Having the desire to continually push yourself to become better and better is okay, only if it is done in a healthy manner. However, if you tend to self-deprecate and hold yourself to unrealistically high standards, that’s where trouble happens. This is referred to as perfectionism. As a perfectionist, you are striving to be perfect. But here’s the worst part, no matter how well you do, there will always be some tiny flaw that can be found which makes the day or performance fall short of perfection. Since perfection is never attained, you live in a constant state of dissatisfaction. This is what perfectionism leads to, a continual feeling of disappointment. Even if you feel that you’ve reached perfection, there will always be another level to attain. Instead of focusing on your accomplishments and enjoying the process of growing as an individual, perfectionists are obsessed with what they didn’t do. You develop tunnel vision when it comes to your life. You begin to assume that something must have gone wrong, so that’s what you focus on. And if you look hard enough, no matter what, a mistake will always show its face. So, how does this result in the fear of failure?With each time you fall short of perfection, how do you think you’ll respond? I can guarantee you will not be jumping for joy and full of pride. No, you will become full of disappointment and regret. These emotions lay heavily on your mind. Over time, repetitive feelings of dissatisfaction will result in you fearing any situation that spurs such emotions. As a result, a fear of failing is established.
How do you feel when you fail? Do you become upset with yourself, angry, or maybe embarrassed? I can tell you how I feel when I fail, which was especially true during college when playing baseball, and that is ashamed. Shame is a powerful emotion that tears us down, deteriorating any sense of confidence and self-worth we have. After a failure, it’s easy to feel ashamed of yourself. You may feel shame due to your poor performance, or maybe for letting others down. When shame is a common response to failure, naturally you begin to fear being in such a situation in the future. You are now susceptible to the fear of failure. Who wants to feel ashamed? Especially when it involves something you find joy in such as a sport or performance. Shame is often driven by embarrassment. I used to feel so embarrassed when I would make an error or strikeout. That embarrassment then led to feeling ashamed of myself. Shame causes us to feel small and inferior, hoping people are not judging us too harshly for the mistakes we’ve made. The more shame you feel upon failing, the more you will fear having to face such an emotion in the future.
"When shame is a common response to failure, naturally you begin to fear being in such a situation in the future. You are now susceptible to the fear of failure."
The way you speak to yourself after a failure is critical to how well you will handle the situation. Self-talk is your internal dialogue, so think about all the thoughts and words that begin to flood your mind upon making a mistake. This dialogue has a direct impact on your emotional state. Speaking positively to yourself will result in positive feelings and a more optimistic outlook. On the other hand, speaking down to yourself will have the opposite effect. Let’s say every time you fail, negative self-talk takes place. If you’re looking for someone to make you feel down in these situations, look no further than the voice in your head. As this self-depreciation sets in, negative emotions will follow. Now it will be even harder to bounce back from the failure or see it as a learning opportunity. The negative emotions you experience will become associated with failing. In the future, as you perceive failure, you’ll begin to remember all those terrible feelings you had in the past. This association will ignite fear. None of us want to feel badly. Likewise, none of us willfully wish to speak down to ourselves. But, when in the midst of a failure, this type of internal dialogue can be hard to curb. It’s easy to then feel scared of having to face yourself in these situations, solidifying your fear of failure.
One of the major ways failure can impact your life is by negatively affecting your future plans. When I say future plans, I am referring to the goals you have set forth in your life. So much of our goals become contingent on success in certain situations. Let’s use an athlete as an example. If a high school athlete plans on playing collegiately, the goal will only be accomplished through success. This success will come in the form of performing well in their athletics as well as schoolwork. If the athlete were to fail, especially on the field or court, that could have a direct impact on their likelihood of playing in college. The same holds true for a college athlete who has a dream of playing professionally. The only possible way for that plan to pan out is having a successful career at the college level. Such success will not be reached with too much failure. Knowing this, failing turns into something we fear, due to the negative impact it could have on our goals. Here’s the worst part. When this fear of failure develops in relation to your future plans, any small failing will be seen as devastating. What normally would be a small road bump you should learn from turns into a threat to your life’s vision. One small failure isn’t likely to keep you from your goals. But, that’s how our minds think when the fear of failure takes over.
It’s good to value the opinions of others, but, you must be cautious in the process. Wanting to build a solid reputation and wanting others to view you in a respectable manner is something we should all strive for. This is healthy and keeps us accountable for holding ourselves to our utmost standards. Where trouble forms is in seeking approval. This stems from having low confidence in yourself and looking to others to determine your value. If you do this, you become trapped. Your emotional state and the way you think of yourself become reliant on others. Someone thinks well of you, you’re in a positive state. On the other hand, someone thinks negatively of you, or you perceive someone thinks negatively of you (which is most often the case), and your mood turns south. By living your life desperately seeking the approval of those around you, there is only one way to live; in a state of fear. Failure will mean losing the esteem of other people. If you fail in your sport, it threatens the approval of your coaches, teammates, fans, and parents. What happens as you become more reliant on the approval of others is a fear of failing, since it could mean their disapproval will form.
What happens when we believe others are invested in our success? This could include parents, family members, coaches, teammates, fans, or friends. When we see them as having a stake in whether or not we succeed, failing becomes that much more impactful. Now, not only does failure impact us, but it has the potential to cause those we care about stress. A prime example of this is an athlete’s parents. As an athlete, there is nothing more meaningful than having your parents care about your performance. I was lucky to have parents who have always been supportive of me and were involved in my athletics. However, there is a downside to this. If as an athlete, you view their care and investment as contingent on your success, failure will be seen as negatively impacting them. It’s hard for parents to see their kids fail. But, as an athlete, worrying about the stress of others and how they will be affected by your failure can lead to a serious case of fear of failure. Since not only your emotions, but the emotions of others are on the line, pressure mounts, and failing becomes something to fear.
"As an athlete, there is nothing more meaningful than having your parents care about your performance."
Do you identify yourself with your sport or profession? It’s hard not to. We naturally begin to wrap our own identity into that which we do. I’ve fallen prey to this and know how wonderful and hurtful it can be. When you are succeeding, you’re on top of the world. Since you’ve wrapped your self-worth up in your sport or career, if you succeed, you see yourself as a success. But, there is a dark side to this. When you fail, the failure is taken personally. It becomes a hit to who you are. No longer will you feel successful, even for all your previous accomplishments. At the moment, your identity is associated with failing. On this type of emotional rollercoaster, you cherish the highs and fear the lows. I dare say the lows are worse than the highs, which is why fear becomes a natural state. You become terrified of failing due to the personal defeat you will feel.
With already low self-confidence, failure can be a scary experience. When you are living with low self-confidence, you feel as if you must succeed repeatedly in order to build any belief within yourself. That success will feed your confidence. The more you see yourself succeed, the higher your confidence will grow. But stringing together enough wins to make lasting change in your confidence is a difficult endeavor. What happens when you inevitably fail? Well, chances are you’ll be back to square one. Looking for external changes to happen before you feel confident will not build true self-confidence. So, as soon as failure appears, all will be lost. Having to start over time and time again leads to a fear of failing in the future.
No one wants to constantly be criticized. Good criticism is helpful and leads to progress, but constantly finding areas to nit-pick leads to frustration and the need for approval. As we already discussed, seeking approval is a leading cause of the fear of failure. Have you ever experienced an overly critical parent, coach, or maybe boss? Nothing is ever good enough for them. No matter how well you perform, or how hard you work, they are bound to find something to pick apart. It’s the same as being a perfectionist, except the critique is coming from someone else. As a result, failure becomes a situation to fear. You may begin to adopt perfectionist tendencies yourself since you feel you have to be perfect in order to reduce the criticism.
Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. They are accompanied by intense negative emotions. These emotions will be tied to the event, leading to a fear of such situations in the future. You may not associate failure with trauma. Though, if an experience is significant enough, it will surely leave a traumatic imprint in your mind. Trauma will be different for everyone, all dependent on your personal experiences. What may be traumatic for one person may not be for another, and vice versa. The point is, do not downplay an event as being traumatic. If intense emotions were generated, and the experience left a mark on your psyche, then it can be described as traumatic. After having lived through a situation your mind deems to be trauma, fear will grow around that environment. Let’s say you had an intensely negative experience in your sport. Maybe you made a mistake during a crucial moment. From now on, you may become fearful of failing in a similar moment due to the negative memory associated with the situation.
Understanding why you fear failing is a key step in working through your fear. If you don’t know why you feel the way you do, changing it will be incredibly difficult. These are the ten most common reasons that can be attributed to the fear of failure.
Which one of the reasons above is causing you to fear failing? Let me know in the comments below. If you are interested in a more direct and personalized approach to overcoming the fear of failure, mental performance coaching may be right for you. I offer one-on-one coaching where we will identify the cause of your fear, and then I will provide you will a clear outline of what you can do to overcome your fear. If you’re interested, you can learn more here.