Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: you struggle to put yourself out there, whether it’s seeking promotions, making personal connections, or trying new things. You put high standards in place for yourself, to the point that you don’t want to do anything at all if you don’t have reason to believe you’ll excel at it. You feel that others will judge or are judging you and your progress or efforts; if they see you make a mistake, you’ll never recover. You have dreams and goals that you won’t even attempt because you’re worried about what happens if you don’t make it. Moreover, you’re convinced that you won’t.
If this is you, you are definitely not alone. Everyone feels afraid from time to time. If you are a first-time pregnant woman about to give birth, I bet you are feeling jittery nerves. If you are a young person going to college and moving away from home, you probably worry about classes or making new friends. If you are planning your wedding, you might find yourself stressed about finances or getting everything done promptly. What all of these events have in common tells us how natural fear is. These are all life events that are meaningful and celebratory, so how come we experience fear during positive events? Isn’t fear emotion in response to a threat?
The truth is that when stakes are high, we can experience fear of failure. Fear that we’ll be bad parents; fear that we’ll fail out of school; fear that our wedding will have a bunch of things go wrong. This is because
the outcome matters to us; we are invested in it. We want to raise a happy baby into a well-adjusted adult, do well in school and have our dream career, and have a wedding that reflects our love for the other person.
What is Fear of Failure?
Fear of Failure is just how it sounds: a concern that you will not succeed. It can be persistent, it can apply to any and every endeavor, or only the “big risks,” but it is intrusive no matter how frequent or severe. Known clinically as atychiphobia, it can lead to avoidance of situations or procrastination. It may also occur as part of another mood disorder, eating disorder, or anxiety disorder. You may find yourself afraid to try new things because you can’t anticipate the outcome. This can lead to a lack of growth and change; you may feel stagnant and frustrated. You may have always feared failure, but it may have developed over time, or you may find that it only occurs in certain situations.
How does fear show up in your life?
Fear can show up as anxiety, rumination, or insomnia. Other times, fear can show up as impulsivity and hyperactivity. Fear can cause us to get depressed and freeze or make us charge up to fight. Even if you are not consciously aware of being afraid, your actions may reveal an underlying hesitation: procrastination, feeling easily triggered, and avoiding the situation are some examples of actions related to experiencing fear. You might also experience physical symptoms of fear, such as elevated heart rate, stomach uneasiness/nausea, shaking hands, or irregular breathing. These conscious and unconscious symptoms might be persistent or intermittent.
3 Ways to Cope With the Fear of Failure
1. Identify your core fear:
It is normal to avoid or repress feelings of fear. We don’t want to be afraid; we sometimes deny to ourselves and/or others that we are. It is an uncomfortable and often embarrassing emotion to talk about our fear. However, one of the best ways to cope with your fear is to get to know it. You have to explore and unpack your fear. By asking follow-up questions, you can identify different layers of your fear. You can do this on your own or with someone you trust, such as a friend or family member, or in a professional setting like the therapy services we offer in Woodland Hills, California.
For example, say there is someone in your college course with whom you have been meaning to start a conversation. Most of us have experienced this sense of fear in a social situation where we are afraid of
hearing “no” because underneath it lies a fear of rejection. However, if you sit with this fear of rejection and ask yourself, “What would be so bad if I were to be rejected?” you will start to uncover your deeper fears. For example, someone may say, “If I get rejected, that means I will never find someone,” which might mean to them that “I will always be alone,” and this may be covering up a deeper fear one may have that “I am unlovable.” The idea of doing this kind of deep-dive might seem overwhelming at first. That is why many people never want to explore their hesitation. But these obstacles that we encounter in our daily lives are great cues and clues that deeper work must be done. Nobody should walk around feeling unlovable; if that is your issue, you deserve to work through it!
Another example of a core fear is in trying something new or setting a goal for yourself. Maybe you have always wanted to work with animals for your job, but you haven’t pursued it. You might tell yourself that you never had pets growing up, so you might not be good at working with animals. Or perhaps you worry that you can’t qualify for the education that would be required. When you begin to unpack this fear, you might find yourself going back a very long way in your lifetime. When was the first time you doubted your academic ability? Did anyone ever tell you that you weren’t responsible enough to have a pet? Do you know anyone who works with animals as a career; would those around you think it was a valid life choice? Sometimes, we find out that we have been carrying harmful thoughts since childhood. This can open up old wounds or old grievances. Maybe we never received praise and support from our parents but instead were always told we could have done better. Maybe we didn’t have stability in our home life, moving around a lot, or living with various caretakers. Resolving these long-standing fears and insecurities can take time, but work is worth doing.
2. Practice self-compassion:
I know it can be frustrating to want to do something and feel afraid to do it. It can be so easy to talk to ourselves unkindly in those situations. You might think, “This shouldn’t be a big deal,” or, “What is wrong with me that I can’t just do this?” Those kinds of thoughts are normal to have but not helpful. I’m not saying it’s as easy as waking up one day and never being hard on yourself. But I am saying that bullying yourself won’t solve any problems and certainly won’t boost your self-esteem so that you can feel confident enough to overcome your fear of failure.
When we practice self-compassion, we are honest with ourselves about what is going on and respond with kindness. For example, “I am scared to join that exercise class, and I am allowed to have fears.” You might worry that in naming and accepting your negative emotions, you’re giving them room to continue. In fact, you are simply giving yourself a break. In self-judgment, you might say, “I’m scared to join that class, how pathetic. I shouldn’t be such a chicken. I feel like a loser.” How inclined will you be to get over your fears or solve your problem, after beating yourself up like that?
In compassion, you will say, “I am scared to join that exercise class, and I am allowed to have fears. However, I don’t want to be afraid of this, because the class looks fun. How can I solve this problem for myself?” When you are in a mindset of self-love, it is easier to remember that you have a support network. You might decide to reach out to a friend who you think would enjoy the class, too. Maybe that person would want to go with you! When we are in a negative headspace, we revert to survival mode. We can’t be objective enough to process and deal with complex issues, so we don’t. In showing yourself self-compassion, you provide yourself space to explore the problem and its possible solutions.
If your fear of failure is tied to a desire to please and impress others, the kindest thing to do for yourself is to work to let go of people-pleasing. Wanting to make the people you love happy, and to be helpful, is natural. But if it takes over your life, or causes you unnecessary stress, then it’s not really benefiting anyone, including yourself. You may need to set boundaries with people who you feel demand excellence and/or perfection from you. Ultimately, the goal is to extricate your own feelings of worth from their opinions. This may be easier to do in the beginning if you don’t hear their opinions anymore. It also teaches you to rely on your own self-assessments and personal work, which helps to build your confidence.
3. Feel the fear and do it anyway:
We often falsely believe that fear is a sign of weakness or inadequacy. We think, “If I feel afraid, scared, or nervous, it must mean this thing I am working towards is not meant for me.” This is followed by and reinforced by another false belief that says “things must come effortlessly and naturally for me” in order for them to be meant for you. In fact, not everything that is meant for you will come to you easily. There are always things in life that take effort, such as learning new skills and keeping up positive habits. These things are worth doing, which means they are worth the work.
Feeling the fear and doing it anyway isn’t to blindly leap into any situation. As we talked about above, you can rely on support from others to help you conquer your fears. Reaching out to
a friend, family member, or mentor to assist you is a great way to stabilize yourself. They might join you as you take a class or guide and back you up if you are making professional strides at work. Or they might be available to talk to and provide a sounding board as you work things out. This doesn’t mean that the people around you become a crutch. In the end, only you can make yourself walk through a door, fill out an application, start a conversation with someone you find attractive, etc.
When you are considering how to take steps toward what you want, make room for meditation, journaling, affirmations, and other tools that will help you connect with yourself and open your mind to the possibility of success. Build confidence-boosting habits into your daily life. Affirmations such as “I am resilient” and, “What if it all goes right?” are great ways to brace for any outcome. Resilience is something we always forget about; we worry about failure as if the failure will be the end of the story. In fact, it is not whether or not we are able to succeed that matters, but rather whether or not we believe we’ll be able to move forward either way. The more resilient we are, the more we are able to meet challenges and recover from setbacks.
Everyone goes through times when their confidence takes a hit or a series of unfortunate events leave them back on their heels a little. There will always be ebbs and flows of good fortune and bad timing in this life.
The key to navigating it is to remain consistent with yourself. What values guide and shape you; how have you worked those into your life?
Sometimes, you will feel that these values are tied to your goals and add pressure to your desire to succeed. However, if you dig a little below the surface, you may find other ways to honor your value system. For example, you might put pressure on yourself to become a doctor so that you can help people, and experience a fear of failure about qualifying, applying for, and completing medical school. However, if you recognize that there are many ways in which to help people, it takes the pressure off of yourself. We experience a fear of failure as a form of tunnel vision. We think this one plan is the only route to something we want, when there might be multiple paths. Recognizing this doesn’t take away from the validity of your goals and dreams. It helps you achieve them as you work toward them. It helps you experience success at every step, not just at the finish line.
Here at Embracing You Therapy we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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