Overcoming fear of failure

ambition emotions fear limiting beliefs personal development Oct 23, 2018
woman walking a tightrope

The emotion of ‘fear of failure’ is probably one that is experienced by all people at least sometimes.  But if we want to create lives in which we can truly thrive, then one of the most important skills we can learn is how to not let that fear prevent us from moving forward.

I’ll be totally honest and say that this is a skill that I am definitely still learning myself!  But I suspect that this is probably true for everyone and I hope that my sharing some of what I have learned so far will still be useful to you even though I can’t yet see the full picture.

You see, I don’t really believe that it’s possible to 100% overcome a fear of failure.  Fear is a universal phenomenon and my observation is that the better we get at using it constructively, the cleverer the fear gets at showing up anyway!

And that takes me straight to the first point I want to make…

Fear is an unavoidable part of the human experience

There’s a commonly held assumption that if one is feeling afraid, that means that something has gone wrong somewhere and that the fear is a valid reason for not doing something.  ‘I want to do this thing,’ we say, ‘but I’m afraid’ – and we expect that everyone will understand why we are not taking action.  But this is just making excuses, my friend.

If you are feeling afraid, that doesn’t mean that anything has gone wrong.  All the fear means is that you are human.

Humans are wired for survival and, for most of humanity’s existence, fear has been a very effective survival mechanism.  The fact that today most of our fears are not actually about life and death situations does not mean that we can realistically expect to just magically stop feeling the fears that have protected our species for so long!

Honestly, I believe that, for me, one of the most helpful realisations on this journey has been to accept that, regardless of what I do, fear will continue to play at least some part in my life.  Yes, taking action despite fear is a skill that can be developed.  But we’re not going to get rid of the fear entirely.  Fear just means that we’re alive.

Question your thoughts

Like all emotions, fear is triggered by the thoughts that we have.  Initially, these thoughts may be unconscious, but we can learn how to identify and question these thoughts – and learning to do so will help us to manage our emotions.

Here are a few specific tactics that may help you question the thoughts that are triggering fear in you.  Experiment and see which methods work best for you.

  • Look at the worst case scenario and ask yourself what you would do if that happened
    In some situations, the worst case scenario may be genuinely disastrous and some caution in proceeding would be very sensible.  But in most cases when we look at the worst case scenario we realise that all that is likely to happen is that we would experience some level of discomfort – and we can usually survive that!
  • Analyse all possible outcomes
    We often tend to gravitate towards imagining the extremes of outcomes, but that ignores the wide range of less dramatic outcomes that are not only possible but probably more likely.  Seeing the wide range of possible outcomes can help us to more realisitcally evaluate how likely it is that the outcome we fear will occur.
  • Recognise that all fear of failure is hypothetical
    A real threat is a tiger about to pounce. An imagined threat is a hypothetical scenario created from your imagination.  Failure is an abstract concept about something that may or may not happen in the future – so, by definition, all fear of failure falls into the category of being an imagined rather than a real threat.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that your fear is irrational, but it does mean that it is premature – you are still at the stage where you can plan how to avoid the outcome you’re afraid of, so take full advantage of that.
  • Train yourself to ask better ‘what if’ questions
    When we’re in the midst of fear of failure, we tend to wallow in the ‘what if’ questions.  You know the ones…  What if it all goes wrong?  What if I lose everything? What if they never look at me the same again?  Instead of trying to ignore these questions, train your brain to always ask the opposite question as well.  So every time you find yourself asking ‘what if it all goes wrong?’ also ask yourself ‘what if it all works out?’ and so on.  Deliberately looking at both sides of the picture should help you to decide what risks you are willing to take.
  • Ask yourself whether the fear is useful
    My opinion is that the only time fear serves us is when we are genuinely dangerous situations (and sometimes not even then!).  When we’re experiencing a fear of failure, the chances are that we are not actually in a dangerous situation.  The fear is your brain trying to protect you, but you may or may not actually need protecting.  One way of putting your conscious mind back into the driver’s seat is simply to ask yourself ‘is this fear serving me?’

Learn to feel fear

For most of us, when we start to feel afraid, we push the emotion away and resist it.  But this just increases the hold that fear has on us because we become increasingly afraid of feeling afraid!

I believe that emotions are just thoughts that are producing a physical sensation- and I have written elsewhere about how to feel emotions in general.  But most people when they describe what it’s like to feel afraid describe sensations like:

  • increased heart rate
  • tensing of muscles
  • tingling skin

And do these sensations really sound so terrifying that you are willing to base your major life decisions around avoiding these sensations!?

Next time you find yourself feeling afraid, consider making some time to just sit with the sensations and experience what it feels like for you to feel afraid.  Don’t follow the thoughts, follow the physical sensations instead.  Get curious about what fear physically feels like for you.  You may well discover that fear itself isn’t actually that scary after all…

Trust your resilience

Very often when we say that we are afraid of failure, what we really mean is that we are not confident in our ability to cope with the consequences of failure.

Depending on the situation, when we say that we are afraid of failure what we actually mean could be that we are afraid of:

  • feeling ashamed
  • losing self-esteem
  • disappointing others
  • losing influence or prestige
  • coping with financial losses
  • losing comfort or stability
  • facing an uncertain future

But this is good news because, while we may not be able to eliminate fear, what we can do is increase our capacity to cope with these difficult situations. It may take time to take small steps towards greater resilience, but this is at least possible!  Rather than coping with your fear by telling yourself nothing will go wrong, focus instead on building your confidence in your ability to do hard things.

Courage is a character trait that can be developed, but only by exposing ourselves to fear.  Just as you can’t get stronger without putting your muscles to work, you can’t get braver without allowing yourself to be afraid.

It’s not that people who appear fearless don’t actually experience fear, it’s that they have confidence in their ability to cope with the consequences of their actions.  And that kind of confidence is something that you too can work on developing!

Practice failing better

The word ‘failure’ tends to have some pretty negative associations, but it doesn’t actually have to be that way.

In everything we do, there is always the chance that we will fail.  But the real suffering of failure comes from how we choose to think and feel about the experience – and that is something that we do have some control over.  If you make a promise to yourself that, no matter what happens, you will treat yourself with respect – then you may find that failure itself becomes less scary.  Failure doesn’t have to mean that you quit or beat yourself up.  Failure could be an opportunity to love yourself more rather than less.

One of the steps that I took on my journey of reducing my fear of failure was to ask myself what the most empowering way was that I could redefine failure for myself.  If you ask yourself that question, then maybe you will get a different answer.  But the answer that I received was to think of failure as a necessary part of success.

There’s a saying that goes, ‘if you want success, you need to double your rate of failure.’  And I really believe this!  If you are not succeeding in your current endeavours, it’s probably because you are so afraid of failing that you are choosing to stay safe and are holding yourself back in some way.  In order to reach our goals, we need to be willing to fail.

I really like the idea of failure being a skill we develop and need to regularly practice.  One of the best ways I’ve heard of to do this is to set yourself a target for how many times per month you’re going to ‘fail.’  Depending on how much you want to challenge yourself, this could be once per month or it could be five times per month, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is the way that it changes your self-talk – instead of beating yourself up for having failed, now you get to congratulate yourself for having met your target!

The only condition I would put to this exercise is that your ‘target failures’ need to be failures as a result of the action you have taken rather than failures as a result of inaction or not showing up fully.  If you feel like you are taking action, but aren’t making any mistakes – then that means you’re not challenging yourself enough.  If you’re using your fear of failure as an excuse to avoid action that challenges you – then that is a failure that nothing can be learned from.  If you want to succeed, then it’s taking action and making mistakes that you need to get better at – that is what will truly give you the confidence you want.

Fear as a sensitive introvert

The final point I want to make is that if, like me, you are a sensitive introvert who struggles with energy management, then there is a good chance you will find it particularly exhausting to do the work of overcoming fear of failure.

This is not an excuse to avoid the work!  Staying in your comfort zone will keep you afraid and, in the long term, lead to even more exhaustion.

But it does make it particularly important that you are kind to yourself through this process.  Give yourself permission to take baby steps.  Remember to talk to yourself gently, regardless of what happens.

And remember, we all feel fear.  Fear just means that you are alive.  It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you.  Every single successful person you know still feels fear, they’re just not using it as a reason to hide.  And you are completely capable of cultivating that kind of courage too.

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