scale, such as a whole season for an athlete, or a smaller scale, such as an individual game, practice, class, or workday.
By defining what success will mean for you in a given situation, you have provided a goal for yourself to focus on. This keeps you from focusing on other people’s opinions and what they may think of as success for you.
A good way to start doing this is to write down your goals for the situation that causes you to fear failing. I do this by writing down three technical goals for the activity, and three mental goals. This allows me to bring my focus onto myself, and no matter what happens during the day, I will be successful if I stick to my goals.
The fear of failure is a terrible condition to deal with. But I hope that upon reading this post you will understand that one, you are not alone, and two, it is possible to overcome it with the proper plan.
I truly believe that the three-step process I have outlined is one of the best ways to overcome fear. You first must accept yourself and your fear, then define what is causing your fear, and finally implement the tools necessary to overcome the fear.
I can say from my own experience that if followed, this process works effectively and will help you gain control over your mind and prepare yourself for the next time fear come knocking.
Please let me know your thoughts on fear of failure, and any personal experiences you have had in dealing with it.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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The Mind Tools Content Team By the Mind Tools Content Team, Team, T., Wrote, M., Wrote, E., & Wrote, B. (n.d.). Overcoming Fear of Failure: Facing Fears and Moving Forward. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/fear-of-failure.htm