How to get over your fear of failure

If at first you don't succeed - you might fail. If that prospect freaks you out, you're not alone. We look at how to move through the fear of failure so you can live your best life.

He was being flippant, but when TV character Homer Simpson declared that ‘trying is the first step towards failure’ it’s likely that many people nodded in agreement.

A 2015 US survey of more than 1000 people found that fear of failure was higher than a fear of spiders or even the paranormal, proving many of us struggle to try anything new – be it an ambitious work project, putting yourself ‘out there’ in the dating world or even adopting a dramatic hair colour – where success is not guaranteed.

When it comes to facing down fear of failure, innovation educator Gauri Bhalla lives by the words not of Homer Simpson but of literary phenomenon J. K. Rowling.

Given that the Harry Potter manuscript was rejected 12 times before getting published, it’s fair to say she knew what she was talking about when she stated: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

J.K Rowling knows about pushing through the fear of failure – the Harry Potter manuscript was rejected 12 times before getting published.

Still, fear of failure can be utterly crippling for many of us, on both professional and personal levels.

Gauri, who teaches a class called ‘How to Fail’ at The School of Life in Sydney, recalls, “I was working with an organisation and they said, ‘We don’t use the F word.’ But you can’t do anything unless you get over that [fear of failure]! You will sit in your box, you will be scared to do anything, and you will never make changes. That was the lightbulb moment when I realised people don’t talk about this stuff – it’s shameful.”

Wellness and mindset coach Trish Everett says the shame associated with failure is one reason some people might struggle to push themselves out of their comfort zones. Different people approach failure in different ways.

“For some, if failure happens they view it as a failure of themselves – they take it personally,” she says. “Their mindset is that there’s something wrong with them and that’s why they failed. That failure will then dredge up every past failure. Whereas for other people who see failure as a bump in the road and ‘Oh well, that didn’t work’ can view it as a situational failure rather than a personal failure. They deal with it really differently – they may still feel shame, but not as much.”

Recognise the fear can help you prepare

Trish says many people aren’t even aware they have a fear of failure keeping them from moving forward in their lives, because it can play out under the surface. Fear of failure can wear disguises, she says, such as: “procrastinating, constant changing of direction, constant distraction, being busy and doing things but not doing the really big things that matter – so the endless checking of emails, ticking boxes and social media stuff that doesn’t lead to anything – as well as a lot of ‘keeping small’ behaviours around not stepping up, not making that call, not speaking up.”

These behaviours may be driven by avoidance: “If I don’t dream it, then I’m safe,” says Trish. “If I don’t want it, then I’m not going to fail at it.”

Perfectionism can be another driver of someone’s desire to avoid failure, Gauri reveals. Research published in the journal Social Behavior and Personality shows the most successful people are less likely to be perfectionists, because anxiety about making mistakes hinders the ascent.

Worryingly, a 2017 study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that perfectionism is on the rise – which isn’t surprising in a world where social media lets us control the way our lives appear.

Gauri says, “I’ve got two girls and I see it in them – they regard failure as even making a small human mistake. This morning my kid, who’s 10, forgot her homework book and she was in floods of tears: ‘Can we go home and get it?’ ‘No, you’re going to front up and tell the teacher, “I’m sorry I forgot my homework book” – what’s the worst that could happen?’ ‘She’ll tell me off.’ The gap between the mistake and the fear of reprisal seemed overly big.”

Make peace with the past – what have you learnt?

If you’re struggling with the idea of trying something new or risky because you feel haunted by a past failure, it may be helpful to look at the reasons the failure could have happened, says Trish because maybe it wasn’t entirely your fault.

Sometimes a person isn’t ready for the goal they are aiming at, she explains, or perhaps it simply isn’t right for them. She gives the example of someone who didn’t get into medical school and felt like a failure, but ended up in a career they discovered they had a passion for.

“Look at past failures and reframe them as a learning story,” Trish advises. “Failure can actually be something

that pushes somebody back in line more with their passion and purpose. Look at ‘What was the learning tale for me? What has that failure given me?'”

Gauri, too, is a big fan of reframing failure. In her class, she talks about how jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald created her famous ‘scat sound’ by mistake – during a performance in the 1930s, she forgot the lyrics and started freestyling. The lesson? Failure often leads to growth.

“If you hold on too tightly to an outcome, that is where it gets problematic, because if you don’t hit that target, you feel you’ve failed,” Gauri explains. “Sometimes, when you make a mistake, you actually discover more value.”

Be prepared

Trish says changing the way you respond to failure will allow you to pick yourself up more easily.

“There are people who deal with failure logically, like a numbers game: ‘If I’ve failed that’s great, that knocks out one of my failures, on to the next’,” she says. “Then there are people who work with it in terms of looking at a bigger vision and going, ‘Oh well, that didn’t work, what’s next?’, and go again. Some people are philosophical about it, ‘Oh well, that’s not my direction right now, let me rejig a little bit to help get on the right track.'”

When you embark on something new, your mindset is everything, Gauri says. “If we tell ourselves it will be difficult, then it will be difficult,” she says. “If we say to ourselves, ‘It’s necessary, it’s important, I know it’s going to be a bit painful but I’m going to do it because the win at the end is more important than the struggle in the middle’, that will help. Have the openness to ask, ‘What kind of life do I want to live?’ Do you want to be scared and too afraid to move – we call that a fixed mindset – or do you want to have a growth mindset?

“The outcome doesn’t really matter – it’s the bravery to do it we should be celebrating, I think.”

Take it slowly

If fear of failure is a big problem for you, Trish Everett advises taking baby steps in approaching your goal.

“We all have a freak-out level, like a speed limit on our ability to move forward, and if fear of failure is really loud for somebody, they’re going to have a pretty low speed limit – they’re going to freak themselves out if they go from 0 to 100 in terms of moving forward,” she says.

“Baby steps is something that seems to work really well with a lot of my clients. Making a very small step and then getting used to that – putting the speed up to 10 – and then going ‘Okay, this is safe’ and ‘What happens if we go up to 20’ and ‘Okay I can do this…’ Each baby step along the way is a really great way to build up confidence. And the failures aren’t as big, so if they go up to 30 and there’s a failure it’s not as big as a failure at 100.”

Set realistic goals

Gauri Bhalla says many people inadvertently set themselves up for failure by setting unrealistic goals.

“If you think to yourself, ‘I’m going to start a billion-dollar company’, that is a huge weight on your shoulders, because if you then start a company that is a million-dollar company you’re going to feel like you’ve failed,” she says. “If you’ve got a big goal, go for it, but just be aware that if you put that target on yourself and you’re fixed to that outcome, you will very likely be unhappy.”

However, she makes it clear, this doesn’t mean you should set overly easy goals either – which won’t be satisfying.

“You need a goal that stretches you but isn’t impossible,” she says. “Set a big bold vision, then break it down to a series of achievable goals, and monitor your progress along the way. If you don’t make one of those steps, that’s okay, think about another way you can make it – pivot, reframe. Then, if you don’t meet it, it’s not such a big deal.”

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