How to manage the fear of failure… and of success

Fear of failure

Most of us have objectives, projects, dreams, plans to improve our lives. It can be anything from the simplest, like making a garden on the balcony, a short trip… to something more transcendental, like moving to another city, changing careers, etc. However, we cannot always accomplish everything we set out to do. Sometimes it is simply not possible, because there are real impediments to taking the step. On other occasions, it is not impossible, but there are difficulties, so we do not feel capable, or we are not sufficiently motivated: due to lack of energy, lack of time, because we prioritize other areas…

Each person will find different reasons to stop pursuing their goals. However, we are not here to talk about those reasons coming from the context, but rather about those more internal, deeper reasons.

The main reason that will drive us to pursue our goals is the enthusiasm they awaken in us, the prosperity that we believe they will bring us. On the other hand, the reason that will keep us further away from them is fear. Fear of what? Fear of the risks that this career entails: Risk of losing money, risk of not finding a job, risk of making mistakes, risk of becoming excessively stressed… and ultimately, risk of it going wrong, of “failure.”

Sometimes, we base our decision to abandon ourselves on contextual reasons, those that we do not control as much, when indeed what paralyzes us is fear. “I can’t travel because I don’t have money”; “I don’t study because I need to work”; “I don’t eat healthier because I don’t have time…” All these examples might be justifications that we tell ourselves for not accepting that we are afraid of.

Why are we afraid?

Causes of fear of failure

Fear is an emotion that appears naturally, especially in the face of uncertainty, or when we anticipate certain danger. It is intelligent and necessary to start weighing pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, possible consequences, etc. Fear will prompt us to do that analysis and help us prepare to take the step. If this happens, the fear will be fulfilling its function correctly, but sometimes, that fear is too great and will paralyze us. We will focus our attention only on the inconveniences and we will find ourselves unable to cope with them.

There are people who may have a greater tendency to abandon their goals, to be more indecisive, more insecure. Why is this happening? The reasons may be several.

Some very common ones are:

  1. Having grown up in invalidating environments: if a father, mother, caregiver, grandfather, teacher… or other type of reference has continuously had a critical attitude towards us in childhood, it is possible that we have internalized their messages. Phrases like “you’re not good for this”, “you won’t achieve anything in life” or “You don’t know anything…” are messages that can penetrate very deeply in the person who receives them, to the point that they become part of our internal speech. We become very self-critical people and tend to devalue ourselves.
  2. Low self-esteem and chronic feeling of inability: the person who has low self-esteem usually believes that they are not capable of doing what they set out to do. This low self-esteem is not formed the same in all people. It can be formed through a disabling environment, like the previous one, but also, for example, in overprotective environments, in which we are overly alerted to dangers, thus not allowing us to experience the error and lose our fear of it.
  3. Previous experiences of failure: having failed, especially if it was something we gave importance to, can form in us the idea that we are not valid. If, furthermore, we already started with a low self-concept, these experiences serve to reaffirm it.
  4. Excessive self-demand: it is not only failure, but more importantly, what each person considers a failure. The stricter the criteria for discerning between failure and success, the easier it will be for us to feel like failures. For example, if for someone a 9.5/10 on an exam is a complete failure, they are obviously pushing themselves too hard, so it is easy for them to feel like a failure frequently. These same people are usually the ones who take on more work or responsibility than they can handle.

So, if we removed that fear of failure, would we achieve everything we want? Not always, obviously, because not everything depends on our efforts, but possibly we would try more. So what do we do with that fear?

How to overcome the fear of failure

How to overcome the fear of failure?

The first thing we must do is answer two questions:

  1. What is a failure for me? We must review how strict we are with ourselves, and what kind of things we care about. For example, for someone, not billing a certain amount in their business may be a failure, but for another it may be spending too much time on their work.
  2. What does it say about me that I have failed? That is, what idea about myself does the fact of “having failed” affirm? Does it mean that I am stupid? that I am a bad professional? that I am not a good father?… This should lead us to ask ourselves: How difficult is what I propose to do? Does it depend only on me? Am I right to force myself to do it perfect?

After answering those questions, think:

  1. What consequences can my “failure” bring? May they be disappointed in me, may they fire me, may I lose money, may I have to start over…
  2. 90% of the things we fear don’t end up happening. Try to see which ones are most likely and how you could prevent them.
  3. If any of them are uncontrollable, ask yourself… Am I willing to accept it? Could I handle it?

And finally, ask yourself if what scares you is actually not failure, but success!

This is a much more camouflaged fear, because only good things are attributed to success, but there is a trap indeed. The fear of success can operate through a more unconscious mechanism, in which our mind boycotts us. Our minds can be stressed by the commitment that comes with being successful. For example, in a business, if you are successful, it can be translated into more work, less time, more stress, more responsibility…. Which can be predicted with fear and makes us decide that it is better not to dare to take the step. Sometimes, predicting success means seeing ourselves obliged to maintain it, something we can fear, because it would perpetuate our self-demand.

After all, we will have to understand that every decision we make is not risk-free. It is very likely that you will never be 100% sure about taking the step… but many times you don’t need to be.

Therefore, the definitive way to fight the fear of failure is to test yourself. That is, make decisions and face their consequences, whether good or bad. You can start with the things that scare you the least.

If you think that the fear of failure (or success) is something that is preventing you from living the life you want and you don’t know how to manage it, you can go to a general health psychologist. She/he can help you analyse the root of your problem and design steps to overcome it.

Guillem Nicolau Coll
General Health Psychologist