How to deal with fear of failure

It is stressful to start a new project with a constant nagging voice in your head that tells you you’re not going to succeed. It makes you overanalyse every step and instead of moving forward, you procrastinate. You set your own expectations low, to avoid the pain in case you fail. Eventually, you get uninterested in even trying. 

Your anxiety starts to impact your self-esteem, not just in regards to the new project. The small fear of failure becomes quite overwhelming now. 

Those who deal with fear of failure (and I’m sure we all do or have to some degree) know how frustrating it is to witness our own behaviour around succeeding. We are our own blockers from reaching a goal. We tell ourselves the most plausible stories why we cannot achieve a certain thing and often even proof ourselves right, by not aiming higher in the first place. What an unproductive way of approaching a situation! 

A personal experience

I experienced fear of failure during my years of education. School and university caused a degree of anxiety for me, mostly when we had exams coming up. I never told anyone about them as I was afraid I wouldn’t pass. Even when I took my driver’s test, hardly anyone knew about it. And the last people who I wanted to disappoint were my parents, so I made them my biggest accomplice.  

Test scenarios still get me today. I set my own expectations so low that I can’t disappoint myself. Of course, if I could just change my mindset around it and aim for higher results, I might actually achieve them. But fear of failure is irrational and cannot just be straightened out like a shirt with a flat iron. And yet, there are things you can do! 

What’s needed? Reflection.

What’s the learning in failing?

Today, I don’t consider failing as a negative anymore. In my view, failing offers great learning possibilities and the most painful periods in life are usually the ones that really drive change. So take an example when you did fail and ask yourself what the lessons are. 

What perspective are you holding? 

In coaching, we often work with perspectives and check what alternative ways there are of looking at a situation. Taking my example of fear about exams; Looking through the lens of me being 10 years old is a new perspective. At that time, exams didn’t matter. They had absolutely no weight for me whatsoever. Quite the opposite; I didn’t study, I didn’t care, I was purely focused on having a good time with my friends.  

Knowing this new perspective, I can choose which one I would like to invest my energy in. Can you guess which one feels lighter and more fun? 

What are the possible outcomes?

As I mentioned, the fear we experience is irrational and a much more pragmatic approach is to write down all possible outcomes. Taking my example again, the worst possible outcome of failing an important exam is to re-do it. If I fail again, I may have to do an extra assignment to obtain the credits needed. If I fail that, I may have to re-do the course, which would cost me a few months and some money. 

Looking at it from a bird’s eye view, is it so bad investing a few more months and some money in the study programme that determines the next 40 years of my working life?  

How noisy or calm is your mind? 

I haven’t stressed the importance of a calm mind enough recently, but I am a big believer in the concept. So do check in with yourself how much negative chatter there is throughout the day and if it is worth investing some time in mindfulness or meditation.

Clearing the mind and getting head space is a very helpful practice for a healthy mind and also reduces the noise of fear of failure. 

If this content resonates and you would like support with a similar topic, let’s connect and have a chat. 

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