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How to Overcome Your Fear of Failure

Perhaps our fear of failure starts in grade school, with the fear of receiving the dreaded big fat "F" on your 3rd grade report card, and then seeing the dismayed looks on your parents' faces (and perhaps facing an ensuing punishment to boot). Even if an "F" doesn't apply, chances are that you learned early on -- through being on that winning soccer team, passing your driver's test on the first try, or getting picked first in gym class -- that succeeding is fun. Failing is not.


If you're not moving ahead with your goals, a fear of failure may be holding you back.

As we make our way into adulthood, it is not hard to understand why a fear of failure plagues many of us. Fear of failing at your marriage, fear of being a bad parent, fear of losing your job or not getting promoted. Indeed, fear of failing can be applied to every meaningful milestone in life. And what greater fear could there be than failing at your own life?

In America, and too in much of the world, failure is akin to being powerless, unpopular, a loser. No one wants to set themselves up for that, and so develops a fear, in some cases a debilitating one.

How a Fear of Failure Can Put Your Life on Hold

In extreme cases, a fear of failing will cause a person to avoid anything that isn't safe or a guaranteed success. Many entrepreneurs never set out on their own for this very reason. When confronted with a questionable task (i.e. asking someone out on a date, giving a presentation at work), anxiety develops and, like any fear, the person backs away from the scary item.

However, taking risks is one of the only ways to get ahead in life, and with risk comes a chance of failure. Those who are not able to overcome this fear don't take the risks needed to excel at work, relationships and more. Their life may therefore become stagnant, yet it is safe.

"What I encourage people to do is picture themselves 20 years from now in the same job at the same desk and with the same people, simply to show them what will happen if they don't take any risks. The color just drains out of their faces. But if you don't make an effort to change and get what you want, then life probably won't turn out how you want it to," says psychologist Gary Leboff.

Corporate Culture and Failure

Part of the problem is that while our culture encourages innovation, it also punishes failure. So in order to be innovative, invent something new or come up with a unique way to solve a problem, you risk being punished, particularly in the corporate world.

"Managers talk a lot about innovation and being on the cutting edge, but on an individual level, many people are not willing to try new things," says Fiona Lee, psychology and business professor at the University of Michigan.
Why? "Corporate America has very little tolerance for failure," she continues. Not surprisingly, a study she conducted found that:

  • Employees who were rewarded for repeatedly trying new things were more innovative and experienced more long-term success -- even if their experiments failed.

  • Traditional management styles leave employees too scared and rigid to try new things, so they are innovative less often.

A key to success: Turn your failure into a positive by learning from your mistakes, and applying what you've learned next time.

Fear of Failure and Your Health

When you experience a stressful event such as fear, catecholamines -- powerful hormones including adrenaline and dopamine that regulate heart rate, blood pressure and more -- increase. This reaction can lead to symptoms that mirror a heart attack, such as chest pain and a decreased ability of the heart to pump blood.

In fact, one study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore found that patients who had recently undergone a stressful event had blood concentrations of catecholamines that were more than seven times greater than normal -- and two to three times greater than levels in patients having actual heart attacks.

Researchers believe that excess levels of the hormones can have a harmful effect on heart tissue over time. Further, when adrenaline and other stress-related hormones remain elevated, long-term problems including decreased immune function, sexual disorders, fatigue and loss of appetite can occur.

Overcoming Fear of Failure

Only by overcoming a fear of failure will you be able to succeed. Use these tips to focus on success and leave your fear of failure behind.

  • Expect that you will sometimes fail.

  • When you do fail, embrace it. Turn the failure into a positive by figuring out where you went wrong, then applying what you learned to your next endeavor.

  • Don't take failure personally. According to University of Washington psychologist Jonathon Brown, if you lack self-esteem you may over-generalize your failures and conclude that you are less competent than others. However, the best way to build your self-esteem is to pick yourself up after you have fallen down.

  • Realize that successful people fail, and have likely failed many times to get where they are.

  • Picture yourself failing and imagine the consequences that could follow. You will likely find that they're not as bad as they seem. Then, go back to picturing yourself succeeding.

  • If you fail, make it a point to keep going and try again. Don't let failure stop you.

  • Talk about how you're feeling. Expressing your fear to a trusted friend or family member may help you gain the confidence you're looking for.

Recommended Reading

Taking Risks: How to Take Calculated Risks to Get Ahead in Anything

The Serious Health Risks of Loneliness & The Healing Power of Friendship


Psychology Today: Embracing the Fear of Failure

Science News Online: Heartfelt Fear

The Chally Focus: Confronting Your Fear of Failure

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