Fear of failing is a powerful, often de-stabilizing emotion that many of us know intimately, especially when we’re not actively managing our minds. Remember, your brain’s job is to keep you safe. But here’s the problem: It automatically generates fear as a way to keep you comfortable and in familiar territory.
It’s all completely normal, and sometimes fear does keep you safe from actual danger. However, if you don’t recognize that your brain acts like a runaway train of fear, it will keep you in that safe and comfortable status quo. Instead, you need to actively manage your mind to overcome this stubborn emoticon and get uncomfortable while working towards your goals and desires. To find success, you need to learn how to manage and leverage your fears for the long run.
Why Do We Have a Fear of Failing?
There are studies, books, and lifelong learning centered around why we fear failure. There are endless reasons, but believing failure is embarrassing and shameful tops the list. We can also create new meanings around failure, like “I am a mistake” instead of “I made a mistake.” When we feel like we are a mistake and embarrassed of our failure, we feel ashamed. It’s also easy to believe when we fail at a task, we’ve failed at our life and crushed our dreams of travel or quitting that corporate job.
According to Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” She breaks down ideas and research around shame in her thought-provoking TED Talk.
Fear of Failure and Procrastination Are Related
Many entrepreneurs lose themselves in their fear, and it leads to procrastination and analysis paralysis. I’m no stranger to perfectionist tendencies that I have to challenge every day to keep moving forward in my business and grow as a human being.
For example, I’ve had the idea to launch this coaching business for more than five years now— basically ever since I started my own business. But instead of taking action, I was stuck. I allowed my deep-rooted beliefs around perfection and fear of failure to stop me from making progress. I was scared to start a business that I really wanted and instead played it safe (like, who would want to see me on camera, anyway?!).
Here’s what I realized: In order to take massive action towards launching this coaching and education business, I had to come to terms with the fact that yes, I will fail, and yes, it will be uncomfortable. However, I realize that if I keep going, I will succeed. And to me, that is a strong enough motivation to set aside my fears and keep moving forward.
I also realized that by not even trying, I was failing in advance. If you fear starting a business and do nothing, then you’re essentially getting the same result as if you failed. Whether you never take action or fail down the road, you’re not achieving your goal.
As the Erin Hanson poem goes:
“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask, “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling, What if you fly?”
We Exaggerate Failure
An intense fear of failing is called atychiphobia, and often means you’re making it bigger than something it really is. Instead of worrying about whether or not you’ll achieve your goals, we often tell ourselves stories around failure that become larger than life. “I don’t have what it takes” or “I’ll never achieve my goal” are common refrains that swirl through our heads.
Instead, you can reframe your mindset and focus on something more productive like, “I’ve identified a way that doesn’t work” or “I’m open to believing that I’ll figure this out.”
We Can Reframe Failure
Once you’ve figured out how to reframe a fear of failing, you can keep going and learn to manage your mind. You can even leverage your fears by trying to understand where it comes from and quieting them by using your new mindset and reframing the goal at hand.
Sometimes you’ll feel strong enough to totally flip your negative, fear-based thought into a positive one. For example, “I’m afraid I’ll fail” turns into, “Failure is great because it means I’m learning and making progress.” But sometimes, your fear will feel overwhelming, and that positive thought will feel inauthentic. Instead of disappearing into the fear, try shifting towards neutralizing it enough so that you can move forward. “If I fail at X, I will be so embarrassed, and everyone will make fun of me,” could be reframed as, “Failure is a normal part of the process, and I’m willing to feel some embarrassment to achieve my dream and move through these obstacles.”
You Can Learn to Face the Worst Case Scenario
It’s normal to fear the unknown and let our imaginations run wild, but how to overcome failure is about facing it head-on. It’s not even unusual to suffer from atychiphobia, the irrational and persistent fear of failing. It’s tempting to never look past the unknown and stay gripped in the mystery of fear.
Instead, you can empower yourself to face the worst-case scenario and take a hard look at it to know how you would face it. “What’s the worst that can happen if I put myself out there and announce my business on social media or post this blog? If it doesn’t get any feedback or a positive response, will that hurt somehow? Or just my ego?”
When you know the absolute worst outcome, you can address it in advance and calm your nerves. However, you’ll likely find the worst-case scenario rarely happens, and instead, you land somewhere much more manageable than you feared.
Adopt a Growth Mindset
Part of facing your fear of failing is about adopting a growth mindset in your personal and professional life. Harvard Business Review describes the idea of a growth mindset as “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset.” They also tend to achieve more success than those with a fixed mindset, who think their talents are innate gifts and not cultivated through hard work. A growth mindset also makes you feel like you have more control over your outcome, stimulates innovation, and gives you a sense of empowerment.
You can have a growth mindset and still feel you have innate gifts and abilities. However, you’re motivated to keep refining your goals, work hard, and develop new skills to reach the level of success you’re looking for.
Visualize the Potential Outcomes
When you’re figuring out how to overcome failure, it’s sometimes necessary to visualize the potential outcomes, even if they’re the worst-case scenarios. However, working through different outcomes and jotting them down to get clarity is not the same as obsessing and ruminating over them. The idea is to get comfortable with those adverse outcomes, realize they’re not as scary as we once imagined, and can work through them by breaking everything down into manageable steps.
Create a Plan
Achieving goals isn’t something that happens by chance–we call that luck. Instead, goals need a plan to create a roadmap to success and turn your ideas into reality. Making plans sometimes stops people in their tracks. What if the plan fails? Create a Plan B, C, D, or as many backups as you need for your original plan. If your initial plan fails, it’s no big deal; you know what to do to get right up and keep moving forward with your backup.
Embrace the Learning Process
Don’t be afraid of failure when it offers so many teachable moments and opportunities. Facing your fears and allowing them to empower you is a learning process you should embrace. Remember to slow down, reflect, and learn from whatever happens at each stage of the process. These lessons do more than just reframe fear; they also help you navigate the obstacles and keep moving towards your goals.