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Why Fear of Failure Can Keep You Stuck

There are many reasons why we are afraid of failure. Find out what yours is.

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Fear is one of the most powerful forces in life. It affects the decisions you make, the actions you take, and the outcomes you achieve. Who you are and what you do has at one point or another been influenced by fear. And while the primary role of fear is to protect you, fear very often becomes a significant obstacle that stands between you and your goals. Being successful relies to a large extent on knowing how to leverage fear.

Fear comes in many different forms. There are a variety of things that we are afraid of. Some are very specific, like dogs or spiders, and some are more general, like being afraid to try new things or speaking your mind in front of others. Among these different types of fear, there is one that can have a direct impact on your potential for success: fear of failure.

Fear of failure is the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reaction to the negative consequences you anticipate for failing to achieve a goal. It is the intense worry, the negative thinking, and the reluctance to take action you experience, when you imagine all the horrible things that could happen if you failed to achieve a goal.

Fear of failure can cause many headaches. The psychology literature outlines a whole list of problems related to atychiphobia (the geeky name for fear of failure). In the short-run, fear of failure influences the types of goals you pursue, the kinds of strategies you use to achieve them, and the level of standards you set as indicators of success. When choosing which goals to pursue, people with a higher dose of fear of failure tend to focus their efforts more on preventing losses than achieving gains. For example, they may choose to work overtime because they don’t want to be perceived as slackers by their managers and thus risk getting fired, instead of working overtime to finish a new project that they hope will have a huge impact on their career. In addition, they tend to avoid situations in which they expect they will be evaluated and judged. For example, they may avoid making a sales pitch to an important client, for fear of failing to be persuasive enough to close the deal. Conversely, they may set lower standards for themselves on purpose, even though they know they can do better. In the previous example, they would switch the target from closing the deal, to simply making the phone call. Aiming to simply make the call has a much lower risk of failure than attempting to close a deal. In addition, people with fear of failure create obstacles intentionally, a process called self-handicapping, to undermine their efforts to achieve a goal, so that they can later blame the obstacles, rather than themselves. For example, they may schedule the sales call at lunch, when their prospective client is probably unavailable, so that they can attribute the lack of success to never having connected with the client.

In the long-run, fear of failure could cause even bigger problems that affect a person’s physical and mental health. People with fear of failure often experience fatigue and low energy, they feel emotionally drained, they are more dissatisfied with their lives, they experience chronic worry and hopelessness, and their performance in the relevant domains becomes objectively worse.

Let’s break it down

While we often talk about fear of failure as a unitary concept, researchers in this domain posit that fear of failure is multifaceted. There are different types of consequences that we fear we will suffer, should we fail to achieve our goal. This means that each time we experience fear of failure it may be for a different reason, and depending on the reason, we will react to and cope with our fear differently.

What are the consequences of failing that scare us enough to prevent us from trying?

1. Failing is embarrassing

No one is proud of failing. People don’t congratulate one another for failing to lose weight, failing to graduate, or failing to advance in their careers. In fact, if there is a feeling that failing never causes, that would be pride. But it does cause shame. Failing is embarrassing. What will people think? How can I tell them that I wasn’t able to get the promotion, write the book, or pass my licensing exam? Will they think I am not trying hard enough or that I am not meant to achieve big things? Will they feel sorry for me? When your headspace is occupied with such thoughts, fear of failure intensifies and blocks you from taking action.

2. Failing means I don’t have what it takes

Success, for many people, is intertwined with their sense of self-worth. It is a form of validation that they have what it takes to be successful. Success, and consequently failure, is a measure of who they are. Therefore, they interpret failing as evidence that that they aren’t smart, skilled or talented enough to succeed. So, you may choose not to try at all or to go for the low hanging fruit, because not going after an important goal is less painful than finding out that you are not competent enough to achieve it.

3. Failing means I’m stuck

The reason we so fervently—and sometimes desperately—set goals is so that we can control our future. Success means you can shape your future the way you want it. But failure makes the future uncertain. What will happen if I fail? What will I do if my plans don’t come through? How will I manage the losses? Will I ever create the life I want? The fear of an uncertain future can be powerful enough to keep you stuck in a less than ideal, but relatively unambiguous present.

4. Failing means I’ll become irrelevant

Given society’s obsession with success and successful people, there is an implicit fear that failure is social suicide. Failing means that people will lose interest in you and eventually forget about you. If they don’t see a winner in you, they may no longer be willing to help you or work with you. You worry that failing means losing the opportunity to increase your social influence and be sought after. In short, you fear that if word goes around that you failed to achieve your goal, your social stock will plummet.

5. Failing means letting people down

Another consequence of failing is the impact you imagine your lack of success could have on others. You assume that failing to achieve your goal will leave many important people in your life, like your family, your friends, or your employers, disappointed. The people that matter to you will be unhappy that you aren’t able to deliver on your promises, they will criticize your shortcomings, and they will lose trust in you.

6. Failing means I have a lot to lose

From a practical point of view, failure translates into actual losses. If you are failing a class in school and have to take it over, that translates into a couple thousand of dollars per credit. If your business is failing to become profitable, you will have wasted your savings, which you used up to get it off the ground. And what about your time and effort? If your pursuit doesn’t yield results, you have wasted time and energy that you could have allocated to other tasks and projects.

These are some of the consequences of failing that keep people worried and anxious and prevent them from pursuing challenging goals. The alternative, of course, is even worse. Choosing not to pursue these goals means never giving them a chance to materialize. Fear of failure keeps you safe, but small. It doesn’t allow you to try new things, to take on new challenges, or to expose yourself to new situations. But it doesn’t have to. You can conquer the fear of failure easily when you understand better what causes it and how it affects you. Which of these consequences are you mostly scared of?