Updated: Jul 21, 2022
No one likes to fail, but everyone fails at some point in their lives. For many people, the fear of failure paralyzes them from overcoming obstacles and reaching their goals.
The fear of failure creates negative self-talk that keeps people from learning and growing. Overcoming the fear of failure is necessary to achieve personal goals and succeed. Scientists, psychologists, and business leaders have studied the fear of failure and how people can overcome it.
Overcoming the fear of failure is divided into three areas:
Preparing for Fear of Failure
Confronting Fear of Failure
Recovering from Failure
How a person prepares for and confronts fear determines how well they can overcome it. Recovering from failure helps people overcome fear in future situations. Scientists have developed specific steps in each area to help people learn to overcome the fear of failure.
Preparing for Fear of Failure
A person must prepare to face failure to overcome the fear of it. The right mindset minimizes the fear of failure and puts it into perspective. While the fear of failure is a part of the achievement, overcoming the fear requires understanding what failure is and how to learn from it.
The steps to prepare for fear of failure are:
Find Benefits from Past Failures
Create Approach, not Avoidance Goals
Redefining failure can change a person’s perception and fear level. Forbes business magazine industry leaders suggest redefining failure as a learning opportunity helps overcome fear.
It would not be a failure if a person learned something from experience, even if what they discovered was that they didn’t have the right plan to succeed.
Psychologists suggest redefining failure as discrepancies or when outcomes didn’t meet expectations. When failure is defined in less personal terms or as a learning experience, there is less to fear.
To redefine fear, a person should look to past failures and consider the benefits they received. Learning a better way, discovering a new path, and realizing a plan didn’t work all provide benefits to overcoming the fear of future failure.
"Redefining failure can change a person’s perception and fear level. Industry leaders in Forbes business magazine suggest that redefining failure as learning opportunities helps overcome fear." - Vince Morales
When people use the information and experiences they gained from previous failures; they have less fear because they already know what to avoid.
Humans perceive failure as a threat. Because failure stops people from reaching their goals, they see it as a threat to their desires. Scientists at the University of California Berkley concluded that when people perceive a threat, their bodies prepare to fight it.
Physically, a person’s breathing and heart rate increase, and they go into “fight or flight” mode. Preparing to fight is negative stress on a person’s body and mind and can cloud their judgment, increasing their fear. These scientists suggest that a person should view failure as a challenge, not a threat. Considering failure as a challenge, a person can calmly and logically think through the problem and find a way to overcome it, decreasing their fear response.
To redefine a threat as a challenge, a person needs to visualize the obstacles they face. They must determine if their fear is based on a real or imagined threat. People often fear failure because they think of the worst-case scenario instead of focusing on positive ways to reach their goals and avoid failure. Facing a challenge holds less fear than facing a threat. Once a person has redefined failure, the next step is to create plans that approach success, not avoid failure. Approach goals focus on positive outcomes: learning something new, achieving a level of success, or growing to fill a need.
Avoidance goals focus on negative consequences: not freezing up during a presentation, not missing a deadline, or not falling short of a quota. Approach goals provide positive reinforcement, while avoidance goals create fear of failure.
Confronting Fear of Failure
When confronting the fear of failure, a person must accept fear as an emotion and move past it.
The steps to moving forward instead of letting fear stop a person include:
Let the Fear of Failure Pass
Change Goals as the Situation Develops
Fear is a human emotion, and everyone feels fear. Business leaders describe feeling the fear of failure when they started, but they acknowledged that fear and kept trying.
If a person’s goals are powerful enough, they can confront their fear of failure with a strong plan. When the desire for success is greater than the fear of failure, definite goals help a person overcome the fear.
People are often paralyzed by fear of failure when their plan isn’t working. They may start strong but begin to fear failure during a complex process. Psychologists suggest changing the goals in these situations.
Redefining failure by adjusting the goals limits fear. When forces beyond a person’s control block the path to success, a more limited plan can help a person to still achieve some success without fearing complete failure. While carrying out a plan, a person also needs to build confidence. Leaders at the Harvard Business Review suggest focusing on what a person learns along the way to build confidence for the next step in the process.
The fear of failure decreases when a person has confidence in their prior decisions and achievements. People limit their fear of the next step by reminding themselves of what they have already done.
I have had the opportunity to talk to military members about their fear of failure, especially as it pertains to transitioning from military to civilian life. I recall conversing with two Navy enlisted members who served in elite units where one of their significant focuses included life-saving missions. In those cases, failure can be catastrophic, especially with the constant risk of losing a life. But, I took some time to assure these fantastic men that they needed to permit themselves to fail and that failing in civilian life typically isn’t catastrophic as it would be serving in their elite units. Of course, the exception is if they worked in life-saving careers in their civilian jobs. That revelation hit one of those team members as they realized this was true. They could permit themselves to fail in civilian life, and people would not die. Check out my article Give Yourself Permission to Make Mistakes
Recovering from Failure
Even with the best intentions, any plan can lead to failure. Many successful people have failed multiple times. When a person does fail, they need to recover positively from experience.
The steps to recovering from failure include:
Treating Yourself Kindly
Learning from the Experience
People often berate themselves more harshly for failure than they would another person. Here again, the University of California Berkley scientists points out that treating yourself kindly after failure helps stop a person from fearing failure in the future.
If a person makes the repercussions of failure too hard on themselves, they may develop a negative self-image or negative self-talk that causes them to fear the next challenge.
A person also needs to accept their mistakes when they fail. Without admitting responsibility, they will repeat their mistakes repeatedly, limiting their success and developing a greater fear of failure each time they face a challenge. Recovering from failure includes preparing for the next challenge by accepting mistakes and correcting them.
If a person views failure as a learning experience, there is more to gain from failure and less to fear. Educators teach students that failure isn’t the end of learning. Instead, failure is the beginning of success.
Recovering from failure involves learning from the experience, so a person is better prepared to succeed when facing another challenge. Fear of failure is often fear of an unknown outcome. Learning from failure removes that fear because a person knows what does lead to failure and can make another choice instead.
Scientists understand that overcoming the fear of failure is based on human emotion and perception.
Overcoming the fear of failure involves defining failure more positively and using skills and abilities to confront it. When a person does fail, they can improve their outlook and limit fear by using failure as a learning experience.