Failure is invisible. It doesn’t have a face, like a clown, or a hundred faces, like a crowd.
“It’s one of the more challenging fears to pick up on,” said Beth Gagnon, LICSW, founder of Partners in Family Wellness in Salem. “You can’t always recognize the trigger. You can be 40 before you realize, oh that’s what’s happening.”
Most everybody experiences a fear of failure at some point in their lives, from making the grade to starting a business to kicking a winning goal. That’s to be expected. But when a fear of failure gets serious enough, it shifts from being a positive motivator to a debilitating road block.
Before a fear of failure reaches unhealthy levels, small, attainable steps can be taken to build confidence, see things realistically and stress less.
Get comfortable with negative feelings
Naturally, failing doesn’t feel too good. But the pain it causes is a normal human emotion. People who have a fear of failure are devoted to avoiding the emotional pain tied to lack of success, Gagnon said, and learning to tolerate difficult emotions is a huge help in trying to overcome a fear of failure.
“We can’t achieve perfectionism,” she said. “We are sometimes going to have challenges that exceed us, and just accepting that from the beginning is important.”
One way to begin to accept the negative feelings tied with failure is simply to fail. Actually failing at something may show you that while it is painful being unsuccessful, it’s probably not as bad as you think.
“Any fear disorder comes down to difficulty tolerating the feeling, so the more that you do to tolerate negative feelings and accept them, the better. It’s a mindfulness model,” Gagnon said.
(and set small goals)
Perfectionists often have difficulty recognizing their successes because they’re focused on obtaining large achievements, Gagnon said. But every great achievement consists of smaller ones we ought to pat ourselves on the back for.
“If you're looking at something from a perfectionist viewpoint, you might never see you have been successful. I think it’s different for everybody,” she said.
An inability to recognize small achievements can sometimes prevent people who suffer from fear of failure from pursuing their dreams in the first place, because the road from point A to point B seems overwhelming.
“If you’re ever going to be a famous violinist, you need to learn to play the violin,” Gagnon said.
So instead of fostering negative thoughts of potential failure to reach that ultimate goal, visualize doing the best you can at the level you are at.
As a society, we’re bombarded with the message that we can be so much better than we are, Gagnon said. The media tells us that our teeth aren’t white enough, we’re not skinny enough, we need the best clothes, we have to get great grades on the SATs, we need to have a high-paying job — the list of demands goes on and on. People who have a fear of failure can be more susceptible to the negative consequences of these messages.
“We all are dealing with external pressures, but not everyone turns into perfectionists,” Gagnon said.
Instead of comparing your achievements to others’, focus on the levels of effort you are putting into meeting your own goals and on doing your best.
“If you go into it and you say, ‘I have to get all As,’ well, maybe you’re going to get an A in English and maybe a B+ in math,” Gagnon said. “I’d rather my son say he put his best effort forth than not. Somebody could get an A and have not worked hard at all. … Focus on doing 100 percent for you.”
Being realistic also means being able to identify which goals are attainable and which are not. People who are more realistic in setting goals are less likely to have a fear of failure, said Ken Snow, a social worker and vice president of community relations at the Mental Health Centers. In order to assess how achievable a goal is, Snow suggests doing an assessment of your own capabilities, as well as taking an inventory of the supports and resources that are available to you.
Everybody experiences fear of failure at some point or another, and stress is a normal part of everybody’s life. It comes about when we’re confronted with a difficult situation and let’s us know we need to make adjustments, said Snow. But prolonged stress causes people to exceed coping thresholds, and that can result in distress that is physically harmful.
If the approaches described above seem overwhelming, or they just aren’t doing the trick and you are beginning to experience physical symptoms, it may be time to seek professional help. Reach out if you are experiencing difficulty eating or sleeping, if your relationships are beginning to be impaired or if you notice you are continually not meeting your potential due to being overwhelmed by your fear.
As seen in the March 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.