What Is the Fear of Failure?
The fear of failure, which is sometimes referred to as atychiphobia, is an irrational and persistent fear of failing. Sometimes this fear might emerge in response to a specific situation. In other cases, it might be related to another mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.
The fear of failure may also be related to being a perfectionist. Because perfectionists have such high expectations for how they expect things to turn out, they may experience a nagging fear that they won't live up to those often unrealistically high standards.
A fear of failure can produce emotional and behavioral symptoms. Some of the common signs of this fear include:
Feeling a loss of control
In addition to emotional and behavioral symptoms, people with a fear of failure may also experience physical symptoms including rapid heart rate, chest tightness, trembling, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating, and digestive problems.
Identifying the Fear of Failure
The fear of failure may affect people in a variety of ways, which means that it's not always easy to identify. Some of the ways that people may experience the fear of failure include:
Believing that you don't have the skills or knowledge to achieve something
Feeling like you won't be able to achieve your goals
Procrastinating to the point that it affects your performance or ability to finish on time
Telling people that you will probably fail so that expectations remain low
Underestimating your own abilities to avoid feeling let down
Worrying that imperfections or shortcomings will make other people think less of you
Worrying that you will disappoint others if you fail
In some cases, the fear of failure may cause people to avoid trying altogether. Because they are so afraid that they will try and not succeed, they simply decide not to try at all in order to prevent potential pain, embarrassment, or disappointment.
While fear of failure is not listed as a distinct condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), it is possible that you might be diagnosed with a specific phobia if your symptoms meet certain diagnostic criteria. In order to be diagnosed with a specific phobia, your symptoms must:1
Involve excessive and unreasonable fear
Involve an immediate anxiety response
Be marked by avoidance or extreme distress
Limit your ability to function normally
Last as least six months and not be due to another condition
A fear of failure can have a wide variety of causes. Some potential causes include:
Critical upbringing: People who grow up in households that are highly critical or unsupportive may be more likely to experience a fear of failure. Because they felt that they could never live up to their family's expectations during childhood, they may continue to fear making mistakes as adults.
Definitions of failure: People often have different definitions of what failure means. For some people, it means not achieving something exactly as they planned. This can create a set of expectations that is very difficult to live up to.
Trauma: People who experienced a difficult or even traumatic failure may also be very afraid of repeating that experience in the future. Having a panic attack during a presentation or being ridiculed for your performance, for example, could contribute to feelings of fear. Negative consequences resulting from failure, such as losing a job or not getting into a college, can also be risk factors that contribute to the fear of failure.
While everyone may be afraid of failing from time to time, it becomes more serious when it inhibits your ability to pursue your goals and achieve the things you want to accomplish in life.
Impact of the Fear of Failure
A fear of failure can take a toll on a person’s belief in their abilities and their motivation to pursue their goals.
Low self-esteem: People who fear failure may also engage in negative self-talk or have low self-confidence that makes it difficult to pursue goals.
Poor motivation: When people fear failure, they may also experience a lack of motivation that makes it difficult to get started on projects and work toward goals. When something seems too challenging or involves learning new skills, people may simply give up or refuse to get involved.
Self-sabotage: It isn't uncommon for people who fear failure to engage in acts of self-handicapping that undermine their own chances of success. Research has found, for example, that students who fear failing often engage in self-handicapping behaviors that actually limit academic success and perpetuate failure. 2
Shame: The fear of failure often stems from a fear of experiencing shame or embarrassment. Failing can trigger feelings worthlessness, so avoiding trying in the first place can sometimes serve as a way to protect the self from disappointment, regret, and sadness.
Treatment for the fear of failure depends on a variety of factors including how you experience this fear and the impact that it has on your life. In many cases, people can use self-help strategies to cope with these feelings.
If your fear of failure is impeding your ability to function normally, it is important to talk to a professional. Treatment options for a fear of failure might include:
Psychotherapy can help you address the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that contribute to a fear of failure.
Medications may be prescribed to help you manage feelings of anxiety or depression that might be linked to your fear.
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In many cases, a combination of these two treatment options with lifestyle changes may be the most effective
There are also a number of strategies that you can use to help reduce feelings of fear about failure. Some of these include:
Consider the outcomes: Sometimes thinking about the worst possible outcome—and then coming up with a plan for how you’ll deal with it—can help reduce anxiety when you are pursuing your goals.
Focus on the things you can control: Instead of worrying about aspects of the situation that you have no power over, focus your energy on things that you can control.
Plan ahead: When you are facing a challenge that might trigger your fear of failing, work on developing alternative plans just in case your initial efforts don’t go as planned. Having a plan B (or plan C) can help you feel less anxious and more secure.
Redefine failure: Changing how you think about failure may also help reduce your feelings of fear. Failure is part of life and can be an important opportunity to learn and acquire new skills. It can certainly be disappointing, but it is important to maintain a healthy perspective toward the potential benefits of failing from time to time. Remember that success is often reached through a series of progressive failures that lead to new information, skills, and strategies.
Use positive thinking: Avoid negative self-talk that can undermine your confidence and create feelings of anxiety. Instead, work on thinking more like an optimist to keep your motivation high.
Visualization May Backfire
While visualization is often touted as a tool for success, research actually shows that this motivational strategy can backfire with people who have a high fear of failure. One study found that people with a strong fear of failing experienced strong negative moods after they engaged in an activity that involved visualizing success.