Although many of us may accept in theory that failure is a necessary component of all learning and growth, in practice, we often struggle greatly with failing.
Very few of us know how to fail well. Intellectually, we may know that we need a growth mindset in order to develop, and yet failure remains an experience that is often associated with shame and embarrassment.
Failure can also be socially stigmatized. How, then, can we overcome our fear of failure so that we can truly benefit from what failing has to teach us?
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There are various reasons we may fear failure. Perhaps the most common is that our self-esteem tends to be tied to achievement and success.
When we fail at something — be that a project at work, a job interview, an exam, a competition — or if our relationship breaks down or our business goes under, our self-image suffers. We may feel worthless, and we may harshly castigate ourselves for our failure.
If we fail publicly, our failure plainly visible to others, we may also fear other people’s judgment and that our failure may have wider social repercussions. We may fear that our failure will impact or end our career, or else that it will permanently damage our reputation and status.
While it is understandable that we fear failure, this fear can also hold us back. It may prevent us from seeking new experiences, venturing into the unknown, or taking risks of any kind. It may lead to us staying in situations that do not make us happy and that are not conducive to long-term growth.
Fear of failure can cause procrastination, avoidance, and stagnation. In the form of pessimistic beliefs about our efficacy, agency, and chances of succeeding at what is important to us, it can adversely impact our wellbeing.
Is fear of failure a phobia?
Extreme fear of failure is called atychiphobia, and it severely affects the ability of sufferers to function well in daily life (Collins Dictionary, n.d.).
While atychiphobia is not a recognized medical diagnosis, we can think of it as a sub-form of anxiety disorder. It may be manifested in extreme avoidant behavior and very maladaptive procrastination.
It can be completely paralyzing and lead to affected clients being unable to function at their jobs or at home. It can also cause panic attacks and excessive ruminative anticipation of situations that trigger this fear response.
While this truly debilitating fear of failure is quite rare, a less pronounced and more subtle fear of failure is much more common. However, even in its less extreme form, fear of failure can have seriously adverse effects on wellbeing.
15 Common Symptoms of Fear of Failure
Common symptoms of fear of failure include the following (Conroy et al., 2002).
In terms of behaviors, fear of failure can lead to:
In terms of physical symptoms, a fear of failure can generate:
An increased heart rate
Faster, shallower breathing
Emotionally speaking, fear of failure may manifest as:
We may not always be fully aware of our fear of failure, even when we experience its common core symptoms. But we can become more aware of what might be behind our fear of failure: our underlying beliefs, orientations, and past experiences that may have made us more failure averse.
What causes fear of failure?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, psychologists have established that fear of failure is strongly correlated with perfectionism (Conroy et al., 2007).
Fear of failure is also related to specific self-beliefs, especially to our self-esteem being linked to achievement and success.
It is also shaped by experiences, upbringing, and wider social values. Essentially, fear of failure is a fear of judgment, often the perceived external judgment by others, but also inner judgment of value passed internally, which impacts self-image and self-esteem.
Atkinson (1957) described fear of failure as a desire to avoid failure in situations that matter to us because we fear the shame that is associated with it.
Conroy et al. (2002) explain fear of failure as a multidimensional construct. More specifically, it is a threat that we may experience when we seek to achieve personally meaningful goals. Failure is associated with aversive consequences.
Conroy et al. (2002) identified five core beliefs about the consequence of failure, all of which are associated with threat appraisal and fear.
Fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment
Fear of devaluing one’s self-estimate
Fear of having an uncertain future
Fear of important others losing interest
Fear of upsetting important others
Fear of failure, perfectionism, and procrastination
Sagar and Stoeber (2009, p. 206) have shown that the “fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment is central in the relationship between perfectionism and fear of failure, and that perfectionistic concern about mistakes […] are aspects of perfectionism that predict fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment and negative affect after failure.” McGregor and Elliot (2005) have also established a link between shame and fear of failure.
Stoeber and Otto (2006) have shown that it is important to be more precise when we talk about perfectionism. They suggest we differentiate carefully between “perfectionistic strivings,” that is, our desire for excellence and care for high performance, which are often positive, and “perfectionistic concerns.”
Perfectionistic concerns are our evaluations of our performance, and these evaluations can have a negative impact on our self-esteem and future performance. It is evaluative perfectionist concerns that have negative associations and consequences, not our perfectionist striving as such. Perfectionist concerns are, for example, closely linked with fear of failure in athletes (Frost & Henderson, 1991; Stoeber & Becker, 2008).
Moreover, Conroy et al. (2007) have shown that socially prescribed perfectionism is particularly toxic for performance and wellbeing. Parental expectations and parental criticism, too, can play a significant role in fear of failure.
Finally, Abdi Zarrin et al. (2020) have found a strong correlation between students’ tendencies to procrastinate and their fear of failure. Procrastination can have a severely negative impact on academic achievement. Procrastination is both a consequence of and a symptom of fear of failure.
Fear of failure, motivation, and success
As Stoeber and Otto (2006) have shown, perfectionistic strivings can be highly motivating and lead to increased success, whereas perfectionist evaluations can lead to fear of failure and lack of taking action.
Fear of failure, in particular if we associate failure strongly with shame, embarrassment, negative self-image, judgment, and uncertainty about our future, can prevent us from taking action and risks. It can therefore stifle our motivation and severely impact our chances of succeeding in life.
Fear of failure and anxiety
As mentioned above, excessive and truly paralyzing fear of failure is known as atychiphobia and can be considered a subcategory of anxiety disorder, although it is not recognized as an official medical diagnosis.
Anxieties that are associated with fear of failure usually revolve around fear of punishment; judgment; adverse impact on our careers, status, and reputation; and fear of losing or disappointing important others (Conroy et al. 2002).
2 Fascinating Research Findings
Sagar and Stoeber (2009, p. 621) found that perfectionists, especially those who score highly on perfectionist concerns and who tend to evaluate their own performance harshly, are particularly vulnerable to experiencing shame and embarrassment.
Crucially, it is their perceptions and interpretations that lead them to feel shame and embarrassment, not necessarily the objective quality of their performance as such. In other words, what counts as failure in their books may not be considered failure by other people.
Perfectionists often equate perfect performance with self-worth, whereas they see failure as a sign of being worthless (Tangney, 2002). This is obviously a highly problematic association. We may help clients who are prone to think like this to shift their focus from self-worth to self-acceptance and support them to develop more compassionate self-narratives that are not conditional on external success.
How to Overcome Fear of Failure
How, then, can the fear of failure be overcome? First, look at your mindset — your attitudes about failing. Reminding yourself that there is no growth without failure — no learning, no development, no new experiences — can help you see your aversion in a new light.
Cultivate what Carol Dweck (2017) has called a growth mindset, an openness to learning from failure in the service of overall development.
Second, start by gently building your failure muscle in a safe space. Try to learn a new skill or hobby — a sport, cooking, dancing, drawing, playing an instrument — and be kind to yourself in the learning process. Mindfully allow yourself to fail, to try again, to fail again but better, and try again, until you get somewhere.
Third, recall gritty successful people who failed a hundred, or maybe even a thousand times, before they got somewhere with their attempts. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, for example, is famous for having said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Fourth, watch how a toddler learns to walk. They do not study a “how to walk upright” manual. Instead, they learn by doing and, especially, by failing. They stand up, stumble, fall, stand up, stumble, fall, and stand up again, over and over again, until they learn to stand, then to walk, and then how to run.
Finally, simply start seeing your failures as teachers. Instead of indulging in self-recrimination and feeling sorry for yourself when you fail, ask yourself: What can I learn from this experience? What can I do better next time? What is the lesson here? And remember: While it is hard to fail, it is much worse never to have tried to succeed.
Overcoming Fear of Failure at Work
A fear of failure at work is not a trivial matter.
Excessive fear of failure at work can stifle experimentation, productivity, and creativity. It can impact your ability to find new pathways and venture into the unknown in search of new solutions to challenges. But attitudes to failure at work are a collective challenge.
To truly learn from failure at work, a culture change may be needed. Organizational cultures should support experimentation and be committed to continuous learning and growth. That includes looking at failure with openness and curiosity rather than punishing it.
The Japanese concept of “kaizen” — steady, incremental improvement — can be very helpful for implementing genuine learning cultures in organizations.
3 Activities for Individuals and Groups
The good news is that fear of failure can be overcome. We can build our “failure muscle” gently and in safe spaces, alone or together.
1. Try something new
Learn a new skill as a group and have fun in the process. That might be ice skating, rock climbing, hip-hop dancing, a cooking class, or wood carving. When you mess up or fall on your back, try to laugh about it.
This will help you let go of unhelpful perfectionism and train your collective failure muscles. Give yourself permission to fail playfully.
2. Reflection sessions
Introduce regular failure-analysis sessions in your workplace. Learn to talk openly about what went wrong, but also what went well, and what you can learn from these experiences.
These sessions will help destigmatize failure in your organization and allow you to shift your mindset to one of learning. Follow the motto: “There is no failure, only feedback.”
3. Journal the lessons learned
Journal about your private failures. Keep a little diary in which you capture what your failures have taught you. Take seriously Samuel Beckett’s advice about “failing better.” How can you fail better next time?
3 Tests and Assessment Questionnaires
Conroy et al. (2002) developed the Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory (PFAI).
It differentiates five aversive fears of failure:
Fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment
Fear of devaluing one’s self-estimate
Fear of having an uncertain future
Fear of important others losing interest
Fear of upsetting important others
The PFAI includes 25 items measuring beliefs associated with negative consequences of failure.
If you think your fear of failure is so severe that it might be atychiphobia, you might find the Failure Phobia test useful.
Interesting Books About Fear of Failure
There are two classics about how to overcome fear of failure and work on your mindset, written by two acclaimed authors. In addition, we share a third book that advocates the destigmatization of failure.
1. Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential – Carol Dweck
We have a fixed mindset when we believe that our abilities, skills, and intelligence are fixed and cannot be changed. Conversely, we have a growth mindset when we believe we can develop and improve our abilities. We may grow and develop through hard work, perseverance, and of course by learning from our mistakes.
People with a growth mindset are much more likely to embrace challenges, persist through obstacles, and see failure as learning opportunities. Those with a fixed mindset, by contrast, may be more likely to give up when faced with challenges or setbacks and may see failure as a reflection of their own inherent limitations.
2. Grit: Why Passion and Resilience are the Secrets to Success – Angela Duckworth
In this book, psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as the combination of passion and perseverance over time.
Grit, she argues, is a key predictor of success in any field. Crucially, it can be cultivated and developed through deliberate practice and effort — just like a growth mindset. Grit also entails learning from failure.
Duckworth suggests that having grit involves setting long-term goals and working toward them with sustained effort and resilience, even in the face of obstacles and setbacks.
She also emphasizes the importance of having a sense of purpose and passion for what we do, both of which are crucial for sustaining motivation and focus.
Besides these great articles, the following worksheets can be used when helping your clients face their fears:
Graded Exposure Worksheet
Graded Exposure is a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy technique that is designed to help people confront and overcome their fears, including fear of failing.
When we are fearful of something, we may avoid it. While this avoidance may help in reducing fear in the short term, over the long term it can make the fear even worse.
Graded exposure involves creating a safe environment in which clients can become “exposed” to the things they fear and avoid.
Facing Up to Your Fears
This exercise can be done with a partner. Together, you can reflect on your fears openly and support each other in the process.
Understand Your Fears
This exercise helps you understand your fears more deeply, by breaking your fear into different components. It can also be applied to the fear of failure.
Other free tools you would find helpful are included in our CBT tools pack. Why not download the tools, and try out the exercises within? Some examples include:
Reframing Critical Self-Talk
This exercise helps you to notice, spot, and then reframe your critical self-talk. In the context of fear of failure, you can use it to reframe your anxieties about not measuring up or failing at something.
Strengths Spotting by Exception Finding
This exercise helps you to spot your strengths so that you can draw on your strengths more consciously and deliberately in high-stakes situations in which you fear failure.
Solution-Focused Guided Imagery
This exercise helps you envisage solutions to your problems or to important challenges you are facing and that you fear you may fail at.
A Take-Home Message
Both as individuals and as a culture, we have a lot to learn from failure. And this matters, for without failure, there would be no progress, learning, or growth.
Failure also taps into one of the ancient virtues: courage. If we don’t dare, we can’t win.
Trying something new and venturing outside of our comfort zone always entail the risk of failure. But if we live to avoid failure at all costs, our lives will be impoverished and diminished. While we may avoid the pain of failing publicly, we inflict another kind of pain on ourselves: that of languishing and stagnating. We shrink our field of play.
Remember that fear of failure is the number one killer of all grand plans, exciting ideas, and positive visions for the future.
If you have a plan to build a legacy, become a champion, start a business, or any other task big or small but are held back by your fears, we encourage you to step forward, face your fears, accept what you learn from the process, and flourish.
Abdi Zarrin, S., Gracia, E., & Paixão, M. P. (2020). Prediction of academic procrastination by fear of failure and self-regulation. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 20(3), 34–43.
Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational determinant of risk-taking behavior. Psychological Review, 64, 359–372.
Collins Dictionary. (n.d.). Atychiphobia. In Collins online dictionary. Retrieved May 3, 2023, from https://www.collinsdictionary.com/submission/19046/atychiphobia.
Conroy, D. E., Kaye, M. P., & Fifer, A. M. (2007). Cognitive links between fear of failure and perfectionism. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 25(4), 237–253.
Conroy, D. E., Willow, J. P., & Metzler, J. N. (2002). Multidimensional fear of failure measurement: The Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 76–90.
Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential (Updated ed.). Robinson.
Frost, R. O., & Henderson, K. J. (1991). Perfectionism and reactions to athletic competition. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 13, 323–335.
McGregor, H. A., & Elliot, A. J. (2005). The shame of failure: Examining the link between fear of failure and shame. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 218–231.
Sagar, S. S., & Stoeber, J. (2009). Perfectionism, fear of failure, and affective responses to success and failure: The central role of fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31, 602–627.
Stoeber, J., & Becker, C. (2008). Perfectionism, achievement motives, and attribution of success and failure in female soccer players. International Journal of Psychology, 43, 980–987.
Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 295–319.
Tangney, J. P. (2002). Perfectionism and the self-conscious emotions: Shame, guilt, embarrassment and pride. In G. L. Flett, & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 199–216). American Psychological Association.
About the author
Dr. Anna K. Schaffner is a coach, writer and Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent. Her latest non-fiction book explores the long history of the idea of self-improvement. It traces formulas for self-improvement in philosophical, religious, psychological and self-help texts from ancient China to the present day. She is also a qualified coach and has a deep interest in positive psychology and the art of self-improvement.
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