The fear of failure, also known as atychiphobia, is the persistent and often irrational worry that one will not meet an expectation. As you might imagine, the fear of failure can be linked to perfectionism, the belief that anything less than perfect is considered a failure.
Characteristics of people who experience this type of fear include, but are not limited to: feelings of shame and embarrassment, anxiety, self-doubt, avoidance and/or procrastination behaviors, low self-esteem, excessive worry, and negative self-talk.
People who are afraid of failure find the consequences of failing intolerable. What if my boss thinks I’m dumb and incapable? How will I ever face my family? Will I ever get anything right? The deeply uncomfortable feelings of shame and embarrassment perpetuate the fear.
Some people who are afraid of failure procrastinate completing a task with the thinking that if one doesn’t try, you cannot fail. How can you fail a school exam if you haven’t even taken the exam yet? Some people may put off a task due to waiting for the “perfect” time to do the task. This seems logical, as it can be helpful to time activities to fit your schedule, but what if the “perfect” time never comes? You’ll be perpetually waiting for that moment, essentially avoiding completing the task. By avoiding the task, you are also avoiding any potential embarrassment and shame you may feel if you fail.
Why are so many people afraid of something that happens to everyone? Failing is an universal human experience. Everyone will fail at least a few times in their life. It’s part of being human! Fear can be a helpful emotion and has helped humans survive through the ages. For example, fear helped our hunter and gatherer ancestors survive. When humans were hunting for food in the savannah, fear would alert them to nearby predators. The fear and anxiety would activate the fight or flight response, which helped them fight the predator or escape to safety.
Everything, including fear of failure, is helpful until it is unhelpful. In the short term, fear of failure can protect people from experiencing those intolerable consequences of failing. It protects one from intense shame and embarrassment. Over time, however, fear of failure can prevent one from going for a promotion and raise at work, prevent one from being self-confident, and can lead to decreased motivation and low-esteem.
If fear of failure can be unhelpful, how does it start? Fear of failure develops differently for different people and may be difficult to pinpoint exactly when or how it started. It may develop from a specific situation, from high pressure in the workplace, from critical parents or high family expectations, and/or from underlying mental health issues like anxiety or depression. Regardless of how it started, it is possible to unlearn this fear!
It’s important to note that unlearning this fear doesn’t mean you have to thrive on failing or even enjoy failing. Many people just don’t like it! You can learn how to do things despite the fear of failure. It can transform from a major roadblock to a small bump in the road. If you experience or think you experience fear of failure, please consider talking to a therapist! Together you can work on strategies to challenge this fear and set realistic expectations for yourself so fear of failure no longer keeps you from living your best life.
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Sara Mattina works with clients in NY and NJ who carry the weight of high expectations for themselves, have self-doubt or low self-esteem, and struggle with making decisions about their careers and relationships. She helps her clients who feel overwhelmed with work stress and burnout, and who are struggling to set boundaries or say “no” due to worries about rocking the boat.
She uses various therapeutic frameworks to create a personalized approach for each client. She believes that effective therapy is a collaborative team approach between the therapist and client, as every client has their own therapeutic goals and preferences!