Fear of failure

'Feel the fear and do it anyway' - wise words but remarkably hard to do. So it's tempting to sit back and let challenge pass you by rather than risk the horror of failure. If you feel that way, you're definitely not alone and there is a way through.

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Fear of failure can stop us moving forward in so many areas of our lives. From walking into a room with people we don’t know to buying a new house to applying for a new job. It’s fascinating in a macabre way to think of all the things we might have done if we weren’t afraid to fail. 

I know this from personal experience and I’ve thought long and hard about what drives it. It’s all very well to say ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ – sometimes that helps and it’s possible to push through; sometimes it just creates another failure in it’s own right – ‘I should just get on with it – everyone else does!’

Ultimately it comes down to self perception - how will I feel about myself if I fail? Will I chalk it up to more learning and maintain my sense of being an OK person? Or will I use it as more evidence that I’m no good and don’t deserve to succeed?

If you’re a ‘half full’ optimist, you’ll go for the first one, accepting that you did your best, you’ll learn from it and do better next time as a result. That’s the upbeat ‘I’m a worthwhile person’ stance.

If you’re a ‘half empty’ pessimist you’re in a much stickier place. You have just gained more fodder for self flagellation. You’ll want to curl up in a ball and never been seen out in public again. And you’ll go over and over what happened, building embarrassment levels as you go. This is where the pain lies – in that internal process of review, damnation and self blame.

What is failure?

Sometimes we really do fail. I was truly awful as a Biology teacher in my early 20’s. I was afraid of the kids, didn’t like my subject and felt totally out of my depth. When I resigned everyone was relieved, including me. Strangely, despite it being spectacular on the failure front, it never plagued me because it really was so very wrong.

The things I see as dreadful failures are often only seen by me. When I mention them to others, they often don’t know what I’m talking about.  It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally understood that I define the failure by holding a standard of complete perfection. My personal ‘failure police’ is a Doubting Twin (DT) with laser vision for anything that misses that standard.

It’s bad to fail and worse not to try

My DT also holds me in a double bind. If I try something new and get it wrong – that’s a failure. If I don’t try – I’ll feel really bad about myself.  So either way she’s got me. The alternative is to see that by never getting it right, I’m always going to win by being the very best failure!

What drives the Doubting Twin?

Remember that the DT is driven by a desire to keep us safe. She is always on the look out for danger, to stop us going down the wrong road. The problem lies in her definition of the ‘wrong road’. She’s sees danger everywhere and rarely sees what we do well – she just focuses on the flaw. 

What to do about it

First of all: realise you are not alone. From my research, I can tell you that many women – and some men - feel exactly the same. Part of the problem is that we assume we’re the only ones feeling like this, so i invite you to let go of that one if you want to.

When you feel the fear: recognise it as the DT and work out what she is scared of. Write down the pro’s and con’s and put measures in place so you reduce the risk. Sometimes the DT will actually be right; other times she’s just being a worry wart – so do your due diligence, take a deep breath and ‘go, go, go’.

Be honest with your trusted friends: having people around who understand your internal process and can give you a more balanced view of events is really helpful. You may well find that some of your mates have their own DT, so you can support each other by bringing a bit of reality to bear.

Manage the aftermath: after any perceived failure the DT will embark on a thorough analysis - and there will always be something wrong. Now is the time to refer back to those pro’s and con’s, because you probably knew what was coming and it’s unlikely to be worse than you expected. Talk with your friends and get their view of what you did well and less well. My guess is that you’ll be surprised at how positive they are.

Chalk it up to experience: for those of you blessed with a poor memory, this won’t be too much of an issue. But if your DT is strong, she’ll have the memory of an elephant and can drag up past failures to support her case with true ease. You don’t have to indulge in self flagellation, unless you’re determined. If you can manage it, focus on the good that came out of the remembered failures - there will always be something.

Get on with life: I do recognise that it’s much easier to say this than it is to do it. So if you’re caught in a negative loop, then get out into the world and do something you enjoy. When your mind ties you in knots, sometimes the only alternative is to sink into something different and unconnected. So go out and have some fun, watch a light movie or cook a meal – whatever floats your boat and whatever you do really well.

And let me reassure you - of the numerous women I spoke to about the Doubting Twin, they all underplayed their strengths. They all focused on what they did badly, forgetting their very real accomplishments. My guess is you’ll be exactly the same, so a moment to remember your skills and talent won’t go amiss!

Post your questions in the comments section below, ask us on the Psychologies Facebook and Twitter page or email letters@psychologies.co.uk. I’ll be posting regularly, answering your questions.

Judith Leary Joyce

Great Companies Consulting

In 1996 I made the shift into business, taking my knowledge of Gestalt Psychology into the realm of Executive Coaching, Facilitation and Leadership/ Management Development. In 2001 I worked on the 100 Best Companies to Work For list, then went on to write my first book Becoming an Employer of Choice which was followed by Inspirational Manager and The Psychology of Success. Since then I have worked with organisations across the sectors from large corporates through to young start ups, public sector and charities. Now it’s time to help you have a love affair with your work and get exactly what you want from your career. To find out more about my work and coaching go to www.judithlearyjoyce.com


Go to the profile of Bianca Corganiser
about 4 years ago

Thank you very much for this article .Your words made me reflect a lot on my life ,I think I need to follow your advice .You are such a great motivator :) 

Go to the profile of Judith Leary Joyce
about 4 years ago

Glad it was of help, Bianca - let me know how you get on.