Understanding Your Fear of Failure
Fear of failure is a particular type of anxiety that tells us a story of how we will fail. Even though it’s incredibly painful — almost no one would willingly choose to marinate in stories of how badly things will go — our minds do it for a reason.
They’re trying to protect us, to predict the future so that there’s less unknown and thus less risk. We think it’s better to be prepared for a terrible outcome than to be caught unaware and then have it happen.
It’s the same reason we have a negative bias in our brains. All it took was one failure many generations ago, and we were dead. Those are pretty high stakes. And so we’d rather live in a more vigilant state and stay alive than be hopeful and happy and then, bam, be squashed.
The trouble with this mindset is that for most of us when we’re trying to do something new, it isn’t a life-or-death situation, and so we’re missing out on taking a chance. Our brains are stuck in that life-or-death mentality, keeping us from risking anything where we might fail.
In my experience, the bigger the leap, the more it feels like our very existence is on the line.
But if we want to grow — if we want to fly and unfold in the way that I think we are meant to in our journeys as people — we have to look right at that fear and reckon with it. This isn’t easy when every fiber of our being is communicating to us, “You might fail, you’re going to fail, just don’t do that risky thing.”
3 Ways to Combat Fear of Failure
Sometimes a fear of failure can be so intense that you never give yourself a chance to succeed because you subconsciously sabotage yourself before you’ve even begun. If you find yourself in a situation where your desire to avoid failing is more significant than your desire to achieve success, these three steps can help you work through those feelings so you can take that risk.
Step 1: Question the Fear
Talk to your fear and ask it, “What are you afraid of for me? What do you think will happen? And then what?” Maybe you want to quit your job to start your own company, and your fear tells you that you’re afraid you’ll have to move back in with your parents. And then what? And then you’ll be embarrassed. And then what? And then, you’ll have to find another job. And then what? And then … you’ll take those lessons learned and most likely continue to grow in your career.
It’s really easy to come up with what-if scenarios because your brain’s already doing it. But then if you keep tracing it further and further — and then what, and then what? — sometimes, you realize, “OK, and then it’ll feel really bad, and then it might even feel terrible, and then ... I’ll survive.”
Through this exercise, you can shine a light on your fear to recognize that this isn’t actual life or death, even though your body sometimes feels like it is.
Step 2: Identify Your Desire
You can counter your anxiety about failure by tapping into your hope and the desire to succeed at this thing you want to do. That source has energy and libido — it’s enlivening, and it has vitality in it. There’s some reason why you’re drawn to do this “risky” thing. And the more you can open the window to that part of yourself, the more it can have space so that the fear doesn’t take up the entire room.
Every single fear has its corresponding desire. If you’re afraid to leave a job, the underlying desire might be to experience freedom. If you’re scared to ask someone on a date, the corresponding desire might be to experience closeness and love. The more you dig, the more you can identify that underlying desire, that thing you’re yearning for.
By identifying it, you build space around it, which can help you face the fear with more energy.
Step 3: Find Grounding
When you fear failure, the physical sensations you feel in your body are genuine. Just because the odds are low that you’ll be squashed while you’re asking someone out doesn’t mean your body doesn’t feel like you’re about to be squashed.
This is where meditation comes in so handy.
You can use breathwork or grounding practices to find a sense of calm. Use each exhale to connect to the earth. Strengthening that connection and feeling the ground underneath you can help you remember that you’re here, you’re alive, you’re not in actual danger — and that can be supportive.
A mantra practice can also be helpful. Create a mantra that helps you put things in perspective, such as, “My body is safe right now” or “I am safe, even though it feels like I’m not.”
Nearly everyone fears failure from time to time, but some people set such a high bar for success that they can never meet it — and thus, they forever feel like they’re falling short. When they look into the future, all they see is more failure.
If this applies to you, explore what letting go of that would do. What kind of loss would that entail? There is a reason why you’re defining success in such narrow terms. It might bond you to your parents or your community in some way so that even though it makes you miserable, you keep feeding this machine of being not enough.
Look at your standards and say, “OK, what would it mean to be normal? To be average? To not meet these crazy-high expectations?” There’s often a kind of grief that is accompanied by that, but once you work your way through it, there’s a freedom to live your life.
Sometimes getting to that point requires letting go of something else — but it’s worth it for failure to no longer rule you.
Failure is inevitable, and fear isn’t always a bad thing. (After all, it tends to keep us from walking off cliffs and petting bears.) By understanding where your fear is coming from and what failure would mean, you can go after those things you want in life — even if it means failing every once in a while.
Header photo: Westend61/Getty Images