Is the fear of failure holding you back from success?
Failure can mean different things for different people. For example, an aspiring writer may avoid taking a writing class because they fear criticism. Or a job applicant may avoid applying to their dream job because they don’t think they have a shot.
The fear of failure can be stifling. It can prevent us from pursuing our goals, meeting interesting people, or learning new and exciting things. We might miss out on a great personal or professional opportunity because we’re scared of messing up.
Everyone from CEOs to professional athletes to creatives have suffered from a fear of failure. But knowing that everyone has had this fear at some point in their lives can be comforting. It means that you don’t have to be superhuman or super courageous to be successful. That having fears and insecurities is completely normal. And that we can overcome our fear and go after what we want.
Overcoming our fear doesn’t necessarily mean that we should buck up and pretend that our fears don’t exist. It means that we should at least try and pursue our goals even in the face of fear.
Here are some strategies and techniques you can use to help you manage the fear of failure and go for what you want in life.
Dismantle the perfectionist trap
Studies have shown that people who have a fear of failure would rather avoid making a mistake than potentially achieve success. But this type of thinking is actually holding us back. We may think that mistakes are a bad thing, when in fact, it’s our perfectionism that’s stalling our progress.
Perfectionism can manifest in a number of ways. It can come in the form of procrastination or negative self talk or even burnout. Perfectionism can even occur after we’ve already achieved a high level of success. In fact, oftentimes, perfectionism and the fear of failure can intensify after we’ve scored a victory. We’re so scared of the high standards that we’ve set for ourselves that we don’t want to settle for anything less.
So how do we avoid the perfectionist trap?
One way to relieve our perfectionism is to take some time to identify what’s driving us to be perfect. Whether it’s speaking to a career coach or a therapist or reflecting in your journal, it can be helpful to explore the reasons behind our fear of making a mistake. Maybe you’ll discover that a teacher once harshly criticized you on a homework assignment or that you felt that you were only given praise from others when you did things correctly.
Identifying the root causes of our perfectionism can be the first step towards dismantling it. While the perfectionism trap won’t magically disappear overnight, figuring out what’s driving our perfectionism can help us become gentler to ourselves and manage our fear of failure.
Create lightweight goals that you can achieve
Goals give us purpose and something to aim for. But if we set a goal that is too ambitious and don’t end up achieving it, we might be too fearful to take another risk in the future. A good way to help you commit to a goal is to take the weight off and create smaller goals.
We’re often told to set big goals since they inspire us to dream big and work hard. While big goals may help motivate us to a certain degree, we still need to take into account that goals take time, energy, and dedication to achieve. And that a significant part of the goal-setting process is experiencing failure and learning how to handle failure. Setting lightweight goals help us develop our resiliency muscle and our ability to cope with setbacks. Otherwise, if we fail too big and too soon, we may never want to pick up an instrument or write or take another test again.
You wouldn’t take a couple of music lessons and then decide you’re ready to audition for Carnegie Hall. The same goes for our goals.
Create smaller goals and then build your way up. Just because a goal is small doesn’t make it any less respectable or impressive.
It’s better to have a small goal that you can achieve than a big goal that makes you freeze. For example, if your current goal is “have a successful freelancing career,” maybe you can reframe your goal to be “book one new client a month” or “reach out to 5 people in my professional network.”
By reducing the size of your goal, you’re making it much more palatable and easy to digest. And when you finish one small goal, you’ll be able to knock off another one and another one until you create a ripple effect.
The confidence you gain from achieving these smaller goals will help you manage your fear of failure and support you when you start tackling bigger goals.
Control what you can control
We tend to set outcome-based goals like “get a dream job” or “win a marathon.” But these outcome-based goals may provoke our fear of failure because we can’t predict the results. We have no idea if we’ll get our dream job or win a marathon because there are so many variables beyond our control. This sense of the unknown can cause our fear to intensify.
So instead of focusing on the unknown, focus on what you can control and what’s in your hands.
In other words, focus on the process.
Make a list of things you can manage. You may not be able to predict whether or not you’ll get your dream job, but you can make sure that you’ll work on your resume, edit your cover letter, reach out to people on LinkedIn, apply for the job, etc.
Embracing the process will help you keep your eye on the things within your control. Focus on the process and you will make great progress.
Have goldfish memory
You’ll often hear professional tennis players talk about the importance of having a goldfish memory when competing in a match. Meaning, that you need to focus on playing each point as they come, instead of regretting how poorly you played the last point or thinking about winning the trophy.
This focus on short term memory is an example of practicing mindfulness.
Whereas the fear of failure involves dwelling on past mistakes and worrying about our future performance, mindfulness is about focusing your attention on the present.
You can practice mindfulness by writing in your journal, meditating, or doing mindful activities like knitting, coloring, or even washing the dishes.
You can also try expressing gratitude for what you currently have going on in your life. When we only seek perfectionism and success, we may not take into account all the hard work and effort we’ve put in and that others have put in. Take a moment to recognize your work and progress along with all the people who’ve helped you along the way.
And if you find yourself worrying about a presentation or report or audition, try reciting a mantra to help you center your mind and bring your focus to the present.
Mindfulness helps us ease our fear of failure by bringing our attention to what’s happening at this very moment.
As they say, failure is not a setback, but a stepping stone to success. So embrace failure because it will show you where you need to grow in order to eventually reach the top.