Made a mistake? Managing the fear of failure

Made a mistake? Managing the fear of failure

We aspire to do well, so we dedicate time and effort to important goals. However, we know that life is uncertain and that there are no guarantees, so we may hesitate and wonder if we can make it. We do not want to fail.

So, how did we come to think that failure was not acceptable? We live in a society that praises outstanding achievements, giving the impression that perfection is achievable with no costs. Often the effort required, and the toll it takes on people, is hidden from view.

There is a long journey from the initial efforts to completing the goal. It can be hard work and there can be many difficulties before reaching the goal. We are determined to achieve our goals, but we want to avoid the bad feeling we get when things do not work out well. In addition, we want to prevent making mistakes to not waste time or resources.

It is normal to have self-doubts when working on an important task, but we think this means we lack confidence. Sometimes, we discount our abilities, which undermines our confidence in our capacity to persevere. As a result, it erodes our belief in our ability to achieve our goals.

We can reframe the doubts as thoughts or questions resulting from having an open mind. It can encourage us to explore different options and develop our creativity. As we explore, our findings can strengthen our purpose, helping us to focus on problem-solving to complete the task well.

What holds us back?

Often, we do not try out new things because we do not want to experience feelings of disappointment, embarrassment, and lose hope that we could ever reach a desired goal.

Once we figure out what we are concerned about, we can search for ways to deal with it. Learning to embrace the discomfort enables us to remain steadfast in our endeavours (Oettingen, 2015).

We now have more options available to choose from and we tend to believe there is one right choice. But there could be more than one option that could work. Sometimes, having too many choices can make it more difficult to decide which one to choose, and if we feel we made the wrong choice, it can lower our mood (Schwartz,2004).

We make choices all the time. As we do not know how things will turn out, we need to take a chance and prepare ourselves to deal with what happens next. By trusting ourselves that we can manage, we can boost our confidence to reach beyond our comfort zone (Molinsky, 2017).

Our attitude to risk can influence whether we go ahead with our goals. To illustrate, if we are thinking of starting a degree, changing jobs or moving to a different place, we could be apprehensive about getting into debt, or fear it could be tough to make new friends, so we go for a secure option to lessen the risk of unwanted results.

When deciding what options to take, it is not possible to anticipate all consequences, so it is difficult to visualise how things will unfold and therefore, it is challenging to plan for a demanding goal.

The memory of past failures makes us hesitant to take risks. As we work towards achieving a goal, it can be helpful to keep in mind it matters to us, so if we face any difficulties, we can stay motivated by reminding ourselves of its worth.

What can we do about it?

Normalise the feeling: we all make mistakes sometimes. We can think about past mistakes and what we learned from them.

J.K. Rowling described her experience of having submitted her manuscript and being rejected several times. She did not give up and eventually got her first Harry Potter book published.

Many film studios rejected Sylvester Stallone. So, he wrote his own script to be the lead actor, but the studios only wanted his script. Despite being offered a good sum of money, he rejected it because his aim was to act. He finally got accepted and succeeded. The film was “Rocky.”

Failure is more common that we imagine, and it takes courage to face the situation. We can make progress by nurturing the belief that with our efforts, we can make progress and achieve our goals.

Redefine the meaning of failure: How we define failure makes a difference in how we react to events. What does the word failure mean to us? Often it is not so much the mistake itself, but the consequences that may follow that prevent us from persevering.

To respond to failure constructively, we can adopt a scientific approach that includes experimentation through trial and error. This method is an essential part of finding out about what works and what does not. Here, mistakes are an integral part of learning (Dweck, 2016).

We can then review the steps we took to identify where things went wrong and use the information to make adjustments to improve our work. It required patience, perseverance and belief in ourselves that we can manage the challenge.

Take small steps: To get started with a project, break it down into small steps. When we focus on the progress we are making, it will boost our motivation to keep going.

We underestimate the effect of small steps because it seems insignificant compared to the enormity of the task. However, every step is necessary to complete it, so we make progress by building on the previous step.

Manage expectations: When having self-doubts, take time to reflect and gain a wider perspective. Noticing what is triggering reactions can help to manage responses. Practice acknowledging the feelings and accept they are part of our human condition.

Being understanding, practising self-compassion, can reduce negative self-talk. It improves mood, restores energy and allow us to make progress with the task (Neff, 2011).

We tend to focus on our mistakes without taking time to consider external factors that are not within control. By taking a wider perspective, we can explore alternative ways to mitigate them, and focus on what we can control.

Rather than construe a setback as an insurmountable problem, view it instead as feedback. It is information that helps to make improvements (Dweck, 2017).

Reflect on what matters most to you and ask: “How will I know I have achieved my 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.

Do something: 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 (Bandura, 1997).

When we take action, even a small step, we boost our motivation and develop the skill of starting. Once we start, the next step is easier.

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).

Focus on possibilities: When we have made mistakes in the past, we develop stories about them and miss the possibilities of other options.

For example, we may say “I was silly for doing that,” or “It was embarrassing “, but we can reevaluate these experiences and change the way we tell the stories to ourselves (Wilson,2011).

When we reflect, we can learn from our experiences and possibilities emerge. Instead of thinking “I cannot do it” we have a choice: we can continue with this train or thought, or pause and change direction.

For example, say “I can do something different now and see what options open up.” As we practise the skill of reframing or changing perspective, we can boost our confidence to stretch beyond our comfort zone (Molinsky, 2017).


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. 

Guimil, E. Sylvester Stallone: How childhood rejection and bullying led the legendary actor to create ‘Rocky’. El Pais, 3 March, 2023.

Molinsky, A. (2017) Reach. How to build confidence and step outside your comfort zone. London: Penguin.

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.

Schwartz, B. (2004) The paradox of choice. Why less is more. New York: Harper Collins.

Wilson, T. D. (2011) Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change. London: Allen Lane.


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