Fear of Failure (Atychiphobia)
Leaving Comfort Zones
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 2014 (re-written 3-10-2021)
Negative experiences with failure impacts future willingness to face risk. We cower before opportunity and stagnate.
A child fears failure when normal stumblings are severely chastened. Painful scolding burns inadequacy into young minds. The child must contend with the powerful emotions of disappointing significant figures in their developing lives. The subsequent turning away by the caregiver is a more significant blow to development than the original failing. Many emerge from childhood scarred and frightened; failure is unacceptable. This ugly gift of inadequacy bestows deep and lasting scars that interfere with motivation for decades to come.
What is Fear of Failure?
Fear of failure is when fear that we might fail prevents us from moving towards opportunities for growth and development. We don't apply for the job because we might be rejected. We don't call the girl for a date because she might turn us down. Fear of failure intrudes on all areas of our life, from trying a new recipe to attending a yoga class. Our fears torment our futures by injuring motivation in the present.
Fear of failure is a ruinous intrusion on motivation, linked to sensitivity to shame and embarrassment, negative physical and mental health, defensive pessimism and handicapping, as well as distorted interpretations of experience (Wright, Pincus, Conroy, & Elliot 2009).
Fear of Failure is when fear stops us from trying things we are uncertain about the outcome, either from lack of skill or outside forces.
What Does Fear of Failure Look Like?
The result of fear of failure is missed opportunity but the path varies. Our minds are masterful of camouflaging our involvement and then massaging the ego. We sabotage our lives, run from opportunity and then blame the world for our stagnating demise.
Our first line of defense is to understand how fear of failure expresses itself. When we know the symptoms, we can address the cause, and get on with living a better life.
Worry Over How Our Failure Appears to Others
Often to prevent others from knowing about failure, we privately set goals, so if we fail, know one will know. However, we lose the additional motivation to succeed without the influence of supportive others.
Harriet Lerner explains in her wonderful book The Dance of Fear that, "many common fears—the fear of rejection, intimacy, social situations, or speaking in public—are about shame. At bedrock is the fear of being seen as essentially flawed, inadequate, and unworthy of being loved" (2005, location 173).
"I think I've always been somebody, since the deaths of my father and brother, who was afraid to hope. So, I was more prepared for failure and for rejection than for success."
Lack of Confidence in Ability to Succeed
Confidence in our ability to succeed is essential for any action. Confidence doesn't imply we won't fail; but the calm assuredly that even if we do fail, we will respond effectively, learn from the mistake and move forward stronger and wiser.
See Self-Determination Theory for more on this topic
Fear of failure often prepares for failure more than success. We tell others, often in humor, that we don't expect to succeed but thought we would try anyways. These small mental preparations smooth the way for the failure that we expect—and fear.
While preparing for failure isn't ideal, at least we are trying to do something new. However, another failure to our growing list does little to improve self-confidence. Successful achievement, no matter how small, is necessary for growing confidence.
See Over Analyzing for more on this topic
Last Minute Distraction
Many times, as a project or goal conclusion comes into sight, we find distractions to divert attention from the last final steps. We almost get there; but then divert attention and fail. Procrastination is positively associated with fear of failure (Haghbin, McCaffrey, & Pychyl 2012).
One of the odd paradoxes of life, we invite that which we deathly fear.
See Self-Confirming Labels for more on this topic
Self Sabotage is a nasty demon. We do things that ensure failure. We don't just procrastinate finishing; we destroy what we have accomplished. We get arrested for drunk driving the night before the big presentation. We have an affair once settling into our first healthy relationships. We post an offensive rant on social media. The ways to destroy are many and we can be wickedly creative.
See Self-Sabotage for more on this topic
We can be conscientious. Conscientiousness is beneficial, preparing for likely obstacles and employing effective strategies. Perfectionism amplifies ordinary conscientious preparations into ridiculous worry.
Preparation must give way to action. At some point in the preparatory phase benefits of preparation decline and taking action is the logical next step. Failures may occur because the plan is never perfect against the backdrop of an dynamic unpredictable world.
We tentatively or robustly move forward so we can learn the weakness of our plan. Perfectionism doesn't allow this courageous step forward. "What ifs" haunt, stir anxiety, and push for perfect preparation.
What Causes Fear of Failure?
Childhood and Traumatic Events
A harsh past colors new experience with unbearable risk, unknowns spark undue fear. Unpredictable novel experience alarms, signaling looming disaster. These underlying fears, unless addressed, may stunt growth, preventing flourishing in love and life.
Childhoods where normal explorations were littered with negative reactions from important figures, the child learns to avoid the shame. Failures frighten the child because adult interpreted the failure as a defining characteristic rather than a normal step of development. We integrate these views into our personal psyche.
Traumatic events also taint our views moving forward. Many of us emerge from childhood holding that the world is a wonderful and secure place. We courageously move forward in ignorance to possibilities. Life can dole out lessons of unimaginable hurt. Traumatic physical and emotional experience can shatter our bubbles of security, leading to inordinate avoidance of new situations.
Fear of failure is a form of anxiety. Often, fear of failure accompanies other expressions of anxiety. Even learned reactions rely heavily on biological susceptibility of our genetic make-up.
Blaming inhibiting anxiety on parents, trauma, or society often misses the significant contributions of innate characteristics. These failings in attributing cause then subsequently overlook answers for the cure, namely professionally prescribed medications.
Dangerous fears of failure are very much a mental illness that need professional assistance. They are not a weakness in our moral fiber, grit, or any other annoying application of ideals forced upon victims suffering from biological structures.
Ideas for Overcoming Fear of Failure
Widening Our Interpretation of Success
A tender rose bud, tightly closed, is not diseased. The bud is in the process of becoming a radiant flower. We are becoming; a bud waiting to bloom; no matter what the beginning, the future remains to be determined.
The bud promises a beautiful bloom, even though at the moment it is enclosed on itself. Setbacks and momentary failures are the bud that leads to the fragrant flower.
Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players to grace the hardwood floors and six time world champion, said, "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. And that is why I succeed."
A missed shot was only a failure in insignificant terms. A failure against itself; but compared to the game, the season, and his hall of fame career, the missed shots were necessary for his success.
C. Richard Snyder, a previously a Wright Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas and editor of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, explains a different in focus in terms of hopeful individuals. He wrote, "while it is true that higher-hope persons do not dwell on failures, this is basically because they are mentally invested and focused on accomplishing their goals" (2003, location 272).
Fear of failure in more focused on the myopic cost of the individual stumblings. Instead of focused on the world championship, they see the missed shot. Instead of reaching for becoming a great chef, they worry about burning the potatoes.
Growth is painful; but also pleasant.
Worst Case Scenario
Instead of a vague fear of 'something' happening, envisioning the worst case scenario may help. Many find that realistic worst-case scenario imagining can be helpful when the scenario is not that ominous. We see it and grasp that even in the worst case scenario we can make it through.
Contingency planning is the healthy cousin to planning to fail. Planning to fail focuses on failure and softening to blow to the ego. Contingency planning focuses on the obstacles and preplanning a response. Contingency planning is essential in addiction recovery, career planning, and most goals.
Adjustments are much easier when events are not a complete surprise. We can stop, say to ourselves, "I thought this might happen," and then relying on a prepared response.
We must remain vigilant to not allow contingency planning to slip into perfectionism. We can't plan for every possible obstacle.
We must develop the skill of reframing negative, anxiety provoking thoughts into positive ruminations of possibility. We need hope. We need to believe we are capable of achievement. Some of this comes from past success and some from positive views of ourself.
Positive thinking creates positive emotions, and positive emotions invite growth.
See Broaden and Build Theory for more on this topic
Fear of Failure Perpetuates
The broken soul’s sensitivities jump when corrected, igniting defensiveness, and fear. The slightest reminders of imperfection feel unbearable and demand a protective counter-attack.
One adaptive response to soften fears is not helpful, often perpetuating the fear and damaging confidence. We can't force the world to adapt to coddle our entrapping sensitivities, always avoiding notable triggers and only befriending softer personalities. These efforts are limiting. A greater work is developing ourselves, attending to our injured soul, directing compassion inward and embracing the person that we are. Until the broken soul is treated, outside forces, no matter how kind, will always threaten.
Personal Growth and Fear
My rose bud example is simple, providing a nice, but inadequate representation of our being. Our experience is more complicated, full of complexities; perhaps we expand the example of the rose and consider the entire rose bush. A rose bush is adorned with an array of flowers in various stages of blooming. We, even in brokenness, have some character traits in full bloom, while others are struggling to form. The individual rose buds have beauty different than the bursting floral beauty of a mature flower.
Within the bud is the grand potential for color and intoxicating fragrance. We don’t carelessly clip the forming buds because of current lack. Instead, we make room for the bloom. We find areas to prune, eliminating unproductive branches and withering flowers, while allocating more nourishment to the tender buds.
Our growth requires tender care—not careless tearing the undesirable from the whole. We gently, carefully, and lovingly trim, nourish and care for the soul. Many lost souls need guidance in this task, being raised in a critical world of harsh punishing remarks, they have adopted patterns, becoming a self-berating critic, embodying their childhood environment.
"Growth requires tender care—not carelessly tearing the undesirable from the whole."
Effective approaches for improvement require practice, persistence and patience. Growth isn’t easy, nor is it quick. New paths are demanding. There are no quick fixes or easy escapes. When we undertake this work with false expectations of ease, desiring a magical transformation, the eventual collisions with reality discourage.
We can experience success. We must start small. Gregg Krech, the leading North American expert on Japanese Psychology, advises that we begin "with actions that are so small, so insignificant, that there’s no resistance, no reason to procrastinate or avoid the task" (2014, location 611).
We must embrace change with kindness, identifying weakness with curiosity, understanding, and persistence. Growth can be an exciting process—not feared but embraced. Yet, when newness is greeted with childhood fears, the change intimidates; self-enlightenment is avoided. The past keeps replaying tired childhood dramas. We are compelled to soothe our fears by burying weaknesses, hiding the imperfections and feigning completeness.
We can free ourselves from the childhood chains holding us back; we must escape. We must compassionately tend the emotional disruptions interfering with reality, distorting experience and blocking knowledge. We may need outside guidance to widen our views. But with proper guidance, and healthy doses of humility, we progress, escaping the damaging sensitivities. The beauties of life begin to unfold in reality, opening to bright blooms. We continue to carry imperfections and the accompanying fears but do so with hope and joy.
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Haghbin, M., McCaffrey, A., & Pychyl, T. (2012). The Complexity of the Relation between Fear of Failure and Procrastination. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 30(4), 249-263.
Krech, G. (2014). The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology. ToDo Institute; First Edition
Lerner, H. (2005). The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear, and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self. Perennial Currents; Reprint edition.
Snyder, C. R. (2003). Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. Free Press.
Wright, A., Pincus, A., Conroy, D., & Elliot, A. (2009). The Pathoplastic Relationship Between Interpersonal Problems and Fear of Failure. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 997-1024.