Is fear of failure holding you back?

Is fear of failure holding you back?

The rate of change is increasing due to technology advances, impacting our ways of working. We need to develop our ability to manage change while maintaining our energy and health to be productive and live a meaningful life.

Every day we face situations we would not have faced twenty or even 10 years ago. To cope with the changes we need to adapt, and to do this we need to change the way we think. This includes how we deal with mistakes and fear of failure.

We all want to do well and achieve our goals. However, we do not want to make mistakes for fear of failing to produce the results we hope for. However, despite our continued efforts, we do not achieve the results we expect, and we consider this a failure.

Why do we fear failure?

Generally, we view failure as an unwanted obstacle – to be avoided. Fear of failure manifests itself in intense worry about not achieving – “what if I can’t develop my business and make it interesting to investors?”, “What if I fail my course?”, “What if I don’t get an interview/a job?”
And the likely thoughts and feelings we associate with these possible scenarios: “What will I do, if I cannot get funding/job?”, “What will others think of me?”, “What if I don’t have the ability?” and other thoughts and feelings that can bring our mood down.

We are held back by a persistent fear that we cannot achieve what matters to us. There can be several sources that trigger this feeling, such as underlying perfectionism. When we have the expectation that we should make the right decision1Schwartz, B. (2004) The paradox of choice. Why less is more. New York: Harper Collins., not make mistakes, or that only a perfect result counts, it can cause significant stress limiting our focus and energy to work on our tasks.

It is essential to learn to adjust to living with ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradictions. We need to develop elastic thinking – the capacity to let go of the need for certainty. Flexible thinking is necessary in a constantly changing world.2Mlodinov, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.

We need to challenge our ingrained assumptions, experiment, and tolerate failure. By learning to redirect our attention and search for alternative perspectives3Wilson, T. D. (2011) Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change. London: Allen Lane.using our imagination, creativity, and logical minds, we can solve problems creatively and more effectively

How does it affect us?

It affects us all in different ways, depending on our experiences, beliefs, temperament, and perception of coping skills, and more. We may not trust our ability to achieve our goals so we procrastinate, which can reduce our ability to get things done.

Sometimes, the thought of failing prevents us from stepping outside our comfort zone to achieve what we value. The result is that we limit ourselves by staying in a safe zone, not fulfilling our potential.

A prolonged period of stress may lead to anxiety symptoms, wanting to avoid contact with others for fear of judgment or because we worry about disappointing others. A feeling of lack of control can intensify when we cannot see how to change the situation.

Sometimes, we worry that it is not the situation that is difficult, but that we are not capable of dealing with it. In addition, we may feel that something is wrong with us which can lead us to experience uncomfortable feelings such as embarrassment and shame.4Tsaousides, T. (2015) Brainblocks. Overcoming the 7 hidden barriers to success. New York: Prentice Hall Press.

One factor that exacerbates our difficulty dealing with mistakes is self-criticism. We ruminate about our errors and criticise ourselves for failing to meet our standards. These negative thoughts can cause high stress levels affecting our mood. This can develop into a vicious circle of negative thoughts, producing unpleasant feelings that reduce our confidence and prevent us from taking action.

Stress is a significant factor that affects our health, performance, and ability to manage difficult situations. Often, we need to make difficult decisions under pressure, and when this occurs our brain tends to focus on the negative aspects when weighing up information.5Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. Why we’re wired to look on the bright side. London: Pantheon Books.

What holds us back?

Whenever we try to do something new there is a risk of failing. Mistakes are likely because we are not familiar with the task. As we tend to assume we should get things right on the first attempt, we may experience tension as we try not to make mistakes.

We may miss the fact that circumstances change, affecting the conditions under which we need to work. So paying attention to the context, and adapting to the new situation, is helpful.

And when mistakes happen, or when things do not work out, we experience a mix of emotions. At first it may be difficult to look beyond the mistake, so we tend to focus on what went wrong and overlook the wider context. Having a wider perspective on the situation can help us find alternative ways of solving the problem.

By changing how we think about mistakes, we can use them to improve our work. As we review our work, we can identify what we need to do differently to improve it. Learning happens when we reflect on our actions and experiences.6Pink, D. (2022) The power of regret. How looking backward moves us forward. Edinburgh: Cannongate.

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. Once we identify what we are concerned about, and learn to embrace discomfort, we can explore ways of dealing with the situation.7Oettingen, G. (2015) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current.

In addition, our attitude to risk can influence whether we pursue our goals. For example, when starting a degree or a business, we may consider the financial implications, how difficult it will be and whether we can manage the pressure. We therefore look for safer options when we don’t want to take risks.

Strategies to restore balance and move forward.

Redefine the meaning of failure: How we define failure makes a difference to how we react to events. It is not the mistake itself, but the consequences it may lead to that we fear.

Through reflection, we can identify what went wrong, and make improvements based on what we have learned. Acknowledging our feelings, without self-criticism, will enable us to navigate complex emotions.

As we pay attention to each step we take, we can see what we can do differently to improve our work. We can adopt the scientific method, where experimentation through trial and error is the way to find out what works.

Manage stress: When stressed and tired, it is difficult to manage our emotions. It is important to give space to our emotions, as they indicate that something of value is at stake.8Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Movement is essential. Depending on individual circumstances, we can find what works for us. It is also important to practice mindful breathing to restore balance and reduce distracting thoughts.

Being outdoors in green spaces, and connecting with others, family, friends, and people we meet daily, restores our wellbeing.

Focus on mastery (not perfection): The way we think about the situation affects the actions we take, and our beliefs about what we can achieve. By viewing mistakes as stepping stones that can lead to where we want to get to, it can help us overcome fear of failure.
As we practise the skill of reframing or changing perspective, we can boost our confidence to stretch beyond our comfort zone.9Molinsky, A. (2017) Reach. How to build confidence and step outside your comfort zone. London: Penguin.

We can set our goals while maintaining hope that with our efforts we can expect a positive result. However, we must be careful not to attach ourselves to a specific outcome as it can reduce tension and increase our capacity to persevere.

To get started with a project, we can reduce pressure by breaking it down into small steps. Focusing on the progress we are making boosts motivation, confidence, and prevents procrastination.

Sometimes, we may undervalue the benefits of starting small, especially when we have a lot to do. Instead, when we acknowledge that every step is necessary to make progress, it motivates us to continue. Consistency in our efforts will lead us to achieving our goals.

Develop an optimistic attitude: It means believing that a) a mistake or failure is temporary, b) that we can change it, and c) that we can take action.10Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.

As we develop a flexible attitude, we can grow our capacity to deal with challenges.11Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.
It allows us to put things into perspective and see that change is possible. It is also helpful to manage our expectations – what is realistic to achieve given the time and resources we have available.

Tell yourself: “I’m not a failure. I failed at doing something. There is a difference” (J.C. Maxwell)

Develop elastic thinking: Adopt a broad perspective, and a flexible attitude. When dealing with adverse situations, we can look for alternative ways to interpret the event. By developing openness and flexibility we can expand our creativity to find solutions that help us problem-solve and manage our tasks.12When we make mistakes, or when things do not work out, we can feel disappointed, frustrated, upset, or experience a mix of emotions. At first it may be difficult to look beyond the mistake, so we tend to focus on what went wrong and overlook the wider context. Having a wider perspective on the situation can help us find alternative ways of solving the problem. This will enable us to eventually achieve our goals (Mlodinov, 2018)

Learning to believe in our ability to manage difficult situations, and that we can tap into our personal resources to achieve our goals. By strengthening our confidence in our ability to manage challenges, it will enable us to tap into our personal resources to achieve our goals .13Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

 

Footnotes
  • 1
    Schwartz, B. (2004) The paradox of choice. Why less is more. New York: Harper Collins.
  • 2
    Mlodinov, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.
  • 3
    Wilson, T. D. (2011) Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change. London: Allen Lane.
  • 4
    Tsaousides, T. (2015) Brainblocks. Overcoming the 7 hidden barriers to success. New York: Prentice Hall Press.
  • 5
    Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. Why we’re wired to look on the bright side. London: Pantheon Books.
  • 6
    Pink, D. (2022) The power of regret. How looking backward moves us forward. Edinburgh: Cannongate.
  • 7
    Oettingen, G. (2015) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current.
  • 8
    Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.
  • 9
    Molinsky, A. (2017) Reach. How to build confidence and step outside your comfort zone. London: Penguin.
  • 10
    Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.
  • 11
    Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • 12
    When we make mistakes, or when things do not work out, we can feel disappointed, frustrated, upset, or experience a mix of emotions. At first it may be difficult to look beyond the mistake, so we tend to focus on what went wrong and overlook the wider context. Having a wider perspective on the situation can help us find alternative ways of solving the problem. This will enable us to eventually achieve our goals (Mlodinov, 2018)
  • 13
    Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

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