Overcoming Fear of Failure

Want to be more successful? Then get out there and fail!

Uh – what? It may sound crazy to say you’re willing to fail – but that willingness could well be a key to your success. Here’s why: if you are more motivated to avoid failure than to achieve success, you may take actions – without even knowing it – that sabotage your success.

Sometimes avoiding failure means you take steps to ensure you don’t have opportunities to try, because you fear the shame that possible failure will bring. The problem is, without a bit of risk and stepping out of your comfort zone, you can’t take advantage of new opportunities – you’re stuck.


What does self-sabotage look like? Say you long to earn a degree, but need financial support to do so. You’re told you have a good chance at getting a scholarship. To qualify, you need to write a purpose statement – something explaining what the degree will mean to you and why you need the financial support. It’s due in two weeks.

The first week, you don’t make progress, but you tell yourself you’re coming up with ideas.

The second week begins to pass. Two days before the response is due, you find yourself binge watching Law and Order reruns on Netflix.

One day before it’s due, you feel a desperate need to shop for a ski jacket before the sales end. On the day the statement is due, you dash off something, don’t have time to proofread or rewrite, get it in the mail at the last minute and when you don’t get the scholarship, you tell yourself “oh, well …”.

Were your actions to self-sabotage because you were afraid you wouldn’t get the scholarship?

Maybe. But more likely, they were because you were afraid you didn’t have what it took to earn the degree; so you made sure you wouldn’t get the scholarship. Not trying was your way of ensuring you wouldn’t experience the shame of flunking out.

Why are we so driven by a fear of shame? Shame hits hard in the areas of ego, confidence, identity and emotional well-being. For some, it’s crippling – and by extension, just the thought of it is crippling. Better not to try at all, than to try and fail, the self-sabotager is thinking.

Just know that fear of failure is common. Those who succeed feel it too – but they have the ability to move forward in spite of their fear.

Four Symptoms of Self-Sabotage and Fear of Failure

Here are some ways your own self-sabotage might look:

  • You tell people not to expect very much of you, setting them up for your perceived future failure – and you tell yourself the same thing.
  • You are nauseous or get headaches before attempting something new and as a result, you’re unable to prepare.
  • You procrastinate in any way possible – by losing track of time, by having emergencies arise that keep you from preparing, or by getting distracted by anything and everything.
  • You tell yourself if you can’t be perfect, it isn’t worth doing at all – so you never even try.

If you self-sabotage, take heart – there are steps you can take to change that mindset and overcome your fear of failure.

Four Ways to Overcome Fear of Failure

  • Start by fully acknowledging your fear, instead of drinking wine or shopping or taking some other approach that distracts and numbs you. State what is true for you: “OK, I’m really afraid of screwing up that presentation on Wednesday.” Now you know where you stand. Take actions to disarm your fear. Breathe deeply and slowly - that tells your mind and body: everything is OK. If your shoulders are up around your ears, lower your shoulders. Notice where there’s tension in your body and breathe into that area. Shake your body – loosen up. Notice that these approaches have lessened your fear and that means: you can have an impact on fear. You can manage it.
  • Change your mindset – look at the opportunity as a chance to learn something new. That way, if you learn something – apart from any other outcome – you’ll have succeeded.
  • Discover your limiting beliefs. What is the secondary story behind your fear? It’s likely that it contains the word “always”. For example – if you fear speaking in front of people, it might be because you think you “always” fail under pressure. If you fear taking on a new job it might be because you think you “always” learn too slowly. Address the initial limiting belief and that will clear the way for you to proceed in spite of your fears.
  • Break the challenge into smaller challenges with achievable goals, to feel less intimidated. List the goals in order of priority and then begin to knock them off your list, one by one. You’ll find that the checks on your list, marking your progress, both prepare you and give you confidence.

Above all, take a breath when you have a thought of failing and think positively. You are a terrific person, with a lifetime of experience behind you. You’ve got this! You deserve success, so take steps to give yourself the successful experience you deserve.