5 Ways to Overcome Fear of Failure

Last week we talked about six ways we self-sabotage and one reason why: fear of failure. This makes a lot of sense—who doesn’t want to avoid humiliation and defeat? But how to move forward and take that leap of faith? Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers five ways to move away from fear and toward your goals.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #139

While we usually think of “failure” as failing to reach a goal, there are, for better or worse, lots of ways to fail: the social failure of being rejected, the romantic failure of being dumped, the career failure of being fired. No matter what kind of failure we fear, the possibility of it looms large and makes us avoid even trying. What to do? This week, here are five tips to free you from your fears.

Method #1: Be specific. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—fear is worse when it’s vague. From Terminator 2 to the X-Men, it’s hard to conquer something indistinct and shape-shifting. So it is with fears of failure, which are often so general as to be all-encompassing: “Something bad might happen,” or “What if something goes wrong?” Suddenly, everything holds potential for failure.

To fight this, define what “failure” really means to you. “My company will go under and I’ll have to file for bankruptcy,” “My great American novel will get panned on Amazon,” or “I’ll make a fool of myself in front of the class during my final presentation.” Once your fear is sufficiently narrowed, it becomes much easier to wrap your head around it. It might even sound so far-fetched as to cease to be a fear.

Method #2: Actually answer your “what if?” questions. Often, we’ll voice our worries with “what if” questions. These what ifs are meant to be rhetorical, but to get over your fear of failure, answer the question.

“What if I fail my midterm?” “What if my business fails?” “What if paparazzi photograph me paddleboarding naked with Katy Perry?” Well, OK, maybe that one is uniquely specific, but the question probably should have been asked.

The point remains: What would you do? How would you cope? Who could comfort you? If you’re worried about failing your midterm, think about how you’d cope if that actually came to pass. You’d get help from the TA, plan out a study schedule for the final, and not stay out until 1 AM before the next exam. If you’re worried your small business will fail, think about how you’d cope if that actually happened: you’d give your employees as much notice as possible, apply for jobs, talk to your lenders, and sell off what you can. When you answer the “what if” question, you come out the other side with a plan, which instantly makes things less scary.

Of course, answering “what if” may not answer the “why” of the paddleboarding incident, but maybe nothing really could.

Method #3: Stop visualizing success. You heard that right. Conventional wisdom says to make success yours by visualizing it. To lose weight, picture yourself in those skinny jeans. To get your dream job, visualize putting your feet up in the corner office. Right? Not so much. A series of studies by Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen, a psychologist at the University of Hamburg and NYU, found exactly the opposite. Counterintuitively, when study participants visualized a crush falling in love with them, recovering successfully from hip surgery, losing weight, or getting a job, the less likely those things were to happen.

Why? Our positive visualizations are idealized versions of our goals—in our mind’s eye, success is total and complete, costs are negligible, exertion is light, and the number of setbacks and plain old dumb mistakes are few. With this idealized image in mind, we’re not motivated to dig deep or focus our energy. Indeed, the more positive the fantasies, the less effort we invest in bringing them to fruition. Starry-eyed dreamers, it turns out, sometimes forget to roll up their sleeves and get to work.  

What to do instead? Oettingen pioneered a technique you might have heard of: mental contrasting. So in addition to picturing the achievement of your goal, also visualize the obstacles that stand in the way.

So go ahead and imagine the satisfaction of accepting your diploma to Pomp and Circumstance, but include time to picture the hours of studying and numbers of times you’ll have to resist the urge to watch The Walking Dead instead. Visualize the applause after giving the concert of a lifetime, but focus on the toil of practice and the temptations to getting sidetracked from a career in music.

In short, picture your desired future, but also reflect on the obstacles that stand in the way of that future. When you only do the former, you’re fantasizing. When you only do the latter, you’re perseverating, neither of which will harness the energy and motivation to make you succeed.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.