Fear of failure is the intense worry you experience when you imagine all the horrible things that could happen if you failed to achieve a goal. The intense worry increases the odds of holding back or giving up. Being successful relies to a large extent on your ability to leverage fear.
What can you do to prevent fear of failure from setting you back?
1. Redefine failure as discrepancy.
Success is often hard to define. Failure is even harder.
What is your definition of failure? Giving up? Never going after your goals? Not achieving the desired outcome? Not achieving the desired outcome within an expected timeline? You may think that the answer to this question is obvious. But it is important to be clear about what you consider failure, since failure is the object of your fear and the obstacle to your success.
To make your goal pursuit fail-proof, switch from thinking about failures to thinking about discrepancies between what you hope to achieve and what you might achieve. Discrepancies provide you with information that you can study, explain, and learn from so you can recalibrate your future efforts.
As long as you continue making an effort, there is no room for failure. When you give up altogether, for no better reason than fear of failing, that’s a different story!
2. Distinguish between real and imagined threats.
Fear is our response to two kinds of threats: real and imagined. You already know the difference. Real threats pose a risk to our survival. Imagined threats are hypothetical scenarios. Delivering a speech in front of a group of people is an imagined threat because there is little risk to your survival. Delivering a speech in front of a pride of lions in the savanna is a real threat because they are not interested in hearing you, they are interested in eating you.
Fear of failure by definition involves imagined threats. And while the fear is real, the threat is not. For the time being, the threat is a prediction, a product of your imagination, a scenario you built. This doesn’t make your fear unfounded or irrational. But it makes it premature and unnecessary. Instead of letting it stop you, study it and plan how to avoid the consequences you’re scared of.
3. Create promotion rather than prevention goals.
The research on goal achievement suggests that there are two types of approaches that people take with respect to their goals: approach and avoidance. I like to call them promotion and prevention goals.
Promotion goals are about achieving a positive outcome (e.g., “I want to get a raise,” “I want to expand my client base,” or “I want to get a promotion”), while prevention goals are about avoiding a negative outcome (e.g., “I don’t want to lose my job” or “I hope I don’t get a negative review”). Prevention goals are associated with more disorganized approaches to goal pursuit, lower engagement, less self-determination, and more anxiety. Moreover, prevention goals lead to the creation of more prevention goals in the future.
Fear of failure leads to the creation of prevention goals, which may blur our focus, undermine our efforts, and make planning difficult. Reframing prevention goals as promotion goals is one way to take fear of failure out of the equation.
While most of us set promotion goals at one time and prevention goals at another, it is important to remember that how we frame our goals can obscure our intentions, delay implementation, and make it easier to give up.
4. Expect a good outcome but do not become attached to it.
The more attached you are to the outcome you envisioned when you set the goal, the more likely it is that you will interpret discrepancies from that desired outcome as failures. As circumstances change and as your experience changes you, what you initially saw as the ideal outcome may no longer be attainable, appropriate, or meaningful. However, if you choose not to re-evaluate or adjust the outcomes you expected, you will be stuck in discrepancy and convinced that you are failing. The research shows that people who reappraise their goals and are able to adjust either their approach or their expectations enjoy better physical and mental health.
Some goals require focus and persistence. Others, however, require openness and flexibility. Being able to reevaluate and redefine the outcome you hope to achieve is a good buffer against the fear of failure. We should evaluate our success by the amount of thought and effort we put forth, rather than by the outcome we achieved.
5. You are strong and you can prevail.
Fear of failure is not about the challenges ahead or the effort required. It is about the consequences we may suffer if we fail. We are not afraid of the work we have to do, but of the remote chance that our work will not be good enough to yield results that meet our standards.
Researchers on fear of failure have identified several negative consequences people with a fear of failure expect, including feelings of shame and embarrassment, a big-blow to self-esteem, the prospect of an uncertain future, the loss of social influence, and disappointing important others (more on this topic here). Notice that people estimate the psychological cost of failing to be much higher than the material cost. People with a fear of failure are less worried about losing money than about losing friends, losing face, or losing faith.
To attenuate fear of failure further, identify the consequences of failing that scare you the most and evaluate your ability to deal with these consequences. Instead of talking yourself out of the fear by hoping that nothing negative would happen, focus on building confidence to deal with the consequences.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Which of these consequences scare you the most?
- How much impact will they have on you? Are they merely unpleasant or life-threatening? Will they just make you feel uncomfortable or will they hurt you deeply and irreparably?
- How quickly will you move on? Are the consequences permanent or reversible? Are they short-lived or will they linger forever?
- How well can you handle them? Can you exercise damage control or will you hide and disappear?
Ultimately, what makes us fearless is not the fact that we do not experience fear, but that we are confident that we can deal with the consequences of our actions. That’s what makes people fearless and that’s what could help you become immune to fear of failure as well.