Are you afraid to fail? Do you consistently pick the safe choice? How many of your life decisions are unconsciously driven by this fear? How many of your life choices are driven by fear of disappointing someone else?
All of us have a fear of failure to one degree or another. The thought of failure conjures feelings of humiliation, embarrassment, and disappointment. As a therapist, I find that it is the meaning clients assign to the perceived failure that dictates how they experience it. Much of the time, it is actually fear of rejection or fear of disappointing others, like parents, peers, or partners, that drives this fear.
Fear of failure has one thing in common with all of our other fears: it is a feeling and not a fact.
This is a powerful realization. You change your feelings and your mind all the time, so you can change your feelings and mind about failure. I have helped many clients reframe their fear of failure from terrifying to normal and an unavoidable stop on the road to success (and the road of life for that matter).
Many people with a fear of failure are extremely successful by societal standards. This fear can be so overwhelming that they will achieve their goals by any means necessary to avoid what they fear. My own fear of failure stemmed from being the youngest of four daughters, born to a father who wanted a son. I decided early on that I would become more successful than any boy my father could have had to prove my worth.
As another example: Jon, a twenty-six-year-old Broadway performer, initially came to me because he was suffering from shingles, insomnia, and exhaustion. Jon had been cramming tirelessly for the GMATs on top of performing eight shows a week on Broadway. He reported his overwhelming stress and intense fear of being rejected from Columbia’s MBA program as his reason for seeking treatment. Although only twenty-six years old, Jon told me he felt like a failure. Yet, he owned his own apartment in New York City, had already been on an MTV series, and was going into his second year in a Broadway smash hit. He was in a long-term, healthy love relationship, had many close friends, and a substantial amount of money saved as a down payment for a weekend house in the country.
Why did he feel such intense stress taking the GMATs when obviously he was successful enough to make it to Broadway? From my years as a talent agent, I know that you don’t just end up on Broadway. You have to be talented and seriously focused. I asked why he wanted to get his MBA, when clearly his other career was going so well. He was accomplished in a field that is extremely competitive, pursuing what he had always dreamed about, and experiencing monumental success. What was really going on? On the surface, his answers sounded logical, but they were practical answers, riddled with somebody else’s vocabulary and simply did not make sense to me.
As we dug deeper, Jon revealed he actually had no desire to get an MBA. He told me his parents considered him a failure, so he felt if he got a “proper” advanced degree and a “real job,” it might change their minds. He came from a culture that only valued your academic achievements and being an actor was an embarrassment. Jon was driven to avoid parental abandonment and make up for what was “wrong” with him by overachieving. However, getting an MBA, even from Columbia, could not protect him from his parents’ disapproval and rejection because he was gay, which they believed was a sin, and not a doctor, which they considered a “real” career.
The clarity Jon received from questioning his fear of failure changed the course of his career and allowed him to fearlessly continue pursuing his dreams. Jon’s fear of failure was actually fear of rejection. He dropped out of the GMAT prep course the day after our second meeting. A month later, his shingles were gone. He has never mentioned business school again. He and his husband, Jamie, are going through the adoption process, and Jon is getting funding for his first full-length feature film, which he wrote and will be directing.
How can you combat your fear of failure? From Jon’s story, we see that breaking down what the fear of failure is really about is step one. Knowing this information may not alleviate all of your fear, but clarity allows you to make informed choices. Had Jon continued down the path of trying to avoid his parents’ rejection by giving up his acting career, where would he be right now? Ultimately, they would still have rejected him because he is gay, AND he would be in a career he hates rather than enjoying continued success in one he loves.
Knowing what is driving your behavior is key.
Answer the questions below about your fear of failure to help you gain clarity.
- How is this fear of failure holding you back?
- What would life be like if you did not have this fear?
- Who are you afraid of disappointing if you fail?
- How strong is your desire to release this fear?
- If there were one step you could take to overcome this fear, what would it be?
Give yourself time and space to write your answers and really marinate on your fear of failure and how it is impacting your life. Accepting you, fears and all, is the first step to believing in yourself, which is the difference between success and failure. The more self-criticism you exercise, the more fear you create. Remind yourself that success starts in your mind. You need to see it, feel it, believe it, and bring it into your life. Reframing failure as an expected part of the process of living life normalizes the experience and takes some of the charge out of it.
“There are no failures—just experiences and your reactions to them.”
I hope that some of this resonated with you and that you will do the writing exercise. I would love to hear your thoughts and personal experiences with fear of failure, so drop a comment here and share your wisdom or ask for support.
Love Love Love
Terri Cole, founder and CEO of Live Fearless and Free, is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. For almost two decades, Terri has empowered companies, celebrities, professional athletes and individuals to Live Fearless and Free. Follow Terri on Twitter @terri_cole.