Have you ever been so afraid of failing, you decided to not try at all?
Has fear of failure ever stopped you from giving your best effort?
If you’re like most people, the answer is yes.
Fear of failure can be paralyzing – preventing us from fully investing ourselves, taking chances, and progressing forward in the career and life we desire. Life is a constant, never-ending shift between successes and failures. How can you learn to use failure to your advantage, rather than dreading it? First, let’s discuss why people fear failure.
Why do we fear failure?
According to Marvin Covington, a professor at UC Berkeley, fear of failure is directly linked to self-worth, or sense of one’s own value as a person. Beginning as soon as one begins school, self-acceptance comes to depend on one’s ability to achieve competitively (e.g. earn the highest grade). One way to protect an individuals sense of self-worth is by believing that he or she is competent and making others believe it at well. Because of this, it’s understandable that our society often confuses ability with worth.
Covington(1992) found that as a result of this belief, students will put themselves through unbelievable psychological tricks in order to avoid failure and maintain the sense that they are worthy. For example, a student may choose unattainable goals that literally invite failure, but “failure with honor” because so few others can be expected to succeed with these odds. A different student may procrastinate studying to go out with friends the night before an exam. Both of these students have prevented themselves the opportunity to really putting forth full effort and thus protect the possibility of failure related to their abilities.
In summary, if a person doesn’t believe in their ability to succeed, or if repeated failures reduce that belief, they may begin to (consciously or unconsciously) sacrifice chances for success and settle for failure, if by doing so they can save a reputation for ability. Failure avoiding strategies are explained in more detail below.
Failure Avoiding Strategies:
- Perfectionism: Exerting herculean effort and time to attain perfectionistic standards. May hide extreme effort so that achievement looks natural.
- Reluctance to try something new or challenging: Unsure of one’s abilities and does not want to fail. Only attempts activities that are familiar in order to complete them successfully.
- Self-sabotage: Creating some impairment to one’s performance–either imagined or real–so that there is a ready excuse for potential failure. This is done by procrastination, making excuses, choosing unattainable goals or simply not trying at all.
- Low self-esteem: Lack of belief in ability; failure is expected. Deny any success by attributing it to conditions outside of their control (e.g. pure luck that I scored well on the test).
- Underachieving: Avoids applying any real effort by refusing to do work, thus maintaining an inflated opinion of self. May take pride in the unwillingness to achieve by downplaying the importance of the work or by making fun at others who do try.
Have you ever used any of these strategies to avoid failure? Instead of actively avoiding, actively overcome your fear of failure and ensure that you aren’t the biggest obstacle in your own career and life.
Tips on Overcoming the Fear of Failure
Self-compassion is what you’d show a loved one struggling with a similar situation. Kristen Neff Ph.D., author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, identifies three strategies for self-compassion:
- Consider what you’d do if someone you cared about came to you after failing. What would you say? How would you treat them?
- Watch the language you use. If you wouldn’t say them to someone you care about, then you’re being self-critical.
- Memorize a set of compassionate phrases. If you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk, have a few encouraging statements really that resonate with you. Neff uses the phrases below:
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment?
May I give myself the compassion I need?
Self-compassion will help you recover more quickly from failure and try a new thing, since you won’t face a bombardment of negative self-talk if you fail.
Gain a new perspective.
Rather than making excuses, giving up, or attributing failure to a character flaw, foster a growth mindset to overcome life’s inevitable setbacks. Ask yourself growth-oriented questions such as:
What did I learn from this experience?
How can I grow as a result?
What is something positive that came from this situation?
This shift in perspective will help you see failure as a learning opportunity to then persevere and become stronger and more skilled in your endeavors.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Visualize potential obstacles
When thinking of a situation where you are afraid of failure, visualize yourself encountering an obstacle, acknowledge the fear you feel, and then see yourself overcoming the obstacle. Spend time planning how to overcome whatever obstacles or struggles you may encounter and visualize succeeding despite them.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
—Thomas A. Edison
Go outside your comfort zone.
Fear of failure can cause paralysis – over analyzing but never acting, staying within our comfort zone. If there is something you’ve always been interested in learning or a project you’ve thought about getting involved with, go for it! Stepping out of your comfort zone and making mistakes will help you begin to welcome the process of growth and learning. Mistakes and failure are inevitable. Learn to embrace this fact and it won’t seem so scary.
A 2015 European study suggests that you may be better able to cope with life’s challenges if you possess the skill of mindfulness – the non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. According to the study, those who meditate were found to be less likely to ruminate and more likely to facilitate thoughtful, less judgmental, and more emotionally balanced responses that prevented them from becoming overly discouraged.
Interested in becoming more mindful? Try these mindfulness practices from the Greater Good Science Center.
Deepening our understanding of fear of failure can help make us more understanding and compassionate toward ourselves so that we can give our best, learn from mistakes, and continue progressing forward to attain our career goals.