The Fear of Failure

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Most people can’t stand the thought of failing.  But for some, failing can be so significant that it actually affects their motivations to succeed.  Add on to the fact that their fear causes them to unconsciously sabotage their chances of succeeding… and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.


Failing causes us to feel emotions such as sadness, anger and frustration.  Most notably, a fear of failure can cause us to feel shame.  Therefore we may become motivated to avoid failing because they don’t want to feel ashamed.


In general, we do not like to feel shame because it makes us feel bad about ourselves and can lower our self-esteem.  The damaging effects of feeling shame can cause us to avoid potential situations that might cause us to feel shameful.  For example, a high school basketball player might report suffering from a fake injury in order to avoid having to compete against a tough rival that’s deemed “unbeatable”.


Signs that indicate you may have a fear of failure include:


  1. You worry about what other people will think about you and disappointing others; particularly those whose opinion you value the most.
  2. Failing causes you to question your abilities and level of competency constantly.
  3. You tell people beforehand that you do not expect to succeed in order to lower their expectations.
  4. You get last minute physical symptoms.  For example: Headaches, stomachaches, and other body pains that prevent you from performing.
  5. Tasks that prevent you from adequately preparing to perform distract you easily.  For example: You spend time decorating your apartment for Halloween in order to avoid studying for your mid-terms.


So, what can you do if you have a fear of failure?


The most challenging aspect of addressing a fear of failure is that it tends to operate at an unconscious level.  You may not even be aware that your behaviors are motivated by a fear of failure!  The good news is that there are a few things that you can do to help overcome the maladaptive ways fear of failure can have on you:


  1. Acknowledge and confront the fear.  You must be able to accept that failure makes you feel fear and shame and it is important to find others whom you trust and can discuss these feelings with.  Talking about your fears, with trusted friends, helps you to express them at a conscious level and reduces the likelihood that you will express your feelings in an unconscious way which can lead to sabotaging yourself.  Getting reassurance and empathy from others that you trust can help you to minimize your fears and decrease the threat of disappointing those who matter most to you.
  2. Write your fears downResearch has shown that writing down your fears helps to reduce worry and fears prior to performance.  Some people do not feel comfortable openly discussing their feelings so writing them down is a great alternative and can have the same benefits as talking about them.
  3. Identify and focus on the aspects of the fear that are in your control.  For the aspects that you think are out of your control, try to find ways that you might be able to regain control of them.  For example, if you failed your exam because “the test was too hard”, set the goal of preparing yourself better for the next exam which can include things like increasing the amount of time you studied, joining a study group, or taking more practice exams.

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Kimberly Wagner, Psy.D. PSY 25460
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April 2024
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