Failure is scary. When you put effort into a project, tell countless people about it, and spend sleepless nights trying to succeed, defeat can be crushing. But if you’re constantly afraid of a negative outcome, why bother pursuing anything?
Your dream job could be off the table because the effort would feel meaningless if you fail. You might end a promising relationship because you fear pain if it doesn’t work out. In both of these cases, the potential of a bad outcome can keep you from pursuing something beautiful.
Whether it’s at work or in life, it’s normal to be concerned about whether things will work out. In fact, according to this survey of more than 1,000 people, folks are more afraid of failing than they are of spiders, being home alone, and even ghosts.
But the anxiety can become debilitating if you let it. It’s important to be mindful of your fears and reframe them so they don’t negatively impact your life.
Here’s our guide to help you overcome the fear of failure.
Coming to terms with your fear of failure
Fear of failing, clinically known as atychiphobia, is difficult to identify. It manifests through subconscious behaviors and thought patterns invisible to you.
And, to complicate things further, this fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy: you’re so afraid of failure that it becomes the only possible outcome. It’s often accompanied by a fixed mindset and automatic negative thoughts. That negativity harms your confidence and increases self-doubt.
Then, when you inevitably do fall short, you confirm to yourself that your fear is valid.
Let’s use a job interview as an example. If you don’t bother attending because you’re scared of failing, you simply ensure that you’ll never get the job. You then try to validate your choice by convincing yourself you didn’t deserve to or weren’t able to succeed in the first place.
And so, the cycle continues.
The key to breaking this pattern is recognizing your behaviors. See if any of these resonate with you:
- Reluctance to try new things. Challenging projects or other endeavors aren’t worth it to you if you’re scared to fail.
- Low self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-doubt. You don’t believe you can achieve your goals, so you don’t even try. Seeing successful people on social media fills you with dread because you’ll never achieve what they have.
- Perfectionism. If you can’t do it perfectly, why bother? You’re only willing to try if you think you can meet your high standards.
- Negative thoughts. When confronted with a challenge, your head is filled with negative self-talk.
If any of these resonate, it’s not too late to make some changes. But that’s easier said than done.
Acknowledging your fear can be scary in itself. The anxiety becomes so familiar that hanging onto it feels safer than dealing with its underlying symptoms. It can often be a sign of shame, depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem — all of which can be hard to confront. It’s worth talking to a mental health professional if you need help navigating these conditions.
In milder cases, though, learning to reframe your thoughts can help. Don’t underestimate the power of positive thinking.
Start by asking yourself these 4 questions
Next time you feel afraid, take a deep breath and write your thoughts in a journal. You can use these questions to prompt a different way of thinking:
- What am I really afraid of? Writing down your fears can make them feel less overwhelming. Problems tend to look a lot smaller on the page.
- Who am I fighting for? Sometimes your fear stops you from helping people you care about. Reminding yourself of this can give you the push you need.
- What’s the worst that could happen? The worst-case scenario may not be as bad as you think. In many cases, failure doesn’t change much about your current situation, so what do you have to lose?
- What if I succeed? Think of how your life would improve if you followed through. Remember why you got into this in the first place.
Reading your answers can help you identify your fears, thought patterns, and limiting beliefs you weren’t aware of before. It can also make you feel less overwhelmed, allowing you to examine your fears objectively and plan a course of action.
Once you’ve written your thoughts, work with BetterUp to unpack them. Our coaches can help you reframe your fears so they no longer hold power over you.
How to get over the fear of failure: 7 tips
It’s one thing to identify your fears; it’s another to overcome them. Here are some tips that can help.
1. Accept that failure is normal — and it can be a good thing
There’s a reason why the expression “fail fast” has gained popularity in recent years. Business leaders know that accepting failure is a part of achieving success. Every mistake is a stepping stone toward a larger goal.
No one starts a business with the intent to fail. But, if things go south, it better happen quickly. The sooner it’s over, the sooner you can learn from your mistakes and move on.
2. Adopt a beginner’s mind
There’s a first time for everything. Adopting a beginner’s mind is about approaching new challenges with curiosity and positive thinking rather than fear. Look at every situation as a learning experience and give yourself permission to not be a pro immediately. Even Michael Jordan practiced before he became a success story.
If you’re a perfectionist, you probably want to succeed in your first attempt. But this is an unrealistic expectation. You’ll encounter roadblocks, and that’s okay. Two small steps forward and one step back is still a net positive.
3. Talk to someone you trust
When you’re stuck in your own head, overthinking and overwhelm can kick in. Talking to someone you trust can help shed new light on your situation — whether that’s a friend, mentor, family member, or therapist. Tell them about your fears and listen to their feedback. They can change how you see things.
4. Give yourself more options
When you’re worried about a situation, it’s easy to fixate on one possible negative outcome. But until you’ve gone through with it, you don’t know how the story ends. You can’t predict the future. Consider the possibility that things turn out better than you think.
Use your visualization skills to imagine multiple possible endings. This new project might lead to new industry connections, a deeper relationship with your boss and team, or more knowledge about your field. Or (and this is the best option of all), you might knock it out of the park. Until everything is said and done, anything is possible.
5. Remember the cost of not trying
In the words of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Living in fear comes at a cost. If you never try anything, you could miss out on some of life’s great opportunities. Remember that trying and failing is often better than not trying at all.
6. Adjust on the fly
Nothing is ever set in stone. If you try something and it’s not what you expected, you’re allowed to make changes. You can quit a job you don’t like anymore, ask for help when you’re overwhelmed, or extend your deadline if you need it. As long as you’re willing to adapt, you’re never truly stuck in a decision.
7. Be afraid, but do it anyway
Your fear may never really go away, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean you have to let it control you. If bravery means progressing without fear, courage means doing it despite fear. Be courageous, and you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.
Conquering fear of failure at work
Depending on your career, work can feel particularly high pressure. Here are some tips to help you conquer fear in the workplace.
1. Identify the benefits of past failures
Many negative experiences have hidden benefits, even if you don’t see them instantly. Take a look at previous mistakes and how they influenced you. Perhaps an embarrassing typo made you more detail-oriented, or a missed deadline made you more efficient. These experiences might have hurt, but you persevered. You learned from those failures; you can learn from future ones, too.
2. View it as a challenge
When there’s a higher risk of failure than normal, see it for the challenge it is. This is an opportunity to test your skills in a way you haven’t before.
Stepping out of your comfort zone is hard work and might be stressful at first — but not all stress is bad. Some people fear success because it means change. But if you’re up to the task, you can activate eustress and engage in some of the best work you’ve ever done.
3. Be kind to yourself
If things don’t go your way, remember to be kind to yourself. Self-care is vitally important when you don’t meet your own expectations. Go home, take a bath, hit the gym — whatever you need to relieve stress before hopping back on that horse.
Acceptance is key
No one likes to make mistakes. At best, they’re embarrassing. At worst, they affect your team members or loved ones. But they’re unavoidable. You can chase perfection all you want, but to err is to be human. The moment you stop making mistakes is when you stop growing in your life and career.
Of course, not every risk is worth taking — you don’t want to enter a situation that causes mental or physical harm. But many of life’s opportunities involve a healthy challenge.
Learning how to overcome the fear of failure is easier said than done. But we believe you can do it — and we’re excited to see you thrive.