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The Psychology Behind Your Fear of Failure

Self-doubt may prevent you from pursuing your dreams. When you realize feeling like a failure is a choice, setbacks can actually work to your advantage.
by Michael Benninger | May 31 2019

Popular failure quotes and proverbs such as “If, at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again” are easy to remember and recite, but mustering the determination to actually overcome defeat can be incredibly challenging. Take the efforts of this budding young martial artist, for instance.

This courageous boy fought through tears and falls as he failed five times before ultimately achieving his goal and winning the admiration of everyone in the room — in addition to the innumerable people who’ve viewed this video online.

Moments like this can have a profound impact on an individual, especially when they occur at a young age. But the older we get, the less likely we are to exhibit such a persistent effort in the face of adversity. In many cases, this is due to a fear of failure — also known as atychiphobia — which can develop during youth and remain with us through our entire lives.

Whether it’s flunking an exam, being chewed out by a boss, or getting rejected by a romantic interest, no one enjoys feeling like a failure. And for some people, this sense of dread can become so great they give up entirely on attempting to achieve their dreams in the first place. But where does this insecurity come from, and is there a way to leverage a fear of failure to your advantage?

Why We Develop a Fear of Failure

Most people with atychiphobia find it hard to face failure due to a lack of confidence in their abilities. They believe that if there’s a chance of failing at something, there’s no point in even trying to do it. Yet this attitude isn’t an inherent trait. According to psychologists, a fear of failure may develop for many different reasons, ranging from being raised by hypercritical parents to being victimized by a bully or experiencing a traumatic event during childhood.

If you’ve ever failed at something and wound up feeling humiliated or upset, these emotions may have stayed with you far beyond the initial incident. And, if left unchecked, this self-doubt can develop into an immobilizing force that ultimately undermines your efforts to achieve your goals and leads you to miss out on invaluable opportunities in life.

The Psychology Behind Your Fear of Failure

The Consequences of Self-Doubt

“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.”
Michelle Obama, Becoming

According to a 2018 report from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, roughly one-third of wantrepreneurs allow a fear of failure to prevent them from starting a business. And although an equally recent study revealed that a parasite present in cat poop might actually lead some aspiring business owners to overcome this fear, it’s probably not a good idea to rummage through a kitty’s litter box in hopes of finding the courage to launch a new enterprise.

In Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Technology of Success, the author describes how failure has dramatic repercussions for people who don’t believe they can learn from their mistakes. Dweck explains how this kind of fixed mindset may lead someone to allow a single failure to outweigh all of their previous accomplishments. This is because such individuals see themselves as finished products rather than works in progress. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, people with growth mindsets perceive such setbacks as opportunities to advance.

A Fresh Perspective on Feeling Like a Failure

“Your conception of failure might not be too far removed from the average person’s idea of success.”

Fear is a natural instinct that our species owes its survival to, but a fear of failure, however, is oftentimes irrational and can lead some people to refrain from following their dreams. And equally destructive is a fear of success, which similarly prevents people from transforming their aspirations into reality yet for a completely different reason.

If you’re unsure as to whether you might be allowing self-doubt to shape your future, Guy Winch Ph.D., the author of How to Fix a Broken Heart, has developed a list of signs to look for. In his perspective, calling this affliction a fear of failure is actually a misnomer, as most people who suffer from atychiphobia are actually more afraid of shame than they are of failure. Dr. Winch states that, rather than feeling guilt or regret about their inadequacies, people living with this fear often end up experiencing a diminished sense of self-worth that can linger for a lifetime.

Yet while failure can be so detrimental to some, it can also provide invaluable motivation to others. Indeed, many of the world’s most admired individuals have experienced profound failures before later going on to accomplish incredible feats.

Accepting the Certainty of Setbacks

“Failure isn’t the opposite of success; it’s part of success.”

Many successful people prosper as a result of their failures — not despite them. These individuals understand that setbacks are simply stepping stones to success, and that the only way to truly fail is to stop trying to achieve a goal they’ve previously set their sights on. Such people grant themselves permission to fail without fear of punishment, which consequently gives them permission to succeed.

Author and podcaster Elizabeth Day explores this attitude toward success in her book How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong. By examining the role that failure has played in her own life — as well as the lives of the luminaries she’s interviewed — Day demonstrates how people tend to reap great rewards when things go wrong. She further explains how perceived failures are merely signs that we need to learn more about ourselves, and, in the end, failing at something could be the best thing that ever happens to you.

Quieting Your Inner Critic

Even if you understand that failure is inevitable, it can be easy to succumb to your inner critic and avoid disappointment at all costs. To truly change the way you think about success and failure, you need to reverse negative thought patterns, which can be incredibly challenging in certain circumstances. Fortunately, there is a way forward for even the most intimidated individuals.

In You Are Not Your Brain: The Four-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life, authors Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding explain how to eliminate our mind’s most destructive messages by rewiring our brains to adopt new roles and functions. This ability — known as neuroplasticity — involves combining focused attention with an undying dedication to your dreams. Together, these forces can allow you to distinguish between destructive emotions and your actual self. When done correctly, this practice can reprogram your brain to work for you, not against you.

Don’t Let Fear Determine Your Future

Fear extinguishes far more dreams than failure does, yet by using our brains’ innate abilities, it’s possible to break through a never-ending cycle of negativity and learn to embrace defeat rather than run from it.

Failing Forward

Ultimately, eliminating a deep-seated sense of insecurity requires far more than simply reciting famous failure quotes. However, there is plenty of wisdom to be gleaned from today’s top authors. If you’re eager to conquer your fear of failure (or your fear of success), Blinkist makes it easy to absorb key insights from all of the aforementioned titles, as well as from thousands of other books in our ever-growing library of leading nonfiction books. Don’t let fear stand in your way. Take the first step toward success today.

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