Most of us are afraid to fail—especially when working toward something we care about.
We think we’ll embarrass ourselves, lose respect, or let down our team.
We imagine we’ll ruin our career or otherwise cause irrevocable damage to our life or business.
We see success and failure as mutually exclusive. We either win, or we lose. We do, or we don’t.
So, we learn to play it safe. We choose the work and roles that we know we can do. We set goals that we know we can make. We avoid taking risks—or dreaming too big—or stepping too far outside our comfort zone.
We allow our fear of failure to dictate our decisions and actions. As a result, we sell ourselves—and our potential—short.
Get to the Source
Ignoring or suppressing your fears isn’t going to make them go away. Instead, it’s better to acknowledge your fears—and identify their causes—to lessen their hold over you.
Understanding the source of our fears can be an effective first step toward liberating them. In addition, recognizing why you feel afraid can lessen the power that fear has over you. So, here are four of the top factors that contribute to a fear of failure. Which of these most resonates with you?
- You’re afraid of being embarrassed, judged, or rejected by others. Sometimes, a fear of failure is rooted in anxieties about how others might react to our failures. For example, you might wonder: “What would my boss, coworkers, friends, or family think of me?”
- You feel ashamed when you fail. Shame is another powerful emotion that can contribute to a fear of failure. Instead of feeling bad about a specific action, result, or behavior, failure may lead some people to feel bad about who they are as people. That can threaten their sense of self-worth.
- You believe you’re incapable and don’t want to shatter your dreams. Imagine that you’ve always dreamed of opening your own business. You may experience a paralyzing fear of failure if you subconsciously believe you aren’t capable of succeeding. You might believe that if you pursue your own business and fail, then your lifelong dream will be irrevocably shattered.
- You imagine the worst-case scenario. On a similar note, those who fear failure tend to imagine the worst-case scenario. This is also known as catastrophic thinking. It happens when you ruminate on irrational and worst-case outcomes of failure—such as losing your job, going bankrupt, or losing the respect of your peers.
5 Tips to Overcome Your Fear of Failure
1. Focus on Factors Within Your Control – The first tip is to focus on factors within your control. You can often find peace in knowing that you’ve done everything in your power to ensure a positive outcome. That way, even if you do fail, you’ll know that there was nothing you could have done differently. You tried your best.
2. Examine Your Worst-Case Scenario – Another tip is to take a hard look at your worst-case scenario. For example, ask yourself, “What am I afraid will happen?” Or, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
3. Reflect on the Benefits of Past Failures – The third tip is also helpful for dispelling irrational fears or faulty assumptions. It’s to reflect on the benefits of past failures. You can consider your own past failures—or the past failures of others. How was failure necessary? What did failure teach you or others? That leads to our next suggestion.
4. Prioritize Learning and Growth – The next tip is to incorporate learning and growth in your definition of success and conversations about failure. For example, if you experience failure, ask yourself questions, such as:
- What can I learn from this situation?
- What progress have I made?
- How might this situation help me develop or grow?
- Track your progress, and remember that success takes different forms. For example, success can mean challenging yourself, stepping outside of your comfort zone, learning something new, or doing better than you did before.
5. Consider the Consequences of Inaction – Finally, the last tip we’ll cover is considering the consequences of inaction. Instead of ruminating on what might happen if you fail, ask yourself what might happen if you don’t take action or settle for less.
Be more concerned about unrealized potential, complacency, and regret than you are afraid of failure. Instead of avoiding failure—avoid missed opportunities.
Reframing your thinking about failure can help lessen your fears and manage them better. But there’s another effective strategy: You can also take action despite your fears. So even if you cannot control your fear of failure, you can still control your actions in the face of fear.
Facing your fear of failure is key to being a continuous learner.