Throughout much of my adult life, I’ve worked to personify a laid-back, almost laissez-faire, attitude, but the truth is, I have deep desires and dreams that I hold very dearly. These are desires and dreams that keep me up at night because I want them to come true so badly, and I’m anxious that they won’t.
My dreams include becoming a successful writer and a better husband, but I often come up short when it comes to putting in the work it’s going to take to achieve them. Oddly enough, this has nothing to do with a lack of trying.
Most of the time, when I am unable to accomplish a goal, it’s because I lack the self-confidence to get it accomplished, which then manifests as fear: a fear of trying; a fear of allowing myself to be vulnerable; a fear of failure.
Why we’re afraid to fail
It’s hard to understand why we fear failure so much. Why would something like achieving our wildest dreams be so scary? There have been many nights where I’ve struggled to fall asleep because I couldn’t understand why I continued to make mistakes and excuses, only to hold myself back from achieving my dreams. This rumination often left me feeling even worse.
“The combination of the emotional turmoil and the negative thinking can drain a person's motivation, shut down their creativity, and shrink their confidence, so it makes it more likely that they will abandon their goal earlier and more often, in order to avoid the negative consequences they expect,” said Dr. Theo Tsaousides, a neuropsychologist and author who has written on the fear of failure for Psychology Today. “And no action means no progress means no goal achievement.”
This is often why it’s so difficult for me to pitch a story to one of my dream publications or try a really creative angle when working on a writing assignment. Through an exhausting inner dialogue, I end up attacking my self-worth to the point that I’m willing to give up. It’s just easier to avoid trying than to try and fail.
The reason we fear of failure is likely evolutionary. Thousands of years ago, fear was associated with imminent danger — it was an emotion that signified an immediate threat that needed to be avoided.
“Our physical body — our beings — are programmed to be alert for fear,” said Midge Thompson, a personal performance trainer and coach with Bright Futures Coaching. “Is there a mortal danger? Do I need to fight or take flight in order to survive?”
Fortunately, for many of us fear often does not equate to imminent danger, but we still have the same reaction to it.
Is fear of failure getting worse?
Deep down, we all know the areas where we feel inadequate, but for those of us in the social media generation, those feelings have been magnified.
Social media presents us with the best versions of other people and, because we can’t help but compare ourselves to them, these images can make us feel worse.
“We know that and yet we still go on and we still compare ourselves to the other person,” Thompson said. “You don't see the dark stuff, the tears, the angst, the trials, and the tribulations. You only see the best pictures.”
When I’m struggling with the fear of failure, I’m easily distracted from my work. I’ve learned that avoiding full investment is a coping mechanism.
“Fear of failure can manifest in many different ways,” Tsaousides said. “For example, people with fear of failure may experience self-doubt. They do not believe they have what it takes to succeed in their goal pursuit. They may think the goal is unattainable and may abandon it instead of persisting.”
“They think their ideas are not big enough, their work is not important enough, or that their knowledge on a subject matter is insufficient. They refrain from making bold choices and they stick with the familiar and comfortable ones.”
Other common fear-of-failure manifestations include perfectionism, negativity, and procrastination.
Tsaousides says that perfectionism is spending an inordinate amount of time trying to make sure a project is so great that there’s no way it could possibly be rejected. This can, of course, be exhausting and lead to never finishing the project because, at the end of the day, completely preventing rejection is impossible.
On the other hand, by far my most common problem is procrastinating. When I start to get anxious and down on myself, I find it easier to stop trying and go down a rabbit hole of news articles, Twitter, and YouTube videos. This can last for an uncontrollable amount of time and, in the end, usually makes me feel even worse.
“All of these behavioral reactions are fraught with high levels of anxiety,” Tsaousides said, “which is nothing more than worry about something hypothetical, something that hasn't happened yet.”
How to overcome it
There are a few different strategies that can effectively combat a fear of failure.
It helps me to get up and move. Rather than giving myself a break by surfing the internet, it’s much more productive and effective for me to get out my nervous energy by being active. I’m lucky enough to work from home, so my activity might be unloading the dishwasher or hopping on the stationary bike for 30 minutes.
This same strategy could backfire for other people, though. Thompson says that some people might end up cleaning their whole house instead of preparing for something important such as a job interview.
This is why you need to be aware of what works for you and take little steps to improve. It’s unlikely that you’ll find something that instantly stops you from procrastinating or being a perfectionist, but you can progress day by day, week by week, by paying attention to your habits on both productive and unproductive days. Over time, you may notice patterns and triggers and can adjust accordingly.
Another helpful tool is to actively combat your negative inner dialogue and self-doubt. Think about it as developing an immunity to fear of failure: “Instead of talking yourself out of it by hoping that nothing negative will happen if you fail, focus on building your confidence to deal with the consequences,” Tsaousides said.
He offers examples of how you might prepare for consequences: “What can you do if people don't like the article you wrote?” he said. “What can you do to convince yourself that you are still a good writer? What will you tell your editor if you get negative feedback? What will you do next time to make your article have more impact?”
Even after all my research and effort, I still have a long way to go in overcoming my fear of failure, but I’ve been able to find reassurance in the fact that the more I persevere, the easier it becomes to face the possibility of failure and rejection.