“When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.” — Eloise Ristad
It's almost impossible to go through life without experiencing some kind of failure, especially in the pursuit of challenging goals.
So why do we feel like we’re doing something wrong when it inevitably happens? Why do we feel incompetent or ashamed of ourselves, rather than recognising that discomfort is a sign of growth, and failure is an opportunity to learn and improve?
If we don’t change how we relate to failure, we risk holding ourselves back in life.
When our fear of failure is overwhelming, we may live so cautiously that we never really give things a real go. Failing can make us feel worthless, so we avoid trying in the first place to protect ourselves from disappointment and regret. Or, when we do try, it’s accompanied by so much stress and anxiety that we feel miserable.
By learning to cope with failure, we allow ourselves to take more risks and try new things. We can laugh at ourselves. Be more decisive. Admit mistakes. Accept responsibility. Work on our weaknesses.
Ultimately, when we cope with our fear of failure, we enable ourselves to learn and grow.
This article will teach you how.
Understanding Fear of Failure
We only fear failure if we perceive it to be a bad thing.
Let that sink in.
It’s not the failure itself, but the consequences of failure that we’re scared of and threatened by . The more strongly we believe that the consequences would be terrible, the more fearful we will be .
So what are we scared of? Research suggests there are five main fears :
Experiencing shame and embarrassment
Thinking less of ourselves
Having an uncertain future
Other people losing interest
Upsetting important others
At the core, fear of failure is often linked to fear of rejection or being judged as inadequate.
If we didn’t think that anything bad was going to happen, then why on earth would we be scared?
Let’s use an example
Jennifer and Luke are both competing in powerlifting this weekend.
Jennifer is terrified that she won’t perform at her best. She’s afraid of letting her coach down and worried that others will think that she’s weak. She’ll also feel ashamed if she disappoints herself. As a result she’s been so stressed that she can barely get through her training sessions, is constantly comparing herself to other competitors and has been snapping at her partner because she’s so nervous. She’s left wondering why she puts herself through it and whether this sport is really for her.
Luke is a little nervous about the competition and really wants to do well, but knows that nothing bad will actually happen if he doesn’t perform at his best. He knows that he has put a lot of effort into working on his weaknesses and is excited for the opportunity to see how far he has come. He is likely to feel disappointed if things don’t go to plan, but understands that this is the nature of competing. He knows that a single performance doesn’t reflect his worth as an athlete or a person.
Want to be more like Luke? If so, it might be a good idea to keep reading.
Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will – Suzy Kassem
Overcoming Fear of Failure
Now here’s the important thing…
Our fear of failure is learned .
Meaning we can unlearn it.
Step one: Avoid personalising, overgeneralising or catastrophising failure
We tend to judge ourselves when we fail. We take a single poor performance to mean that we always do badly and are doomed to fail forever. Not only that, but we are less worthy because of it. If other people find out, they’ll think poorly of us. We feel like we can’t handle that possibility.
If you fall into this trap, you can challenge your thoughts by slowing down and asking yourself for evidence for your assumptions.
When have you been successful in the past?
What is the worst thing that could really happen, and how likely is it?
How might you handle this if it does occur?
Even if some people reject you, is that unbearable or just unpleasant?
Step two: Redefine failure as learning opportunity
Is success about doing something well? Or not doing something bad?
When you’re fearful of failure, you’re pushed around by the latter belief.
Striving for success is challenging. It involves growth. If you set yourself a goal and don’t develop in any way whatsoever throughout the process…how much have you really gained from it?
Remember that failure isn’t permanent. Rather than viewing it as an insurmountable obstacle, learn to see your failures as feedback on your current skill set.
When you stumble, ask yourself:
What did I learn from this situation?
How can I grow as a person from this experience?
Step three: Stop tying your self worth to your accomplishments
It will be difficult to handle failure if your entire worth as a person depends on being successful. Learn to separate your self worth from your accomplishments.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother trying to accomplish anything. Of course not.
It’s just about keeping your preferences in check. Refrain from elevating your perfectly natural desires into absolute musts.
You may prefer to do well, but this does not mean that you always will do well, or that you must.
Step four: Check your comparisons
Oftentimes, our definition of success is largely influenced by what everyone else is doing… If you feel like you’ve failed because you’re not as smart/successful/strong/sexy as the next person, ask yourself these questions.
1. Catch yourself:
Who am I comparing myself to?
Are my comparisons helping me?
Might my comparisons be biased?
2. Check yourself:
How am I assessing this person?
Why am I using this person's life to determine MY standards?
What do I know about this person? What do I NOT know? What might be different about their life than mine?
What am I failing to take into consideration?
What's inspiring about this comparison? How can I use what I'm seeing to feel empowered or motivated?
Step five: Set the right goals - choose ones that matter to you
When we’re motivated by a fear of failure, we tend to pursue goals that help us to avoid an outcome, rather than to achieve something important to us. For example, we might want to lose fat so that we avoid being rejected by others, rather than finding a form of exercise that we enjoy, or adopting nutrition habits that support our health.
Are you largely focused on improving yourself and moving towards something beneficial?
Or are you focused on proving yourself and moving away from something undesirable?
Avoiding failure will likely coincide with feelings of anxiety and ultimately makes it a whole lot harder to achieve success. If our goals aren’t really our own, we also run the risk of never being truly satisfied.
Why are your goals important to you?
If this is something you’d like to consider further, I encourage you to clarify your personal values and use those to guide your goal-setting.
Step six: Drop the self-depreciation for constructive self talk
Think about the last time you were beating yourself up over a mistake. Did it make you feel better? Did it motivate you to try harder next time? Was it helpful? Contrary to what we believe, self-criticism is negatively associated with goal-attainment. It can lead to rumination or procrastination, which doesn’t exactly help us to work on our weaknesses.
You can learn how to correct your behaviours and work on your weaknesses without putting yourself down.
Next time you feel yourself being critical, ask yourself the following:
What advice would I give to a friend I deeply care about who was thinking and feeling this way?
What are some other ways of viewing this situation that might be more realistic, kinder or more helpful to me?
Learn more about challenging self-defeating self-talk HERE.
Step seven: Problem solve and move on
Now that you’ve faced your failure and recognised that oh, guess what, you’re human, and even learned some lessons…
You’re in a great position to take constructive action, if that’s something you should wish to do.
Effective problem solving involves brainstorming different solutions to your challenging situation, weighing up the pros and cons, designing a plan, implementing it and reflecting.
Step eight: Expose yourself to failure by taking risks
By actively exposing yourself to failure, you will learn that failure is not as frightening as you may believe it to be. You’ll discover that your worst fears don’t actually come true, or that, even if they do, the consequences aren’t as bad as you think.
If you never fail at anything, it could be that the reason for your ‘success’ is that you avoid doing difficult things.
Design risk-taking activities where you combat your fear of failure and learn that it’s not the end of the world. These activities should be slightly uncomfortable and challenging but not overwhelming.
Activities may include: Having an honest conversation about something on your mind, signing up for a competition, meeting new people, speaking in front of an audience, travel to a new country.
How can you step outside of your comfort zone?
Failure is inevitable. Unless, of course, you avoid doing hard things.
Failure is an opportunity to learn and grow.
It’s not failure we’re scared of. It’s really a fear of rejection or being judged as inadequate.
You can overcome this fear and experience more out of life by following the 8 steps above.
If you feel like you’re constantly failing your health and fitness goals, reach out HERE for more support.
 Conroy, D.E. (2001). Fear of failure: An exemplar for social development research in sport. Quest, 53, 165–183.
 Conroy, D.E., Poczwardowski, A., & Henschen, K.P. (2001). Evaluative criteria and con- sequences associated with failure and success for elite athletes and performing artists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13, 300–322
 Conroy D.E., Willow J.P., Metzler J.N. Multidimensional fear of failure measurement: The performance failure appraisal. J. Appl. Sport Psychol. 2002;14:76–90. doi:10.1080/10413200252907752.
 Conroy, D.E., & Elliot, A.J. (2004). Fear of failure and achievement goals in sport: Addressing the issue of the chicken and the egg. Anxiety, Stress, &. Coping, 17, 271–286.
 Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2 × 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(3), 501–519. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.521
 Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Zuroff, D. C. (2007). Self-criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(7), 826–840.https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2007.26.7.826