Nobody goes looking for failure but failure definitely finds all of us at some point. I’ve failed plenty of times and I admit that I don’t like the feeling one bit. Whatever the level of personal development mastery you need to attain to be able to embrace failure and not skip a beat, I am so not there! It can trigger an avalanche of thoughts of inadequacy accompanied by unpleasant feelings and emotions like shame and embarrassment. Curling up in the fetal position and feeling pretty shit for a period of time is not an altogether unfamiliar response for me. A not insignificant amount of chocolate is typically involved. It definitely sounds like something to be avoided if at all possible, right? Fear of failure is a struggle for many but unfortunately a strategy of avoiding can be extremely costly. Although it may feel like a relief in the moment to choose a path that eases our fear of failure in the short term, as with many actions in life that offer a short term fix and a sense of relief or comfort, we pay a price further down the road and it can be very steep indeed.
What would you do if you had all the confidence in the world? This is a question that I frequently ask prospective clients. We’re looking for that vision of the life they’d create if fear of failure didn’t get in the way. I love listening to people answer this question. Sometimes it’s a tentative start as they grant themselves permission to imagine. It’s always revelatory. A vibrant picture of an exciting, meaningful, fulfilling life is painted as they begin to more boldly imagine and almost claim their life as an expression of their full, unshackled potential.
As the picture sits there gleaming before them, what do you think happens next? In sneak those thoughts of inadequacy, fear of failure, not being good enough or worthy, fear of the judgement of others. The fear of failure acts like a thief in the shadows and offers up “reasons” for why none of that vision is really possible for us after all. So how do we tackle this thief in the shadows and claim full ownership over our lives? So glad you asked because here are three tips to help you overcome your fear of failure so you can claim that bigger, juicier vision for your life!
Anchor Into Why
Sometimes I make a decision to avoid discomfort for example, I might turn down an invitation to a networking event. I often find the idea of being in a room with a whole load of people I don’t know and having to be “on” for a couple of hours, introducing myself and getting to know new people, quite effortful and uncomfortable. I feel out of my comfort zone perhaps, so I will look for an excuse disguised as a reason. I might tell myself some story like I’m busy, or that I don’t really need to go because I already have enough connections. I can come up with any sneaky excuse disguised as a reason to get me off the hook. What would be an example of making a decision based on avoiding discomfort.
Now avoiding one networking event is no big deal I hear you say but imagine if that became my pattern, so that anytime I felt uncomfortable I found a “reason” to avoid the discomfort. Life could become very small indeed. Let’s up the stakes now and say now it’s an invitation to speak at an event where my ideal audience will be gathered. What if I screw up? What if I bomb? Fear of failure will step out of the shadows and list all of the possible excruciating failure scenarios and play them on a loop for me. I’ve habituated myself to avoiding discomfort so I find a reason to step back from this opportunity too. It’s pretty depressing to see it laid out bare like that as a fear story instead of dressed up in the more comfortable, more palatable presentation of reasons.
What we fear most is, irritatingly, what we generally most need to do in order to live a purposeful and fulfilling life. I know, infuriating isn’t it?! Purpose and fulfillment in life is the “why” that we need to anchor into that allows us to keep walking forward even in the presence of fear of failure. In the example I gave above the “why” for attending the networking event may be to meet and connect with potential, clients, collaborators, and mentors. Attending the event is aligned with my values of contribution and growth. If you think about something you’re afraid to do because you might fail, ask yourself why doing that thing would be important to you and drill down on that “why” until you uncover a core value. Taking action in alignment with values is what makes life meaningful and fulfilling. Avoiding values-aligned action to avoid the discomfort of fear of failure leads in the opposite direction.
Leverage Community Values
The more I spend time with brave people the braver I feel and act. When I was surrounded by people who were practiced in seeing and declaring why things were too difficult or unchangeable I too adopted that perspective. We humans tend to be highly influenced by the company we keep. Did you have a mother like mine who encouraged you to mix with the more diligent students at school and keep away from the kids who spent their time smoking behind the bike sheds? Well our moms may not have been behavioral psychologists but their advice was sound if their objective was for us to adopt better study habits and raise our grades.
“You’re the average of the 5 people you spend most time with.” I’m not sure where I read or heard that – a Tim Ferris book or from one of his many podcast guests perhaps, but since I heard it I’ve read a lot of behavioral studies that support it. Think about bravery as a habit. If I want to adopt any new habit a great way to support that habit is to immerse myself in an environment where the desired behavior (the new habit I want to form – bravery in this case) is the default behavior.
What groups or communities are you involved with that would be supportive of you showing up more bravely? When I wanted to write a book a couple of years ago I knew no one who was an author. There was nobody in my immediate circle who had done anything like that so I had to look beyond and find a community where doing that was the norm. I joined a group of writers and found a mentor and surrounded myself with people who were on the same journey as I was. In that environment, writing a book, reaching out to people to read and review a book, launching and publicizing your work was the normal default behavior. That community had values that supported what I wanted to accomplish so in that environment, what elsewhere might have seemed like very fearful action, was the expected norm. That’s why I’m an author and not someone who just thought about writing a book but didn’t because she was afraid what people would think or afraid to do it and fail.
Invite Compassion Along
One of the biggest, most impactful shifts for me over the past few years has been moving from a habit of harsh self-judgement to a flexible approach with self-compassion at its center. I mention self-compassion a lot and I get how some people might brush it aside as too “soft” and even see it as an excuse for less effort. That is definitely how I used to view it anyway. I thought self-compassion was the packaging that people who weren’t willing to put in the effort to get great results in life, used to wrap up their copious excuses.
They could sit back with their mediocre outcomes all wrapped up in their soft, comfy, self-compassion telling themselves some bullshit story about how that was all OK and the result didn’t matter ‘cause…”self-compassion”. Let’s just say I was a tad dismissive of this whole self-compassion movement. To me it was the domain of the chronic underachiever and lover of excuses and so having anything to do with it was something I viewed as a danger to my resolve and standards. Turns out that I was dead wrong. Because it took me a long time to buy into this I’m going to assume there are some others like me reading this so bear with me.
When it comes to this area one name that stands out in particular is Dr Kristin Neff. Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s department of educational psychology and it was she who first established self-compassion as a field of study. I just kept coming across her name as I was reading more deeply on my favorite subjects of confidence, motivation and achievement. It got to the point where I could no longer avoid this “soft” topic and so I took a deep dive. Self-compassion means taking a kind, loving and non judgemental approach towards ourselves and our perceived short-comings or failures. When we practice self-compassion we view our suffering and difficulties within the broader context of simply being human rather than judging and criticizing ourselves.
Study after study in this area shows that practicing self-compassion improves our emotional and mental well-being and increases our emotional resilience. It also turns out that practicing self-compassion is exactly what we need to do when fear of failure is triggered. A study published in Clinical Psychological Science in February 2019 suggested that being kind to oneself actually switches off the threat response.
Take Action Today
It’s nice to read about how to improve your life in some way but it’s better to take action that will actually move you forward after you’ve read that. I started buying personal development books back in my late teens and had a nice collection gathering dust on a bookshelf. I crack the odd one open and then lose steam. Later in life I got more committed and actually read the book, and felt enthusiastic and inspired for a short period of time thereafter, but then it faded and any shifts or changes I had made evaporated over time. So if that pattern feels somewhat familiar to you why not commit to taking some action today that will make your life better tomorrow and tomorrow and the tomorrow after that?
Here are some suggestions that may serve you if you want to get serious about addressing your fear of failure and go from interested consumer of personal development content to informed active creator of your chosen life. Are you in? Great!
- Begin to cultivate your self-compassion today with my free guided self-compassion meditation which you can download here
- Journal on your fear of failure using specific prompts. I like the journaling prompts from the website Writing Through Life which suggests 7 days of journaling prompts on this topic. Check them out here
- Commit to writing out your vision for what you’d like to create, contribute, and achieve in your life. Think deeply about what it is you want to be about in this one “wild and precious life” you have, as poet Mary Oliver put it.
- Identify groups or individuals who, right now, are doing what you dream of doing but fear you may fail at and reach out to at least one today. A good place to start searching is on Meetup where people connect on every interest topic under the sun and form groups that meet up (virtually or in person) at regular intervals. You can also start your own group and advertise for participants.
Fear of failure keeps us all small. I feel it and a lot more often than I’d care to admit. It is a companion that I would not choose and yet there it is. Waiting for it to go away didn’t work for me. That just left me doing nothing different and feeling powerless. Trying to overpower it or pretend it wasn’t there only had very short term limited success which quickly eroded. What I’ve shared above is what proved most effective. Once I began to accept the fear as a normal and expected passenger on my journey and dropped the resistance and struggle, did things begin to improve. Self-compassion is the practice that takes the place of self-judgement and all that corrosive self-admonishment and self-criticism for having any fear in the first place and then for the many times I falter or fall flat on my face.