Is fear of failure holding you back?
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” (Mark Twain)
We have the unique capacity to imagine potential future scenarios. It is a valuable cognitive ability which allows us to problem-solve and prepare to deal with challenges. However, our imagination can be fertile, conjuring up various worst-case scenarios, thinking about “what if” something bad happens.
In our imagined future scenarios, we focus on the negative consequences resulting from a mistake or a decision that led to a negative outcome. We may experience fear, disappointment, shame, and embarrassment. When can experience uncomfortable feelings that can be difficult to tolerate when we imagine our work not being good enough.
We worry we may not meet our expectations, and so delay getting started or completing the task. We imagine the disappointment and embarrassment, and the feeling we are letting ourselves and others down. These can be a powerful force holding us back from taking risks and persevering with our efforts.
Regretting what we have done may add to the feelings of distress, reducing our confidence in our ability to deal with similar situations. When we worry about not doing well, we hesitate, making us less likely to follow through with tasks. As a result, we keep ourselves from developing our skills and achieving our potential (Pink, 2022).
We don’t try out new things because of fear of failing. To master fear of failure, we need to identify what we are afraid of to understand what is preventing us from making progress. Once we identify the obstacles, we can explore ways of dealing with the situation. We also need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings so that we can persevere with our efforts (Oettingen, 2015).
It is common to experience some self-doubt when starting a new project, as many unpredictable factors could interrupt the progress of our work.
Sometimes fear of failure is due to worry about what others will think. When we attach too much value to external validation, it can have a negative impact on our confidence in our ability and our sense of self-worth.
An underlying drive for perfectionism may intensify the fear of failure. We will construe any setback as unacceptable, If the expectation is to achieve perfect result, leading to a fear of making mistakes and feeling stuck. When we have this feeling, we are less likely to try out new things and avoid complex tasks, thus limiting our options for development (Dweck, 2017).
We may also worry when we have a physical condition that prevents us from working as effectively as we would like to. For others, having an experience when we received negative feedback or the result had negative consequences can lead us to be more cautious and find it is harder to deal with feedback.
Strategies to manage fear of failure
Self-awareness: Take time to reflect and notice your thoughts and feelings and identify the situation that triggers the emotions. What is happening? How are you interpreting the situation? Then ask, what other alternative perspectives are there to interpret the event?
Reframe failure: interpret it as a challenge and an opportunity to learn, and apply what you learn in future situations. View mistakes as part of the learning process. We do not make mistakes on purpose, often these happen because we did not have information or a different approach would have been better.
Think about setbacks as feedback: We all experience setbacks at some point. Sometimes, things do not work out as we hope, and we may feel disappointment, embarrassment or worry about negative consequences.
When these happen, we can practice acknowledging the feelings and accepting they are part of our human condition. Self-compassion can reduce negative self-talk, allowing us to make progress with the task (Neff, 2011).
Reflect on your work: to review our work, we can use metacognition – our ability to think about our thinking. Reflecting on our work helps to identify what is working and what is not, so we can correct and make adjustments to improve it.
We can identify mistakes early when we monitor our work as we go along to evaluate it. Ask yourself: “Am I making progress?” “What can I do differently? What is not working so far?” “How will I know when I have reached my goal?”
Define the meaning of success: Reflect on what matters most to you, and ask: How will you know you have achieved your goal? What will be different? Having clarity of what you expect will enable you to identify the steps to take to make progress towards your goal.
Focus on the process: When we focus on results, we realise how much we still have to do lowering our motivation because we notice the gap between our hoped-for future and the current situation. We experience more stress when we focus on what we cannot control. Instead, our concentration improves when focus on what we need to do to make progress with the task.
To prevent feeling demotivated, focus on what you have achieved, and working in incremental steps. Keeping track of our progress can boost confidence and motivation to persevere with our efforts (Dweck, 2017).
Develop your sense of self-efficacy: we can manage challenges when we can trust our ability to learn and persevere with tasks. Self-efficacy refers to the belief in our ability to handle situations and trust that we can achieve our goals with our effort.
As Dweck (2017) identified, it is essential to emphasise effort over ability. We can persevere with a task when we can see the hard work relates to the task, so the challenge motivates us (Bandura, 1997).
Practice self-compassion: When you notice your imagination running ahead, anticipating negative scenarios, remind yourself that our brain is designed to predict potential problems to prepare for them. When we have “What-if” thoughts, it does not mean that we will fail. Instead, view these thoughts as just thoughts, not facts.
Then bring your attention back to what you are working on, and focus on the next step. Self-compassion can reduce negative self-talk, allowing us to make progress with the task (Neff, 2011).
Maintain healthy habits: We need to maintain our energy to manage our emotions and persevere with our efforts. When we imagine the possibility of failure, it can trigger the stress response to prepare us to deal with the situation, so taking time to breathe and reflect will help manage the tension.
Developing a flexible attitude and having an open mind will help look for alternatives to problem-solve and move forward (David, 2016). Dedicate time to self-care by prioritising healthy habits to restore energy, such as protecting sleep time, eating healthy foods, taking breaks and connecting with family and friends.
Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company..
David, S. (2016) Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin Books.
Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.
Gilovich, T. & Medvec, V.H.(1995) The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological review, Vol 102 (2), 379-395. American Psychological Association Inc.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Oettingen, G. (2015) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current.
Pink, D. (2009) Drive. The surprising truth about what motivates us. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Pink, D. (2022) The power of regret. How looking backward moves us forward. Edinburgh: Cannongate.