Everyone hates to fail but for some people failing presents such a significant psychological threat their motivation to avoid failure exceeds their motivation to succeed. This fear of failure causes them to unconsciously sabotage their chances of success in a variety of ways.
How Failure Can Pose a Significant Psychological Threat
Failing elicits many feelings such as disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, regret, and confusion that while unpleasant are usually not sufficient to trigger a full blown fear of failure. Indeed, even the term fear of failure is somewhat of a misnomer because it is not failure per se that underlies the behavior of people who have it. Rather, a fear of failure is essentially a fear of shame. People who have a fear of failure are motivated to avoid failing not because they cannot manage the basic emotions of disappointment, anger, and frustration that accompany such experiences but because failing also makes them feel deep shame.
Shame is a psychologically toxic emotion because instead of feeling bad about our actions (guilt) or efforts (regret) it makes us feel bad who we are as people. Shame gets to the core of our egos, our identities, our self-esteem, and our feelings of emotional well-being. The damaging nature of shame makes it urgent for those who have a fear of failure to avoid the psychological threats associated with failing by finding unconscious ways to mitigate the implications of a potential failure (for example, by buying unnecessary new clothes for a job interview instead of reading up on the company—which allows them to use the “I just didn’t have time to fully prepare’ excuse).
The 10 Signs You Might Have a Fear of Failure
The following are not official diagnostics but if you feel these criteria are very characteristic of you (‘very’ being an important distinguishing marker as we all feel these things to some extent), you might want to examine this issue further, either by doing more reading about it or talking to a mental health professional.
1. Failing makes you worry about what other people think about you.
2. Failing makes you worry about your ability to pursue the future you desire.
3. Failing makes you worry that people will lose interest in you.
4. Failing makes you worry about how smart or capable you are.
5. Failing makes you worry about disappointing people whose opinion you value.
6. You tend to tell people beforehand that you don’t expect to succeed in order to lower their expectations.
7. Once you fail at something you have trouble imagining what you could have done differently to succeed.
8. You often get last minute headaches, stomachaches, or other physical symptoms that prevent you from completing your preparation.
9. You often get distracted by tasks that prevent you from completing your preparation that in hindsight were not as urgent as they seemed at the time.
10. You tend to procrastinate and ‘run out of time’ to complete you preparation adequately (read procrastination expert, Dr. Timothy Pychyl’s article about fear of failure here).
What to Do When You Have a Fear of Failure
The primary problem with addressing a fear of failure is that it tends to operate on an unconscious level. For example, you might feel it’s essential to finish writing out your Christmas cards because you promised to send them off by the end of the weekend—even though you’re about to take your final exams. There are two important things you can do to conquer the maladaptive ways a fear of failure can influence your behavior:
1. Own the fear. It is important to accept that failure makes you feel both fear and shame and to find trusted others with whom you can discuss these feelings. Bringing these feelings to the surface can help prevent you from expressing them via unconscious efforts to sabotage yourself and getting reassurance and empathy from trusted others can bolster your feelings of self-worth and minimize the threat of disappointing them.
2. Focus on aspects in your control. Identify aspects of the task or preparation that are in your control and focus on those. Brainstorm ways to reframe aspects of the task that seem out of your control such that you regain control of them. For example, If you’ve failed to find work because you just don’t know the ‘right people’, set the goal of expanding your network by going through your address book, Facebook and social media contacts, and reaching out to everyone you know even if they are not in your field as they might know someone who is.
For more about failure view my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:
For more about the many other ways failure impacts us negatively and what you can do about it, check out my book: Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
Copyright 2013 Guy Winch
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Teaser image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net