Overcoming Your Fear of Failure

By Melissa Burton, LCSW

The fear of failure could be one of the greatest struggles of our time. How do you tackle such a big existential dilemma? Can we conquer failure once and for all, or are we destined to fight this battle forever?

Sometimes the greatest obstacles can be solved with simple solutions. Let’s start at the root of the problem. Ask yourself one this question:

What is failure?

Seriously, what is your definition of failure? Our society has made this term an abomination and a curse to avoid at all cost, but what does is it really mean?

The dictionary defines failure as lack of success, an unsuccessful person, enterprise, or thing, or the omission of expected or required action.

This definition does not say failure is a state of permanence. It is just a lack of success in any one situation. Failure is assessed one task at a time. It is not a personality trait. It is not a shameful condition and it is not a statement of your worth. We each assign our own meaning to the word failure. What it means to you is what drives you and it is what really matters.

What does failure mean to you?

I bet failure for most of us looked like a giant red “F” scrolled across the test in school that was so big and so red everyone in the classroom could see it. That “F” that felt like a statement of our worth and potential. That “F” that made us feel we didn’t have the right stuff and we were NEVER going to measure up. It’s that sinking feeling you get when you get the answer wrong, when your speechless in front of a crowded room, or the utter humiliation after rejection. We’ve all been there, right? Failure equals inadequate. Failure equals SHAME! But guess what, you’re not in school anymore. How you see failure is your perception and as the saying goes, “perception is reality.”

I bet most of us don’t embrace failure as a pathway to self-improvement, but what if we did?

Sarah Blakely, the founder of Spanx, has an inspirational take on failure. At an early age, Blakely’s dad encouraged her and her brother to share their experiences of failures. Not as an effort to shame, but instead to celebrate their efforts and help them learn from each experience. Imagine what a profound impact that must have had on them. So profound in fact, that experience helped launch a megabrand company into existence.

In IT there is a popular term called Fail Fast and Fail Forward. This philosophy utilized in many of the top IT companies and across the industry values extensive testing and retesting in an effort to improve products and processes. Essentially, you don’t know how to improve until you fail first, and if you want to be the best and produce the best results you should aim to fail as fast as you can to improve as fast as you can.

Think about this idea… To improve, you must be willing to fail.

Thomas Edison failed in his first 1000 attempts to create the light bulb.

Abe Lincoln lost 5 separate elections before becoming president.

J.K. Rowling was an unemployed single parent before writing Harry Potter.

Steve Jobs was fired from Apple before coming back to catapult the company into iconic success.

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot…and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.”

-Michael Jordan

Tenacity and a different view of failure lead to greatness.

Your capacity to endure failure and start again is directly linked to your capacity to succeed. Most people get this idea turned around. Sometimes we think the more we fail the bigger failure we are. Nope! Failure is a state of mind that only wins when we stop trying.

It’s time to change both your mindset and how you talk yourself through failure. Bouncing back from a setback is mostly in your mind. If you can cultivate a mindset of resiliency, you can move forward and not get stuck in your fear of failure. What is your internal dialogue when you fail or hit a roadblock?

Change your Mind

The next time you have a setback that feels like a failure, listen to what you are telling yourself. Then ask yourself these simple questions:

  1. Is it true? – We often think in black and white with an “all or nothing” mentality. Asking yourself if your thoughts are true can help ground you in reality and not just your emotions.
  2. Is it helpful and kind? – Would you say what you are thinking to a friend in the same situation? If not, stop beating yourself up emotionally. It is not helping prepare yourself for future success.
  3. Can I change? – If you can change the situation, great!! Get to it. Don’t stay stuck in the feelings of disappointment and fear. Courage is not the absence of fear but acting in spite of that fear. Act now to get to that better place, the better version of you.
  4. Can I accept it? – If you can’t change the situation then it is time to sit with the discomfort and accept the reality of what is. Invite in those emotions that we’d all rather shove aside. Anger, sadness, frustration, emptiness … they are all a part of life. Sit with them and allow them to be present. Ignoring them won’t make them go away. Allowing the emotions to exist will let them run their course and then you can move on. Emotions are like the weather, impermanent and volatile. Whether you are having a “rainy” depressed day or a “sunny” day full of joy it all passes on.

If you are ready to work through your fear of failure and cultivate a new mindset of resiliency but don’t know where to start, Connection First Counseling can help. We can guide you through the pitfalls and roadblocks that can derail your efforts on your journey to self-improvement. Call us today to learn more and set up a time to talk to a professional counselor.


Next blog…

If we overcome failure by achieving success, that leads us to another question:  What does success mean? Stay tuned until next week when we explore What is Success and How to Achieve It.

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