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How To Take Charge of Your Fear of Failure

What children and small business owners can show us about going for it.

Purchased from Deposit Photos/Adorable boy playing Colorful Abacus
Source: Purchased from Deposit Photos/Adorable boy playing Colorful Abacus

Psychologists have been studying the fear of failure and motivation in the face of risk-taking since at least the 1950's (Atkinson, 1957).

The challenge of taking charge of our failure fears cuts across groups--from children to adults, and across industries and cultures. In addition, though we've learned a lot, the fear of failure continues to delay both societal and interpersonal progress, stopping many from "going for it" in life.

Here are a few recent hints to be gleaned from children, college students, and entrepreneurs/small business owners on overcoming your failure fears:

Hint 1: Increase your positive self-statements when the task looks too hard. Practice statements that encourage persistence in the face of setbacks. These might include statements like, "If I persist, I can figure it out," or, "I can do it," or, "It's okay that I made a mistake. I'm proud of myself for trying."

  • The research: We can look to recently published research on children with ADHD, who may be more sensitive to failure experiences than children without ADHD, to see why this step makes sense when your task is hard.
  • What if you had the choice between 2 computer games? Both games had an equal chance of rewarding you. However, one would lead you to fail 4 times more than the other. Each time you win, you get 10 points. Each time you lose, you lose 5 points and hear laughter. You start with 20 points, and when you reach 400 points (or 300 trials), the game is over.
  • The findings: Researcher Professor Gail Tripp found that while all children in her study developed a bias for the less punishing game, children with ADHD were far more sensitive to the point-losses and laughter punishments. While typically developing children stayed focused on winning, children with ADHD became more distracted by the punishment, spending more of their time avoiding it than focusing on winning.
  • Encouragement helps: According to Tripp, "The more effortful a task is, the more incentives a child is going to need to keep persisting, and simple but frequent rewards, such as smiles or words of encouragements, can help children with ADHD to stay on the task." (cited in Science Daily)

Hint 2: Adopt a Silicon Valley mindset to failing.

 Young roped businessman–© silentgor
Source: Purchased from Deposit Photos: Young roped businessman–© silentgor
  • An interesting initiative: Debra Lehr reported that if you read the fine print of China's initiative to small business people, you might discover that a cultural sensitivity to failure is limiting tech and service business launches. She states, "On June 17, China announced 100 measures to support Chinese entrepreneurs, particularly in the tech and service industries. Tucked into the fine print is an offer to counsel businessmen in overcoming their fear of failure — and coping with failure when it does occur, in the cutthroat, breakneck pace of China’s booming small business sector."
  • Silicon Valley mindset: Lehr continues, "Cultural differences in entrepreneurship can be instructive to the Chinese. In the US, Silicon Valley rewards the testing of new business ideas. Failure is considered perhaps the most important key to success. Most of the successful US business leaders have failed or gone broke - many times."

Hint 3. Shame attacking. It's been known for sometime that you'll be more likely to fear failure if you associate failure with shame. Dr. Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, created the technique called "shame attacking" to contradict ego-anxiety, or the anxiety that arises from the belief that personal worth is ratable and at risk when behavior doesn't create socially valued outcomes.

  • The research: In older research, McGregor and Elliot found that college students who scored high in fear of failure reported greater shame upon a perceived failure experience than those who scored low in fear of failure. In the lab, people who scored high on a fear of failure and reported parental shaming as children also said they had greater shame, and that they'd be more likely to hide their failures and report only their successes to their parents.
  • A possible takeaway for you: Attack your shame to get over your fear of failure, especially if you encountered parental shaming as a child. Slowly begin to share your failures instead of hiding them. When you keep your failures a secret, then you give them power, you spend your energy hiding, you become risk averse, and you stay fearful. Dis-empower your failures to take the shame away, begin taking small risks, and share both wins and losses with others.

Hint 4. Stop pretending it's permanent. Remember that your fear level can change like the weather, and therefore both fear and failure are impermanent.

  • The research: As fear is so closely linked to survival, studies of those who experience the modern day perception that their survival is threatened become an interesting population to study. According to Cacciotti and others (2016) who studied entrepreneurs, fears of failure are best described using a dynamic model, as they're situation and socially based, in addition to based upon their cognition. They identified 6 factors which they used to create a more useful model of fear for small business owners, and others who are taking calculated risks. These factors included: financial security, personal ability, ability to finance the venture, potential of the idea, social esteem, the venture's ability to execute, and opportunity costs.
  • Implications: If the experience of fear can change in you from one minute to the next, don't use an instance of high fear to determine whether or not to proceed on a potentially useful risk. Instead, address the concerns beneath the fear and build upon what accentuates your courage so you can take calculated risks. Cognitive therapists discourage against "emotional reasoning," or using one's feelings to determine whether or not to take an action. They encourage you to recognize that just because you fear something, it doesn't mean that it is worthy of avoidance.

Hint 5: Re-evaluate the consequences of failing and imperfection. While some believe perfectionism is at the root of a fear of failure, it doesn't seem to be the case. Conroy and others (2007) suggest that specific beliefs about the consequences of failure are key factors in your failure fears.

If you cannot get past these fears yourself, consider getting the help of a psychologist who uses modalities which help you to question your assumptions.

  • Current effective work in helping people to overcoming failure fears are often based in a cognitive behavioral approach.
  • These include accurate diagnosis followed by appropriate interventions.
  • Interventions from this approach commonly include teaching people to relax and self-soothe, helping them to look at their experience differently (called cognitive restructuring), helping people to visualize overcoming their fears (such as in covert desensitization and covert rehearsal), helping people to gradually expose themselves to what they fear (such as in systematic desensitization), and helping people to stay in there (rather than escaping or avoiding what they fear).


Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational determinants of risk-taking behavior. Psychological Review, 64, 359–372.

Cacciotti, G., Hayton, J. C., Mitchell, J. R., & Giazitzoglu, A. (2016). A reconceptualization of fear of failure in entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Venturing, 31(3), 302. Retrieved from…

Conroy, D. E., Kaye, M. P., & Fifer, A. M. (2007). Cognitive links between fear of failure and perfectionism. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 25(4), 237-253. Retrieved from…

Lehr, D. (2015). Overcoming the fear of failure: Boosting small business in china.

McGregor, H. A., & Elliot, A. J. (2005). The shame of failure: Examining the link between fear of failure and shame. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(2), 218-231. Retrieved from…

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University - OIST. (2016, September 23). Ouch! Avoiding failure leads to missed opportunities for children with ADHD. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 7, 2017 from

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