Fear

5 Thought Patterns That Fuel the Fear of Failure

Practical tools to overcome these patterns and reduce anxiety.

Posted Feb 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

Steve Halama/Unsplash
Source: Steve Halama/Unsplash

The need to achieve is engrained in our DNA.

Spend a few minutes talking to someone and their deepest ambitions will come to light. It may be pursuing a job promotion, earning a degree, finding a life partner, or starting a business. As a psychiatrist, I have the privilege of sitting in the front row as people share with me their deepest aspirations. 

Unfortunately, I have witnessed countless dreams fall to ashes not because of failed attempts but because of the Failure to Attempt. There is an anxiety that keeps us anchored and prevents us from moving towards our goals. Our fear of failure keeps us frozen in place as the train of life passes us by. 

Our mind generates inaccurate thoughts, known as cognitive distortions, which fuel our fear of failure. By correcting these thoughts, we can reduce this anxiety and get back on track to reach our goals.

Here are five cognitive distortions and how to overcome them. 

1. Failure is personal. We take failure personally and forget that it's a universal human experience. Everyone experiences failure.

We compare ourselves to successful people and forget that they have also experienced many letdowns on their journey to the top. 

As an example, consider the words of Michael Jordan, the legendary basketball player. He said, "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

Let us also consider Thomas Edison who was the driving force behind innovations such as the light bulb and motion picture cameras. He said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

If legends such as Jordan and Edison have experienced failures then how could you or I be exempt from this universal experience? The key is not to take failure personally but recognize it as a valuable learning experience that we all go through.  

2. The cost of failure is great. We magnify our fear of failure by jumping to the conclusion that there will be great fallout if we fail. As a result, we avoid applying for a job promotion, the school of our interest or even asking someone out for a cup of coffee. 

We jump to conclusions without questioning their validity. For example, how much do you stand to lose if you are rejected for that job promotion, school application, or date?

I conceptualize opportunity as being offered a key that may unlock a door. Your life may improve by walking through it. Any time you take a chance, you are simply grabbing a key to unlock the door. What is the worst that can happen if the key fails to work? You are stuck in the same reality holding a seemingly useless key.

Remember that not taking any action towards your goals is the equivalent of declining a key. By falling for the fear of failure, you are guaranteeing the outcome. There is a zero percent chance of the door opening. Why not grab a key and give yourself a chance?

3. There is no benefit to failure. We have a tendency to fixate on the negative aspects of failure and filter out its potential benefits. We avoid pursuing our goals because we dread the disappointment and shame that may result from failing. However, we forget that failure is a valuable life experience because it provides us with a golden opportunity to learn and grow. I would even argue that we grow more from our failures than our successes. 

As a personal example, I applied to a number of psychiatry residency programs during my final year of medical school. As part of the match process, I ranked the residency programs in my order of preference. When the results arrived on Match Day, I found out that I landed on my second choice. As an achievement-oriented individual, I was initially disappointed that I had failed to land my top choice. Looking back, I am grateful for the way things turned out. By landing in Cleveland, I met my wife—and the rest is history. 

4. If I fail, then I am a failure. Failure is emotionally painful because we interpret it as a personal indictment. When we fail, we experience shame and a reduction in self-worth.

Failure has no reflection on your self-worth. It may be an indication that you have room for personal growth and need to go back to the drawing board to hone your skills. 

You may have even failed because you were simply unlucky. For example, you may have been a strong applicant for a job opening but you were competing against hundreds of other strong applicants. 

However, your self-worth is not determined by your level of achievement. No amount of success makes you more worthy. No amount of failure makes you less worthy. Your self-worth is an essential and undeniable part of your humanity. You are worthy because you are human. 

5. I have nothing to lose by staying put. We avoid taking action because we fixate exclusively on what might go wrong. However, we fail to consider that there are two sides to each coin. Keeping the status quo can come at a great cost.

As an example, imagine that you are working for a company that is hemorrhaging money. You are hearing whispers that layoffs are imminent. You may be afraid of your job security but decide not to explore your options for fear that no one will hire you. Hence, you put your head down and hope for the best. 

Can you see how staying put in such a scenario can come at a great cost? You are putting all your eggs in a brittle basket by hoping that your company turns it around or that you are spared during the layoffs. Why not respond to the warning signs by taking action? You may update your resume, explore job openings in your market or even talk to a recruiter.  

You relinquish your agency by allowing the fear of failure to take over. I find this more anxiety-provoking than the fear of failure. I would rather take matters into my own hands and fail on an endeavor than allow others to dictate my fate. At least I will learn a thing or two in the process of failing. 

Remember that you do not live in a bubble. The cost of staying put does not only affect you. It also affects those around you. By falling for the fear of failure, you are depriving your loved ones of the benefits that come from pursuing your fullest potential. 

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