Why We Fear Failure

Why We Fear Failure

Fear. A four-letter word that we all struggle with. Fear—especially the fear of failure—impacts the decisions you make and the actions you take. When left unchecked, it can become an obstacle that stands between you and your goals.

Fear of failure is a real thing. It’s an emotional, mental, and behavioral reaction to the anticipated negative consequences associates with failure. It manifests itself in many different ways. For example, your fear of failure may lead you to set lower standards for yourself, even though you know you can do better. You might even intentionally create obstacles that undermine your ability to achieve a goal. Then, later, when that goal is not achieved, you can blame the obstacles instead of holding yourself accountable.

What does this look like in the real world? A B2B sales professional calling on business owners may intentionally schedule their sales calls during the lunch hour, when their prospective customers are most likely unavailable. That way, when they fail to succeed in making sales, they can attribute their lack of success to never being able to connect with key decision makers.

In the short term, fear of failure can prevent you from doing the things you’re capable of doing. And in the long term, an unrecognized and/or unaddressed fear of failure can lead to debilitating physical and mental health issues, such as increased fatigue, anxiety, and depression.

The key to overcoming your fear is to understand the true sources of fear within you. You can mitigate and even conquer the fear of failure—but only when you understand what causes it and how it affects you. So consider these 5 common sources of fear.

1. Embarrassment

When is the last time someone congratulated you for not losing weight? For missing out on a promotion? For falling short of a performance incentive? Probably never, because failure isn’t associated with something to be proud of. Instead, failure can produce a sense of shame and embarrassment. What will my colleagues think of me? How do I tell my friends and family I missed out on a bonus? Will they think I’m not working hard enough, or can’t do a good job? When your head becomes filled with such questions and doubts, your fear of failure intensifies and makes you think twice about taking any meaningful action or setting your goals too high.

2. Self-Worth

For many people, success is a key driver in their sense of self-worth. Success validates their self-worth, and, conversely, so does failure. For those who are wired this way, they may view failure as evidence that they are not talented, capable, or smart enough to succeed. So to avoid those feelings of diminished self-worth, they only reach for the most attainable goals, the ones they are absolutely sure they can reach. By not reaching for more challenging goals, they insulate themselves from potential failures and the negative feelings attached to them.

3. Loss of Status

Scroll through almost anyone’s social media feed and you’ll see images, quotes, and videos that highlight their accomplishments. If you’re a person who places a lot of stock in how you appear to others, you may interpret failure—especially a public one—as a form of social suicide. If people were to see or know that you failed, you believe your social status would take a huge hit.

4. Loss of Trust

If you place a great deal of importance on always being trustworthy, honest, and dependable, you likely contemplate the negative impact your failures would have on the most important people in your life—your family, your friends, and your colleagues. Out of concern that a failure would cause these people to lose trust in you, you may shy away from making too many commitments.

5. Real Loss

For many, the fear of failure stems from a very practical place: failure means real loss, such as time, energy, and money. If you fail in your entrepreneurial venture, you will have thrown those things away. Such fear prevents you from pursuing new opportunities and new business ventures. For these people, the fear of failure is more powerful than the belief in their own abilities or the opportunity itself.

How to Proceed

By shedding light on these sources of fear, you now have two choices on how you will proceed:

  1. Address your fears head on
  2. Continue to accept the control that fear has over you and your life.

Think about the goals you’ve decided to pursue, how you set out to achieve them, and the standards you’ve established to gauge your success. Are those goals, actions, and standards focused on preventing losses or on achieving greatness?

Will Adams

Will Adams

Will Adams is the GM for Small Business Services for GoSmallBiz.com. Will leads the company’s efforts in serving small business owners and their employees through consulting, software, education, employee training, and advocacy. Will is also the co-founder of a successful Software as a Service (SaaS) business that currently serves small museums and family offices throughout North America. In addition to his business interests, Will serves on the board of Atlanta Children’s Foundation, connecting individuals, organizations, and resources to meet the needs of children in foster care.