Have you ever been so afraid of failing at something that you decided not to try it at all? Or has a fear of failure meant that, subconsciously, you undermined your own efforts to avoid the possibility of a larger failure?

Many of us have probably experienced this at one time or another. The fear of failing can be debilitating – it can cause us to do nothing, and therefore resist moving forward. But when we allow fear to stop our forward progress in life and in business, we’re likely to miss some great opportunities along the way.

So here I’ve spent some time to examine the fear of failure:

• what it means
• what causes it
• and how to overcome it to enjoy true success in work, and in life

Causes of Fear of Failure

To find the causes of fear of failure, we first need to understand what “failure” actually means.

We all have different definitions of failure, simply because we all have different benchmarks, values, and belief systems. A failure to one person might simply be a great learning experience for someone else. Many of us are afraid of failing, at least some of the time. But fear of failure (also called “atychiphobia”) is when we allow that fear to stop us doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals.

Fear of failure can be linked to many causes. For instance, having critical or unsupportive parents is a cause for many people. Because they were routinely undermined or humiliated in childhood, they carry those negative feelings into adulthood.

Experiencing a traumatic event at some point in your life can also be a cause. For example, say that several years ago you gave an important presentation in front of a large group, and it didn’t go well. The experience might have been so terrible that you became afraid of failing in other things. And you carry that fear even now, years later.

How You Experience Fear of Failure

You might experience some or all of these symptoms if you have a fear of failure:

  • A reluctance to try new things or get involved in challenging projects.
  • Self-sabotage – for example, procrastination, excessive anxiety , or a failure to follow through with goals.
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence – commonly using negative statements such as “I’ll never be good enough to get that promotion,” or “I’m not smart enough to get on that team.”
  • Perfectionism – A willingness to try only those things that you know you’ll finish perfectly and successfully.

The Definition of Failure

It’s almost impossible to go through life without experiencing some kind of failure. People who do so probably live so cautiously that they allow life to pass us by. Put simply, they’re not living their full life. But, the wonderful thing about failure is that it’s entirely up to us to decide how to look at it.

We can choose to see failure as “the end of the world,” or as proof of just how inadequate we are. Or, we can look at failure as the incredible learning experience that it often is. Every time we fail at something, we can choose to look for the lesson we’re meant to learn. These lessons are very important; they’re how we grow, and how we keep from making that same mistake again. Failures stop us only if we let it.

  • Michael Jordan is widely considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. And yet, he was cut from his high school basketball team because his coach didn’t think he had enough skill.
  • Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest and most successful businessmen, was rejected by Harvard University.
  • Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin empire, is a high-school dropout.

Most of us will stumble and fall in life. Doors will get slammed in our faces, and we might make some bad decisions. But imagine if Michael Jordan had given up on his dream to play basketball when he was cut from that team. Imagine if Richard Branson had listened to the people who told him he’d never do anything worthwhile without a high-school diploma, in both of these occasions they have been able to repurpose this imprinted limiting belief as the fuel required to drive forward if nothing else to prove it wrong.

Failure can also teach us things about ourselves that we would never have learned otherwise. For instance, failure can help you discover how strong a person you are. Failing at something can help you discover your truest friends, or help you find unexpected motivation to succeed.

Often, valuable insights come only after a failure. Accepting and learning from those insights is key to succeeding in life. Since I was so badly affected by the failure of Woolworths (Having to make 7 people redundant in order my business wasn’t bankrupt by their demise) we have subsequently returned to this, analysed the data of both Woolworths and 152 other BIG BUSINESS FAILURES to learn the lessons and now teach these to prevent others from the same fate.

Is FEAR a good thing?

Whilst all said so far appear to put fear in a negative light, there are some advantages to this also. But for that to be ‘good’ we also need to understand the difference between FEAR and DANGER.

Stepping from the relative safety of the safari tour bus to get a better photo of the baby antelope might not appear that dangerous, until from the long grass appears the lion who has been stalking it for lunch! – With you starling the antelope, you are now best placed as the menu replacement! In this sense, what appeared to be a safe scenario quickly escalated to a very dangerous one, and will trigger the fight or flight mechanism within us to determine how best to resolve the problem we now face.

SHOULD (by some miracle) you make it back inside the tour bus and survive, this may subsequently cause a lifelong fear of open spaces, long grass, cats, photography, buses, tours and may other things besides. And despite NEVER going into a big game reserve again, possibly never visiting a zoo again, the FEAR associated with all of these items and circumstances can last a lifetime.

When we go outside of our comfort zone, we feel scared. As entrepreneurs, our ego and identity can quickly become so wrapped up in what we are doing, that when things do not go as we expect, we can literally feel like we are being crushed, not just here but EVERYWHERE, we feel as if we have FAILED.

How can you learn to use failure to your advantage, rather than dreading it?

Here are five proven strategies to move through your fear of failure:

Reframe Your Goals

First, reframe failure by shifting your goals. Expand your goal to include learning something new and you will never technically “fail” because there is always something to be learned.

For example, instead of having a very specific goal like “Generate at least £100,000 from this new product launch,” expand your goal to include “Learn something new about how to successfully launch a product”. You can still target £100,000 in revenue, while at the same time anchoring yourself to the goal of learning something of value about launching a new product. This way, you cannot “fail” because regardless of the outcome, you are bound to learn something of value.

Visualize Obstacles

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, asked two groups of college students to write about what was coming up in the coming week. One group was asked to imagine that the week would be great. The other group was just asked to write down any thoughts about the week that came to mind.
The students who were asked to imagine the week would be great reported feeling less energized and went on to accomplish less during the week than the control group.
Positive thinking alone is not enough. Research has shown that the best outcomes are created when we balance positive thinking with visualizing the future obstacles and struggles, we may encounter so as not to be confronted by them as a surprise we had not pre-conceived and planned for.

Think of a situation in which you are afraid of failure. Visualize yourself now hitting an obstacle, allow yourself to feel the fear, and then see yourself moving forward. Next, spend a few minutes planning how to overcome whatever obstacles may stand in your way. Then see yourself succeeding despite these obstacles.

Uncover Your Story

When we take failure very personally, we are always – always – associating the failure with a bigger story about ourselves. We are taking the failure to mean “I am not good enough”, “I will never be successful as an entrepreneur”, “My team is awful”, etc.

When you feel very upset about a specific failure, ask yourself “What is the belief I have about this situation?” See if you can uncover the big, hairy embellished story you are telling yourself about this failure. Try to separate the story from the facts.

Facts: Product launch generated £20,000 of revenue as compared to goal of £100,000.
Story: My father was right, I’ll never make it working for myself. I’m a loser.

Once you uncover the story, notice that it is just that. A story. And see if you can re-write it by creating a more positive response such as “I’m willing to take risks, I learn from my mistakes and move on.”

Ask Three Powerful Questions

The best response to perceived failure is to ask yourself these three powerful questions:

  1. What did I learn from this situation?
  2. How can I grow as a person from this experience?
  3. What are three positive things about this situation?

When you first attempt to list three positive things about the “failure”, your mind may be very resistant. But if you stick with the exercise, before you know it, you will see a new opportunity that can come out of this “failure.”

For example, you might think:

“Losing my biggest client gives me time to focus on my smaller clients and reduce the risk”
“I will also have more time to chase after that other potential new client”
“I learned that my product demo needs to be improved, so I can make changes before targeting this new client”

Surrender and Feel the Fear

Many of us allow fear to paralyze us because we don’t like feeling fear. But if you simply allow yourself to feel the fear when it shows up, you will notice that it quickly dissipates and suddenly the situation feels more manageable.

The next time you notice yourself getting stressed out or feeling afraid of something not working out, sit quietly by yourself, set a timer for two minutes and start taking deep breaths. Notice where you feel tightness or tension in your body, and simply breathe into that area for the two minutes. When the timer goes off after two minutes, chances are the feelings will have shifted. The more you do this, the more you will trigger your body’s natural calm response and you will move through fear with greater ease.

Once we acknowledge this is a natural reaction, we can prevent ourselves trying to prevent us from feeling it, and acknowledge that feeling it is OK. It is what we choose to do WHEN we feel it that will define us and what happens next.

I’ve got one last exercise for you here, it might sound rather weird, but trust me there is A LOT of psychology to support this. You will need a method of recording your voice and playing it back to you. Whether that be a voice recorder app on your phone, or any other method of doing so.

You need to RECORD YOURSELF asking OUT LOUD these 4 questions. Ask them slowly, give a pause between each question (sufficient for you to either answer when you play it back to yourself or at least to press pause between each question)

  1. What is the BEST that can happen if I DO do this?
  2. What is the BEST that can happen if I DON’T do this?
  3. What is the WORST that can happen if I DO do this?
  4. What is the WORST that can happen if I DON’T do this?

It might appear these are almost repeating the same question, or that they may have been written incorrectly (in terms of Grammar and Double negatives!!!) however all of this is intentional and important.

The first 2 questions are asking the conscious mind and should be relatively easy to answer and give you an answer you feel most comfortable with
The second 2 questions are purposefully NOT written logically and may take some time to answer. (But you MUST answer it before you move on) and is written as such as to ask your SUBCONSCIOUS. This will also eventually help you find an answer. Invariably this will EITHER give you the SAME answer as you got from, Q’s 1&2. OR it will give you an absolute YES and an absolute NO. Either way it gives you more confidence to apply yourself COMPLETELY to whatever answer you choose, and will minimise the risk of failure, which is often caused by our lack of commitment to the decision made, in fear of the ‘potential’ outcome!

REMEMBER: FEAR itself is only the acronym of: Failure Expected And Realised!

What is your experience of FEAR? and how do you manage it?

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