You’re about to start something big, step out of your comfort zone and then…
That unwanted thought pops into your head.
“What if I fail?”
You try to ignore it, stay positive, stay upbeat, yet that thought keeps popping up again.
This fear of failure can feel paralyzing, keeping us stuck in a holding pattern and hindering our ability to grow. We can waste weeks, months even, procrastinating and avoiding the steps that will move us closer to our goals.
To overcome the fear of failure, it helps to understand where that fear is coming from and find a strategy that will help keep it at bay.
What Is Fear of Failure Really About?
Fear of failure is mostly due to what we make it mean if we did fail. We worry that if we fail it will mean one or more of these things:
- “That’s the end of me/my career/my dreams.”
- “I’m not good enough.”
- “I’m not cut out for bigger goals.”
- “People will think I’m stupid. I’ll lose all respect.”
- “What if I don’t recover? What am I going to do next?”
With thoughts like these, it’s no wonder it’s hard to take action.
Fear of failure is also the fear of experiencing difficult emotions and feelings such as shame, embarrassment, hurt or rejection if things don’t pan out as hoped. No one wants to feel this.
There may also be experiences in our past where failure was seen as damaging rather than a valuable learning experience, reinforcing our belief that failure is to be avoided at all cost.
Bottom line, fear of failure is really our ego wanting to keep us safe from the unknown. It keeps us safe and away from risk of failure, by keeping us hostage in what we already know.
Our brains like to gravitate to what’s familiar and when an unfamiliar situation arises it can trigger that fear response. The perceived safety of familiarity outweighs the desire for change and the commitment needed to make it happen, which explains why people often stay in work they hate.
Wanting to avoid failure is a normal reaction. I don’t know anyone who likes the idea of failing, including myself. But giving into the fear of failure also means giving up any chance of achieving the goals we desire the most.
What Can You Do to Overcome The Fear of Failure?
There is much advice floating around on overcoming the fear of failure. Here are three strategies that have worked for me.
1. Acknowledge the Fear and Put It in the Passenger Seat
Have you noticed that the more you try to push the fear away, the more exhausting it becomes? Trying to push fear away is like trying to keep an inflatable ball under water. It requires constant effort and the moment you to stop pushing on it, the fear pops straight back out again. It’s tiring.
Instead of pushing the fear away, acknowledge its presence. It’s a myth that you should feel no fear, only complete confidence in order to succeed. In reality, it’s normal for fear to arise whenever we’re stretching out of our comfort zone to pursue something new.
If you talk to any high performers, they still feel fear when pursuing a new challenge. The difference is that they don’t allow the fear to control them.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Big Magic – Creative Living Beyond Fear’ found her own way to acknowledge and let her fear be. To paraphrase her approach, she lets her fear come along for the ride, but doesn’t allow it to be the driving seat.
How I’ve translated this in my own life is to allow myself to notice the uncomfortable feeling that fear brings up, acknowledge that the feeling is no more than an indication I’m at the edge of my comfort zone and still take action anyway.
2. Reframe the Fear: It’s Not Failure, It’s Just Feedback
High performers see failure and setback as a great learning opportunity.
Instead of perceiving failure as a negative thing, high performers see the results of their actions as just feedback of what worked, what didn’t and what improvements or adjustments need to be made. They also make contingency plans, so if things fall through, they’re prepared.
The more innovative and new the path you’re taking, the more essential it is to embrace the uncertainty that accompanies it. No amount of preparation or research will completely eliminate the uncertainty. It just comes with the territory.
Having this shift in perspective makes it easier to take action. Once all the planning and preparation is taken care of, the only way of knowing how something will turn out is to actually take the steps forward.
This approach is essentially the same as adopting an experimental mindset and viewing the results as a set a data to work from, rather than a judgement of your worthiness. By taking this approach it helps to reduce the emotional charge around the thought of having a setback.
3. Fast Forward Your Life
So much energy is poured into worrying about failure that, unwittingly, we keep pushing away the thing we want most further into the future.
Close your eyes and fast forward your life a year from now.
How do you want feel?
What do you want to see?
What steps will get you closer to that vision?
What will you be missing out on, if you don’t take action?
Staying in touch with your future vision helps to shift your energy and your focus away from endless worrying and towards taking action that moves you closer to your goals.
If you don’t take action that moves you to your goals, then aren’t you just failing in a different way?
If your desires do not move you to take a step forward, even a really small step, then there may be a question of whether the goals you’ve set are really what you want versus something that you think you should want.
Occasionally, to help clients get the clarity they need, I’ve gently asked them, “What if you don’t do this?” It’s something I ask out of curiosity and while it sounds so basic, it allows them to ponder and get completely honest as to how important, or not, the goal really is to them. As a result it can steer the conversation to find what’s truly meaningful for them.
The Truth About Fear of Failure
Attempting something new, by definition, means we are venturing into something that we’ve never done before and by default will entail some unknowns, which can feel great or not so great.
The inevitable truth is failure can occur and is a natural part of the learning process and path to success. No amount of worrying or preparation will guarantee success. What is more important is our ability to manage the fear and how we respond, should setbacks arise.
When you dig into the true story of a person’s success, regardless which field they’re in, you’ll learn that they had failures along the way. Even well-known celebrities and business people like Oprah Winfrey, JK Rowling, Michael Jordan, Sara Blakely and Richard Branson, to name a few, all weathered failures on their path to success.
By understanding that the fear is created by our thoughts and beliefs based on the meaning we ascribe to failure, we can adopt strategies and a different mindset that will shift us from staying stuck to finally taking action towards our goals.
If you’re open to seeing how coaching can help you get past your fears and moving faster towards your goals, click here to schedule a complimentary discovery session.