The fear of failure is also known as atychiphobia. It can lead to overwhelming anxiety, extreme worry, and unhealthy thoughts in connection to the pursuit of goals. Often, it’s very much linked to the core belief that many people have that they aren’t “good enough”.
When the idea of failure or the thought that you have failed gets out of control it can lead to missed opportunities and starts to affect mental and physical health, relationships, and enjoyment of life.
Developing a healthy mindset around the idea of success and failure is incredibly useful. It can also build resilience which has the knock-on effect of helping people to achieve their goals.
What causes fear of failure?
Fear of failure is a thing that most people will go through at some point in their lives. One person might experience it mildly, for others it can be debilitating.
There are various background factors that can lead to or contribute to a person experiencing a fear of failure.
It can be useful to understand what these are. Growing in self-awareness allows you to reach a space of self-compassion and also helps to bring ideas on how to manage the situation in the future:
- Fear of failure might be picked up in childhood from behavioural patterns learnt from parents and caregivers. This is a natural phenomenon that occurs simply by being raised by someone.
- Experiencing trauma or particularly stressful events can lead to a fear of failure. This is commonly linked to a person experiencing a lack of control, a threat, or deeply frightening thing. When this happens it can manifest in other areas of mental health and functioning, including “needing to succeed” or “needing things to go the right way”.
- Genetics. That’s right, a fear of failure, as a phobia, can literally be passed through genes.
- Having perfectionist personality traits. This might be part nature, part nurture. It’s hard to say, but some people are just naturally more perfectionist than others.
Is your fear of failure preventing success?
The reason it’s important to think about the fear of failure is that for many people if it gets out of hand, it can be incredibly destructive.
The truth is that it’s a state of mind that can easily self-perpetuate meaning an event happens, you respond in a negative way, and this leads to more negative things occurring, which in turn makes you feel bad and less likely to want to try in the future.
Fear of failure is characterised by:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Worrying what others will think
- Repeating negative behaviours because this feels “comfortable” and feeds into the negative beliefs you start to have
- Avoiding people or places linked to achieving goals
- Experiencing stress-related symptoms such as headaches, aches and pains in the body, insomnia, and feelings of anxiety
Living with these feelings and behaviours can prevent you from chasing opportunities and goals in the future.
This, of course, means that your overall well-being and quality of life are reduced because you’re not taking part in activities you find meaningful, or fulfilling goals that could be your life’s purpose.
10 healthy ways to cope with the fear of failure
Below, we outline 10 healthy ways to cope with the fear of failure:
1. Process emotions with curiosity and care
Unfortunately, we live in a society that isn’t particularly conscious about emotional health. People are ridiculed for being “emotional”.
Actually, being human, it’s an innate part of our nature. Not processing negative emotions can actually lead to serious physical ailments. Chronic stress leads to inflammation, inflammation is linked to cancer.
It’s useful here to ask yourself, “What is a healthy way to view failure?” What would you say to someone you care about who was struggling with this?
Literally, write down what you would say and say it out loud to yourself. Do this daily. While you might not believe what you’ve written to begin with, it helps to develop new healthy neural pathways in your brain which are more positive around the experience.
When you’re feeling the fear of failure, direct your thoughts to the emotions rather than at the thing that’s triggered the emotions. As negative emotions such as embarrassment, anger, sadness, or fear arise, be curious.
It’s likely that the emotion you’re feeling is linked to deeper “stuff” and that’s OK.
Acknowledge the feelings and then find a healthy way of processing them; cry, yell, punch a pillow, exercise, or “paint the feeling”.
2. Identify catastrophic thinking and irrational fears
It’s likely that your beliefs about failure have become linked to catastrophic thinking and irrational fears. These might sound like this:
“I can’t do anything.’
“I fail at everything.’
“I’m never going to be able to do it.’
Quite often, people get into a loop of negative thoughts that can become quite extreme. This is obviously very damaging.
Catch yourself doing this, and remind yourself of three things you handle well; focus on this instead and move on with your day.
3. Create healthy thinking patterns around the concept of failure
This is an important step but can be a little tricky if you’ve been in the fear of failure state for a while or have been suffering with it for many years.
It is possible, though, to develop healthy thinking patterns, it just takes practice and a bit of time before it feels natural.
To start with you allow yourself to think about any mistakes but you focus on the positive. The things you did well, the lessons you can take, and the things that help you cope.
You start to reduce the pressure you put on yourself. That might mean changing goals or altering the way you view them.
Rather than internalising blame, you start to look for external reasons that the failure did or might occur, or for specific reasons (i.e. perhaps you didn’t get the job simply because somebody else had more experience).
You look for the life lesson you can take; what can you learn? This could be a positive space for growth, self-development, and learning.
Remember, as the saying goes, “When one door closes, another opens”.
4. Avoid “numbing” with unhealthy activities
Though it can be difficult when you’re experiencing negative emotions, it’s really important to avoid negative influences and unhealthy activities. This might include the following:
- Using alcohol to numb or dull emotions. While it might seem to help in the immediate moment, alcohol is a depressant on the central nervous system as well as your mood.
- Using drugs to numb or avoid emotions. Again, as with alcohol, it might ease symptoms in the immediate moment, but drugs disrupt brain chemicals and your ability to emotionally regulate.
- Using a behavioural addiction such as gambling to “hide” in. The situation will persist and could be heightened by any negative repercussions from the behaviour (i.e. losing money). The sooner you face the emotions, the better.
5. Use healthy coping mechanisms
It’s really important you identify and start using healthier strategies to manage the fear of failure if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Some useful tips here are the following:
- Prioritise self-care; have a bubble bath, take yourself on a date, treat yourself to something nice. Be kind to yourself.
- Get some exercise; this gives you focus, releases happy chemicals, and gets you “in your body” (rather than stuck inside your head).
- Connect to nature; go for a walk through a forest or lie on the beach; it’s grounding and relaxing.
- Express your emotions through art. It doesn’t have to look good; the point is to express a feeling.
- Make a plan for your next steps; do more of what works for you, do more things that you’re skilled at, replace the things that don’t work or take a new approach.
Tackling the fear of failure head-on helps you to regain a sense of control. It’s empowering, stops you from ruminating on the negative and forces you to move on.
6. Look up famous people who took time to succeed
Looking up “famous failures” can be surprisingly inspirational. JK Rowling, one of the most successful writers in the world had Harry Potter rejected by twelve publishers before it found its editor. Morgan Freeman was forty-three when he appeared in his first film and now he’s a huge Hollywood star.
The truth is, the most successful people have usually “failed” in some way, even repeatedly, before. It’s the resilience to bounce back and keep trying that makes a person find success.
Reading others’ stories can feel very reassuring.
7. Redefine what “failure” and “success” mean
It’s beneficial to think about what your idea of failure is and realise that actually, it’s important to give yourself permission to fail.
If you never reached the goal you had in mind, are you further on in the journey? The actions you have taken are still positive steps.
A great example of this is where a person might relapse around alcohol use. While the person might initially think they have failed, actually, in the recovery setting, relapse is widely viewed as a space for developing deep self-awareness; this is where a person learns what their triggers are and develops skills to manage them.
8. Work on your self-esteem
When you’re in a state worrying about failing or beating yourself about something that has happened, you’ll likely require a “mood shifter”. Fear of failure is also associated with low self-esteem; resilience isn’t built equally in every person.
To help with your self-esteem and mood, try the following:
- Do things you know you’re good at
- Take part in activities you enjoy
- Play, dance, or do things that make you laugh
Self-esteem and the ability to cope are very much linked and when you don’t put effort into a new way of thinking you can move towards “behavioural disengagement” and “self-blame”.
9. Make your goals achievable
It’s really beneficial to re-evaluate the situation that you’re worrying about. Sometimes a goal is too much. This could be due to other commitments, health issues, or, potentially, – by getting to know yourself better – your deepest values conflicting with the goal.
Whatever the reason is, think about how you can make the goal more reasonable. How you can make it accessible and easier to achieve. That might mean focusing on the next step rather than the end aim.
A person, for instance, who might be thinking “I want to quit using cocaine“ is very likely to wonder where to start if their whole life has been focused on it for the past five years. In recovery settings, people are encouraged to break down the end goal (sobriety) into something more achievable tasks (i.e. practising a grounding technique every time a craving hits).
10. Tune in to the mind and body and channel calmness
Ultimately, a fear of failure at its worst is a phobia, which is a type of anxiety. You can experience stress, worry, insomnia, and a lack of appetite. Symptoms can become debilitating and physical.
It’s essential you develop relaxation techniques. Bring yourself back to your body and the present moment.
There are many ways you can do this. Emotional regulation is key and finding techniques that work for you, when practised every day, can improve both your mental and physical health.
Try the following:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Meditation (guided ones are very useful and available on apps)
- Exercise such as yoga or tai chi
- Cold exposure therapy
- Try journaling through the emotions
As well as this ensures you develop a bed routine to promote healthy sleep, eat a balanced diet cut out caffeine and junk food, and reduce any alcohol and or drug use.
How the mind impacts health
Living with the constant fear of failure or feelings that you have failed in the past can take its toll on your physical health. As already mentioned, it’s a type of anxiety.
This means you might experience:
- Increased blood pressure
- Quickened heart rate
- An increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks
- Increased risk of illnesses and diseases related to stress
When you experience painful emotions without processing them, the energy is stored in the body affecting physiological processes and this can create physical ailments. Hence, why it’s so important to take care of your mind and mental health.
Seek help for mental health
If you’re suffering with any mental health conditions or a severe illness that could be linked to fears around failure then it’s negatively impacting daily life.
It’s important to speak with a mental health professional about this. They’ll explain to you what treatment is available. It’s likely that psychological therapy will be advised and the professional will be able to run through your options.
How do you deal with failure in a healthy way?
The healthiest way to deal with failure is to face the emotions head-on and process them from a space of curiosity and open-mindedness. For serious anxiety around failure, therapy is advisable.
What are healthy ways to cope with anxiety?
Healthy ways to cope with anxiety include using grounding techniques, meditation, exercise, connecting to nature, eating well, and seeking professional help if it’s affecting your daily life.