Overcoming failure fear

by Oct 1, 2019Life & Money Q&As

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How can I overcome my fear of failure?

Reframe failure as a source of wisdom and growth.
Let go of your fear and embrace the creativity
and change that comes from vulnerability.

I recently found this question on Quora. The statistics are testament to the deep societal and emotional pressures around failure that afflict so many people these days. The question has over 1.1 million views, is followed by nearly 1,300 people and links to nearly 140 similar questions. Whilst hoping this is not a symptom of a global lack of self-confidence, I recognise that many people suffer deep stress around potential failure. As I have ‘form’ in this area, I hope the benefits of my lifelong experience and learning can go someway to easing the burden for those who suffer from fear of failure.

I left school in the early ’70s. Within a few years, I had made a complete mess of my life. It took me over 25 years to get back on track. I found myself profoundly damaged and unable to make progress with my life in any meaningful sense. It led to a wasted quarter of a century. Having failed once, my fear of further failure was enormous.

However, I overcame it (with help), made more mistakes, recovered from them and in time grew and developed. So, it’s a privilege to give you some of the answers that I discovered in my own journey.

Fear failure or accept it?

For many, failure means shame, loss, dishonour and all those emotions that make failure so difficult to bear. However, there is another side of the failure coin. It is worth remembering that every failure is a learning process, an opportunity for growth. In fact, it’s arguable that those who experience failure become stronger than those who don’t. However, honesty is necessary to benefit from our experiences of failure.

I often help my clients understand that mistakes are our greatest asset.

Whenever I embark on something with no certainty of the outcome, I set myself up for potential failure. In spite of (or because of) all my planning, nothing entirely goes according to plan. So in setting myself up for a possible failure, I am becoming vulnerable. If I see this as the route to shame and exclusion, I will remain in a mindset of fear. My alternative is to embrace vulnerability as a route to creativity, change and growth. This will make it much easier to overcome my fear of failure.

Ditch your ego

With self-compassion, re-discover the art of letting go of all that drives your ego. The ancient Greeks termed this ‘kenosis’. Karen Armstrong, the highly acclaimed author and commentator, described it as ’emptying oneself of the greed, selfishness, and pre-occupations that, perhaps inevitably, are engrained in our thoughts and behaviours’.

Our egotism is a source of much of our fear of failure. When you talk about the fear of failure, what you probably mean is fear of damaging your ego. It might also derive from the potential for real loss of money, friendships, and future opportunities. Whether it is emotional or other damage caused by failure, letting go of your fear will be liberating.

I find meditation a great help. It provides an opportunity to listen to and tap into your immensely powerful feelings. However, your stories get attached to them and smother their emotional strength. Take time to empty your mind of the stories you tell yourself and feel the emotion inside you. My mentor always used to say to me’ let the thoughts go, let the feelings be’.

Review your past failures

There is real merit in looking back at your previous failures. However, it’s human nature to put a gloss on the story to save yourself reliving the pain. It’s vital to overcome this reluctance to confront the truth. Until you do so, the real benefits of the failure will never become apparent. When you recognise those benefits, the fear of future failure will fade away.

Brené Brown offers a three-part process for coming to terms with our failures. Moreover, dealing with our failures maturely and honestly develops wisdom. This, in turn, helps us lead more fulfilled lives.

Part 1 of the process, the reckoning, is about discovering your feelings around the story of your failure. This will unveil valuable insights into how they influence your thoughts and actions. Part 2, the rumble, is about getting to the truth of what you did. Strip away the false assumptions and self-protection that prevent you from accepting your failure. Part 3, the revolution, uses your new, true ending to ensure you do it better next time.

This process for dealing with your failures should be as inevitable as the failures themselves. Practising on past failures provides you with the confidence and skills to apply it to your next inevitable failure. You will overcome the fear of failure with this process in your toolbox, rehearsed and available for the next occasion.

Get curious about your fear of failure.

You acknowledge the fear of failure. However, have you considered the real impact of failure, or do you just suffer from a blanket fear? To find out, ask yourself some searching questions about what might happen if things go wrong. This should provide a different perspective on the issue. It can help you realise any potential failure might not be as bad as we anticipate.

More importantly, you might realise that the potential benefits are more valuable than any possible downside. Questions are powerful magic. They make us think and explore the details. Questions give rise to deeper insights and the confidence to go ahead or discontinue.

Here are a few questions to consider about any project or course of action you are planning:

  • What are my beliefs and assumptions about what I am going to do? How valid are they? How do I know?
  • Are there other options?
  • What’s the worse that could happen? What’s the best that could happen? What could cause me to fail and how can I mitigate this

Get to know yourself.

A few millennia ago the philosopher Plato advised us to ‘know thyself’. It’s still sound advice. As Bernadette Jiwa tells us in Story Driven, ‘you don’t need to compete when you know who you are’. There is less pressure to make a mistake if you don’t have to compete. In this context, competition could be other businesses, friends, family, society, social mores or anything else. And, when you know who you are, you are better equipped to make decisions that will lead to success. You are a long way down the road to overcoming your fear of failure when you know yourself.

Tasha Eurich is an organisational psychologist and author of Insight: the power of self-awareness in a self-deluded world. She suggests that ‘for most people it easier to choose self-delusion – the antithesis of self-awareness – over the cold, hard truth.’ She describes self-awareness as ‘the meta-skill of the twenty-first century’. With this powerful skill in your toolbox, you are well on the way to overcoming your fear of failure.

Know what you value and aspire to

A sub-set of knowing yourself is having a clear understanding of your values and aspirations. Think navigation here. Your expectations are a map showing where you are now and where you want to be. Your values help you choose the best route from here to there. Values are fundamental to any decision you have to make about a course of action. A sound set of values set out in a life manifesto, will undoubtedly overcome your fear of failure.

Get some help in working out your values. A web search on ‘values list’ brings up lists of anything up to 200 words and phrases that could apply to you. Work out which resonate with you and test against everyday experiences. Select your True North value, your leading and overriding value which keeps your life compass aligned with true north.

Talk to someone

A problem shared really is a problem halved. Therefore, when making a decision that could result in failure, talk to someone about it. In my practice, I have a saying: conversation changes lives. Talking to someone about potential failure can only help in your decisions and assuage your fear of failure.

Embrace failure, don’t fear it.

Fear of failure can inhibit your personal growth and your ability to make a difference in the world. It can stultify you and keep you cocooned in your comfort zone. Overcome your fear by reframing failure as a source of wisdom and growth. Explore the consequences of failure in more detail. Consider how you might reduce the possibility of failure and deal with its results. Above all, let go of your fear and embrace the creativity and change that comes from vulnerability. Then you will really sleep at night and live wholeheartedly by day.

References and resources

Armstrong, K. (2009). The Case for God. Knopf

Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. Spiegel and Grau

Brené Brown is a researcher and author specialising in vulnerability and story. Her books, particularly Living Brave and Rising Strong, are exceptionally useful books for anyone studying failure, recovery and wholehearted living.

The questions listed in the paragraphs on getting curious about your fear are well rehearsed. Some are included in Warren Berger’s book of beautiful questions, along with many other hints and questions that will prove exceptionally useful in dealing with failure and success.

Berger, W. (2018). The Book of Beautiful Questions: the powerful questions that will help you decide, create, connect and lead. Bloomsbury Publishing

Find out about the power of questions with our Moving Questions exercise which you can visit at https://shrtm.nu/M8nx 

Jiwa, B. (2018). Story Driven: You don’t need to compete when you know who you are. Perceptive Press

Eurich, T. (2107). Insight: The power of self-awareness in a self-deluded world. Macmillan.

At Living Money we have created an exercise to help you define your values.. The exercise includes a list of values relating to your inner self, your relations with others and your relations with the environment. The exercise includes detailed instructions and can be downloaded from https://shrtm.nu/5Bko. 

Photo: Getty Images / iStock Photo / Drepicter

This post has been adapted from Jeremy Deedes’ original answer to a question on asked by a Quora member.
Click the buttons below to see the original answer, other answers and our responses to other questions posed by Quora members.


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