Fear of failure presents itself in all sorts of ways. Maybe our negative self-talk takes over. Or perhaps procrastination is our self-sabotage method of choice. Fear of failure leaves us feeling stuck and unable to step outside our comfort zone. My own fear of failure takes the form of negative thinking, lack of self-belief and resistance to change.
Resistance to change is part of being human, and fear is almost always the number one reason. Fear is a natural response to threat, either real or imagined. Anxiety is a type of fear that has something to do with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, like fear of failure. Mental Health Foundation has this to say about it:
“Fearing failure can make you try to do well so that you won’t fail, but it can also stop you doing well if the feeling is too strong…Just knowing what makes you afraid and why can be the first step to sorting out problems with fear.”Mental Health Foundation, How to Overcome Fear and Anxiety (online publication).
I have been thinking about my own fear of change. What about starting university makes me afraid? When I reflected on this question I realised that behind my resistance to change is a fear of failure. Here are my tips.
1. Remove fear of the unknown
Identify the possible outcomes (and obstacles), including the worst-case scenario. Ask yourself: “what would failure actually look like?” Make a contingency plan. This uses what is known in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy as our rational thinking or “reasonable mind”. It is possible to over-plan, though, so don’t let this stop you from taking action.
2. Take small steps towards your goal
Thinking about the end result is often too overwhelming. Break it down into smaller steps instead. Makes these achievable so that when you complete them your confidence is boosted. These small “wins” will promote positive emotion and increase your motivation to succeed.
3. Stay in the present moment
Fear of failure can become a real barrier when we negatively evaluate the past (recalling times we have ‘failed’ in the past) or predict the future (imagining what could go wrong). Mindfulness teaches us to see these for what they are: thoughts (not facts). Learn to detach yourself from your inner critic; that voice is not you (and what it says is not true).
4. Practice radical acceptance
Radical acceptance means accepting the situation for what it is without judgement. Fear is painful. Suffering is optional. Resistance only leads to further pain, so don’t add the pain of non-acceptance. Acknowledge the reality of your fear and don’t fight it. Accepting the presence of fear reduces its intensity, meaning we are more likely to move forward. We might say something like “this is where I am right now. Now what?” Avoiding or denying our emotions delays healing, so this is worth practising if we want to make progress. Acceptance leads to change.
5. Accept impermanence
Impermanence, or the philosophical problem of change, is a concept in Eastern philosophy that has been shown to attain mental balance. It teaches us that attachment is the root of suffering. Much like practising radical acceptance (which also draws inspiration from Buddhism), accepting impermanence encourages us to appreciate the present moment and overcome resistance to change. Dr Paul Wong is a positive psychologist specialising in Chinese traditions whose summary of impermanence demonstrates its relationship to radical acceptance:
“Attachment to possession and achievement invariably leads to disappointment and disillusionment, because everything is impermanent…Failure to embrace life’s experience in its entirety is at the root of suffering.”Dr Paul Wong, Chinese Positive Psychology: Future Directions (2014).
In other words, we must accept the reality that everything is temporary. The sooner we do this, the sooner we will reduce our suffering – allowing us to adapt to change with more mental clarity and calmness.
6. Focus on the good things
Highlight your achievements and things you are grateful for by keeping a journal. Find three good things each day that have gone well and write these down, including your reflections on why they went well (this is known as the Three Good Things exercise). Try this every night for a week. Focusing on the good things like this increases positive emotion, decreases negative emotion and helps us to cope with difficulties. It even has the potential to increase our ability to achieve our goals.
7. Embrace imperfection
Failure is not final. Yes, it can be painful, but it offers valuable insights. It helps us to learn and grow, leading us towards success. Persisting in the face of setbacks and adapting to failure is known as adopting a growth mindset (what do I need to do differently?), rather than a fixed mindset (which tells us to give up). Practice your willingness to fail.
8. Try taking action before you feel ready
Don’t wait for the perfect moment to start something. If you are prone to perfectionism this will challenge you, but persevere. Your self-esteem could be dented (on the floor, even) and you don’t feel confident enough (yet). I am rooting for you! Do it anyway and the confidence will come.