In my very first Kids & Culture Alert! newsletter published in April of 2005, I discussed the sad epidemic of fear of failure that was rampant in America then. Well, more than five years later, fear of failure is still the most pervasive and debilitating issue among children I see in my practice and the thousands I have spoken to since. But the reason I want to revisit fear of failure today is because I have discovered a new wrinkle to the fear-of-failure phenomenon that brings greater clarity to the problems that children face in our increasingly achievement-oriented culture.
What is Fear of Failure?
At the heart of fear of failure is the belief held by children that if they fail, in school, sports, the performing arts, or socially, then bad things will happen, for example, they will disappoint their parents, be ostracized by their peer group, experience embarrassment or shame, or feel worthless. Fear of failure typically emerges from messages that children's parents convey that being loved depends on their being successful or that their parents' love will be withdrawn if they fail (this is rarely the message that parents send, but it is the one that children frequently receive). Children with Fear of failure perceive failure to be a ravenous beast that pursues them relentlessly and they only experience a small amount of relief when they succeed (and that feeling doesn't last long). As a result, avoiding failure becomes their singular motivation and goal in life.
Despite this profound fear of failure, so many of the children I have worked with did nonetheless fail frequently and often monumentally, either by giving up easily or doing something that ensured failure, even when success was highly likely. I asked myself, why would children who fear failure so fear of failure.
I came to see that most children don't have a fear of failure, but rather they had a fear of total failure. I define total failure as "giving it their all and not achieving their goal." When I ask children if total failure is a good or bad thing, the response is unanimous and stark; it is the worst thing! So what is so bad about total failure? In a way, it's the end of the road toward that goal. If children give everything they have and don't achieve the goal, they have to admit that they simply weren't good enough and there's nothing more they can. This realization is, for most children, truly untenable. Better for children to fail with an excuse (called self-sabotage or self-defeating behavior) than experience total failure because it allows them to avoid the consequences of total failure and always leaves open the possibility of success in the future.
Yet I would argue that total failure is a good (though not ideal) goal because, even though children may not reach their goal, they did everything they could to achieve it and no one can ask more of them than their best effort. To put this in perspective, I define total success as children giving it everything they have and achieving their goal. Total success and total failure have one thing in common: giving it everything they've got. So the real goal for children is to experience "total" something, whether success or failure, because what more can they do. At the end of the day, will children be disappointed in not having achieved their goal? Of course, but there will also be indelible satisfaction at having given their best effort and fully realized their ability. Also, the simple reality is that if children don't give it everything they've got, they will have little chance of ever reaching their goals or achieving total success.
One of the most destructive aspects of fear of total failure is that children are afraid to take risks. By definition, the more risks that children take, the greater the likelihood of failure. Yet risk is essential for achieving total success. Risk means children getting out of their comfort zones, pushing themselves a bit beyond what they thought was possible, and, most basically, risking the possibility of failure. Without risk, there can be little growth or progress, children are perpetually stuck in one place, and they can never realize total success. Unfortunately, another paradox about fear of total failure is that the only way to be truly successful is to take risks. So, children with a fear of total failure play it safe and avoid failure-that's a relief!-but they also experience the frustration of unfulfilled promise and miss the exhilaration of having "left it all out on the field."
There are two cardinal rules that I have tried to live my life by and teach my clients and my own children. Rule #1 is that I don't want any child to ask, at the end of a semester, season, year, career, or life, "I wonder what could have been?" That may be the saddest question anyone can pose to themselves because there are no "redos" in life. Rule #2 is that the one emotion I don't want any child to experience is regret. Regret is defined as: "to feel sorry or disappointed about something that one wishes could be different; a sense of loss or longing for something gone," in other words, "Darn it, I wish I had tried harder." In the end, you want your children to make a statement: "I gave it everything I had," and experience two emotions: pride and fulfillment in having given it their all.
To achieve their life's goals, your children must embrace the following:"To achieve Total Success, I must be willing to accept Total Failure." By doing so, they will have nothing to fear from failure and, as a result, are liberated to pursue success with unrestrained gusto.