Why do we fear failure?
When I began building my practice, I was excited. I was working a full-time job at a non-profit mental health center, tutoring and facilitating psychotherapy groups at an intensive outpatient program. My plate was already full, but I was eager to have my own practice so I could do the clinical work how I wanted to. As my practice grew, I came to a point where it was no longer sustainable to do everything at the same pace, with the same intensity. I met with a business coach, and she encouraged me to finally quit my full-time job to build my practice, and I panicked. Yes, this is what I wanted. But the fear overwhelmed me. I was worried that I wouldn’t make enough money to sustain myself. I wasn’t convinced I had what it took to pursue my own business full-time. And more than anything else, I was afraid. Afraid of failing.
It’s human to want to succeed and accomplish our goals. Few things are as rewarding and affirming as working hard towards something and achieving what you set out to do. Success gives you confidence in your abilities and makes you more likely to continue striving for more success in the future. But what happens if you fail? People with a healthy relationship to failure see it as an opportunity to try again. But for those who fear failure, the experience can be incredibly debilitating.
What’s behind a fear of failure?
Failure can mean different things to different people, so a fear of failure is often rooted in much more than a simple desire to succeed. Children who fear failure are generally those who have been made to feel that failing would disappoint their caregivers and potentially put their security at risk. Meanwhile, our society’s preoccupation with success and achievement teaches us to view failing as a negative reflection of one’s character. For many people, the fear of failure connects to their sense of self-worth or self-esteem. Fear of failure can also emerge from a greater fear of uncertainty and the unknown. In some cases, fear of failure manifests as a way to avoid the shame and embarrassment people tend to associate with not achieving their goals.
Fear of disappointing important people
Our family of origin offers the template for how we cope with and understand most of the world, and that’s true of how we understand failures too. In some families, parents and caregivers put a lot of pressure on their children to succeed, and failure is just not acceptable. While every parent wants their child to be accomplished, in some families, this looks like having unrealistic expectations of children and expressing extreme disappointment and frustration when they can’t meet these expectations. Parents who have accomplished a great deal may set high standards for their children, and this can also be true for families who have had to work extra hard to establish themselves in society. As a child of immigrants who worked tirelessly to advance in their new country, I am very familiar with this. My parents highly value education and accomplishments, which I internalized at a young age. If ever I struggled in school, my parents did their best to help, but I understood their disappointment and frustration as a sign that I was not lovable unless I was achieving. So my fear of failure was established early on.
The impact on self-esteem
In many cases, the groundwork for developing a fear of failure is established in elementary school. It’s the first time children are put in a setting where their work is reviewed and judged based on how well they completed an assignment. And because we want children to be invested and take their school work seriously, our society instills a lot of importance into the concept of grades and what they indicate about your dedication and work ethic. Within this framework, dedicated students who work hard don’t fail, so if you do, the problem has to be you.
Receiving a failing grade becomes an experience filled with shame, guilt, and despair. It can feel like a condemnation of who you are as a person. We also tend to draw a direct line between success in school and success in life, so it’s no wonder that many who struggled throughout school may develop insecurities, depression, and an overwhelming fear of failure. Even if your family tolerates or even embraces failure, we can still receive messages elsewhere communicating the cost of failure.
As adults, we continue to have harmful messaging about failure reinforced by a society that values success above almost anything else. We are led to believe that our worth depends on how successful we can become. And who wants to feel worthless? So we develop this mindset that tells us we should be afraid to fail because of what we think failure implies about us: not just that we didn’t try hard enough, but that we aren’t enough.
Fearing the Unknown
We may also feel afraid to fail because we fear the unknown. We don’t know what’s on the other side of that failure and may tend to view failure as a stopping point rather than a stepping stone. We have set up some pretty rigid pathways to success in this country, and the idea of deviating from that can be terrifying because we can’t imagine another way forward.
Impact of Trauma
And for some who have a trauma history related to failure, who have undergone the painful aftermath of failure, they may also be terrified of repeating that experience in the future. For example, giving a presentation and receiving overly critical feedback that shamed you in front of your peers can have a negative impact. You might feel beyond apprehensive about making a presentation in the future.
Feeling Ashamed and Embarrassed
Finally, while we may imagine that everyone knows we have failed, failure is often experienced in isolation. When we succeed, we tend to seek out others to celebrate. We share our achievements on social media, over dinner with friends and loved ones, at graduation parties, and even at weddings. But when we fail, we tend to cope in private. Some may not share their pursuits with others to avoid sharing losses. Or we gloss over them because we feel ashamed and worry that others will think less of us. But in doing so, we continue to stigmatize failing, and we don’t get to access the support that we need. So not only are we left to manage the feelings that accompany failure, but we are also left to do so alone, which can compound the experience. Wanting to avoid this pain can also contribute to a fear of failure.
How does fear of failure impact our mental health?
Throughout human evolution, we’ve always needed fear. Feeling fear was key to survival because it helped us protect ourselves from danger. But fear, even and maybe especially irrational fears, can also be very harmful to an individual’s mental health. Many people who fear failure experience depression and anxiety, develop patterns of avoidance and procrastination, and struggle with their sense of self-worth. Societal norms prioritizing success have made failure an occurrence almost immediately associated with feelings of shame, humiliation, and hopelessness. We aren’t taught that there’s a way back from failure and many people come to believe that if they fail once, they’ll never be able to succeed at anything in the future. This mindset can make it impossible to take risks or steps towards your goal because the cost feels too high.
Our unhealthy relationship with failure breeds a good deal of avoidance and procrastination behaviors in people. Research has found that students who fear failure engage in more self-sabotaging behaviors like procrastination and avoidance than those who don’t. And while it may seem counterintuitive to behave in a way that will almost certainly result in the very thing you fear, students actually do this as a form of self-protection. Failure can feel very personal; by not putting in a concerted effort, it becomes much easier to separate oneself from the resulting failure. This behavior, while perhaps more comfortable in the short term, can easily create obstacles to success in the future. In fact, for many people, a fear of failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where they not only procrastinate but also pre-select themselves out of attempting anything that they perceive has the potential for failure.
Finally, as previously noted, how we view failure can be incredibly damaging to one’s self-esteem. Failure is often seen as a moral deficiency, and many people internalize that idea to see themselves negatively in the aftermath of failure. This can occur as the result of early childhood or a developmental experience of failure; our brains develop by categorizing things into easily identifiable groups. We teach children about morality by creating a binary between right and wrong, good and bad. When a child fails in school or sports and receives negative feedback that they didn’t try hard enough, rather than encouragement to try again, they very quickly begin to think of themselves (and failing in general) as bad. And once we start to feel bad about ourselves, our negative self-perception quickly begins to color our overall worldview, and we find ourselves experiencing depression and anxiety as a result.
Evidence also supports a connection between fear of failure, self-esteem, and early childhood attachment. A 2016 study found that across a sample of 77 children aged 9-14, those with a lower quality parent-child relationship also experienced lower self-esteem and more fear of failure. As John Bowlby’s concept of attachment theory suggests, a child’s psycho-social development is linked to the bonds or attachments they form with their early childhood caregivers. An insecurely attached relationship where the parent’s self-esteem is dependent upon their child’s success, for example, can develop a fear of failure within the child who comes to understand that they have to succeed to keep their parent happy and feel safe/secure themselves.
The ways that we’re taught to think about and internalize failure can create real and lasting harm, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Here are some strategies that have the potential to shift our perspective on what it means to fail and highlight how we might turn failure into opportunity.
How to change your relationship with failure
Explore your fear of failure: Taking time to examine your fear of failure can help you understand it and hopefully change it. Taking the time to consider what you are afraid of and why can help you gain insight into your personal experience. Once you have these insights, you can think about challenging yourself to pursue your goals despite the fear while simultaneously offering yourself compassion and understanding.
Redefine failure: The aversion that many people feel towards failure is often rooted in the idea that we aren’t meant to fail, but failing is one of the most human things we can do. Failing is vital to our development and growth as people, and those who avoid the opportunity to learn from their failures are often just setting themselves up to be unsuccessful in the future. Without failure, we also never get the chance to build the resilience needed to navigate the various obstacles and challenges that will inevitably come up in life. What if, instead of avoiding failure, you celebrated it?
Visualize courage: When there’s something you want to pursue, but you find that a fear of failure is stopping you, one way you can respond is to spend time visualizing the scary scenarios and failures and imagining yourself acting with courage, despite the fear. Over time, this gives you access to another possible outcome and makes it easier to access courage when needed.
Set yourself up for success: If you recognize that your failure anxiety makes it difficult to accomplish your goals, one way to cope with this fear would be to take a strategic approach. Draw out a plan to successfully complete your task and then a backup plan in case something unforeseen occurs. And if that doesn’t do enough to soothe your fears, developing a backup for the backup wouldn’t be unreasonable! By planning out your approach, you’ll be better able to imagine a path to success, and the backups will help you feel more secure in adjusting and navigating any potential roadblocks.
Seek support: Connecting with loved ones about your fear and accessing their support and care can help steady you in the face of your fear. And if it’s difficult to access that support through family or friends, therapy can be integral in overcoming a fear of failure. Because fear of failure is often inexorably linked to one’s ideas of self-worth, a therapist will be able to help you reframe your perception of failure and also help address how your ideas of failure have compromised your sense of self. Therapy can also provide you with tools to practice self-compassion rather than self-critique so that when you experience failure, you’ll have the emotional reserves and motivation to try again.
As with any fear, overcoming a fear of failure will not always be simple or straightforward. And because fear of failure often leads to adopting avoidance and self-sabotaging behaviors, finding a way to confront these fears can be particularly challenging. Ultimately, it will likely require patience, commitment, and in some cases, a willingness to address some painful memories and past experiences.
If you think you may benefit from some professional help to change your relationship with failure and better manage your fear, please reach out. We understand how difficult it can be to overcome your fear of failure, and we would be glad to assist you in pursuing the life that exists beyond fear. Call or text (323) 388-5578 or email email@example.com.