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Why do we fear failure? Understanding setbacks to conquer wins

September 15, 2022 - 12 min read

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What is the fear of failure?

Why do we fear failure?

Reassess your definition of failure

Self-sabotage and the fear of failure

Prepare for the worst-case scenario

Set small wins to conquer the battle

Courage is not the absence of fear

Some of the most common fears we hear are public speaking, spiders, or heights. We hear about those all the time.

But what we might not hear very often is the fear of failure. While we all make mistakes, some are afraid to fail at everything.

So why do we fear failure? 

Sometimes, we might fail at even accepting our fears. And finding the root cause of why we fear failure might lead us down a rabbit hole. 

By breaking down things like why we fear failure and what we think failure is, which can be overwhelming, we can create an action plan to overcome it. 

That's what we're here for. So let's be brave and start talking about our fear of failure

What is the fear of failure?

We all know failure happens when we don't succeed at what we intend to do. That could be anything from going back to school to launching a successful start-up. It could even be due to delay in securing a job or struggling to stay on track with training for a marathon. It's a fear that can inhabit our personal or professional lives or even both simultaneously. 

Here are a few things that someone who has a fear of failure might do:

  • Avoids tasks
  • Feels powerless
  • Experiences anxiety
  • Feels a loss of control 

Eventually, a fear of failure might develop into an extreme fear: atychiphobia. Atychiphobia refers to a fear of failure that stems to everything — even things without severe consequences. With this phobia, fearing something rational, like failing an exam, becomes so intense that someone might withdraw from a course to refrain from ever writing that exam. 

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Why do we fear failure?

Although it’s scary to investigate the root cause of your fear of failure, it's a necessary step to overcome it. Once we reach the rabbit hole, we can develop specific strategies to help us move forward. 

Let's read four potential causes of fear of failure and think about if any of these apply to us:

  1. Our upbringing: Our parents might have been critical of our actions as children. Perhaps they never supported our dreams and passions, or they never let us forget our failures. Those experiences follow us into adulthood and cause us to fear any sort of mistakes we make in the present.
  2. Experiencing traumatic events: Some traumatic events scar us for life, causing us to avoid any situation that reminds or could remind us of those incidents. Such experiences can make us wary of trying new things or setting long-term goals.
  3. Being bullied as a child: Maybe when we were younger, we tried out for our school's volleyball team and didn't make it. Then other kids teased us for not being good enough, which taught us that our failure is a joke or leads to mockery. Bullying and humiliation can impact us at all ages and influence our choices.

  4. Low self-esteem and confidence: If we don't believe in ourselves, we'll accept that all we're capable of is failure. Our negative self-talk will overrun our brains and convince us to fear failure of all kinds.

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Reassess your definition of failure

Take a moment to reflect on your definition of failure. What does it entail? What are the consequences? Sometimes, your fear of failure comes from an unrealistic definition of failure. 

You could have high expectations from yourself and feel anxious that you can’t live up to them. This anxiety might stem from perfectionism. Being a perfectionist strains on your well-being, teaching you that your efforts can’t reach your (nearly impossible) standards. 

You should be proud of your efforts and hard work. Rather than limit yourself to only doing things you know you'll do perfectly, accept that mistakes happen. That’s how you learn. A growth mindset teaches us to see the value in making mistakes. You can either view failure as the end of the world or as a learning opportunity.

Failure isn't rare. Even the most successful people fail and continue to fail.

Self-sabotage and the fear of failure

Our fear of failure is often reflected in our behavior through our actions and choices. The most notable behavior is self-sabotage, which stops us from taking any sort of action. Self-sabotage results from extreme anxiety

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Research has found that fear of failure causes people to experience anxiety and learned helplessness and underachieve on goals, and reduces resilience. This encourages them to protect themselves, which may fall under the category of self-sabotage.

Fear of failure compels people to protect their emotions and mental health by staying in their comfort zone. They’re often seen practicing procrastination to delay their actions and avoid the chance of failing. People may also sabotage themselves by blaming others for mistakes they make to avoid taking responsibility. 

It is sometimes hard to recognize. To pinpoint when and where we exude our fear of failure, we must develop self-awareness

Find support from someone who'll help you quit your self-sabotaging behaviors. At BetterUp, our coaches are here to help you practice strategies that empower you to eliminate your procrastinating ways.

Prepare for the worst-case scenario

Planning is a great habit to adopt when we're trying to reduce our fear of failure. It can help us envision the worst-case scenarios and brainstorm solutions. On the contrary, we can't let ourselves fall into the trap of overthinking when we do this. We can acknowledge negative thoughts without letting them take over. 

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Looking at the worst-case scenarios helps us become more realistic and rational. Sometimes consequences aren’t as disastrous as we might have imagined. But as we practice this, we must remember not to give these possible outcomes too much power. Instead of focusing on what can go wrong, we could focus on what can go right.

Set small wins to conquer the battle

It's easy to tell people to be realistic, but how do we actually achieve that? We start by celebrating small wins and goals, which shouldn’t be big and flashy for everyone to see. They matter to us, not everyone we know. It helps us overcome the fear of failure by increasing our self-confidence when we accomplish a goal. 

We might start by either trying to manage the fear and anxiety it brings us or figuring out the root cause of our fear of failure. We can't let imposter syndrome get the better of us. Any of our small goals, which can help us in our personal and professional lives, are possible with hard work and sustained efforts. Perhaps we want to become better leaders at work.

We’ll begin with little steps, like learning what skills a leader needs or observing how our mentor leads a team. Knowing that a small win strengthens our skills will help us improve at a sustainable pace. We don’t have to wake up one day and take on the biggest projects or roles to succeed. 

As we conquer our small tasks and look to greater success, our overachieving might turn into losing. Although being an overachiever isn't a bad trait, it grows harmful when it’s too extreme. If we're used to overachieving and succeeding, we might struggle to tolerate or learn from failure.

Studies have found that overachieving behavior has three key drivers: achievement, affiliation, and power. Overachievers can become perfectionists and strive to a certain standard.

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Courage is not the absence of fear

Why do we fear failure? Feeling fear is unavoidable. Everyone fears something, but to thrive in life, we must pursue our goals and dreams, even if they scare us. We can learn from our mistakes, prepare for worst-case scenarios, and hold ourselves accountable when we want to self-sabotage.

Remember, we shouldn't strive to be fearless but courageous. Overcoming fear of failure requires courage that empowers us to keep moving forward even when we're afraid. 

You don't have to learn to be courageous on your own. At BetterUp, our coaches are here to help you learn how to address your fears and unlock your greater potential.

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Published September 15, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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