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How to Overcome Fear of Failure

The shadow of potential failure can loom over our dreams, making us hesitate to take chances. How can we overcome this fear? Savvy Psychologist will walk you through 5 evidence-based tips for being bold and shaking the doubts. 

By
Jade Wu, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #349
The Quick And Dirty

Failure is not only common, but necessary on the path to ultimate success. If we fear it too much, we will stop ourselves from trying to reach our goals in the first place. To overcome fear of failure:

  • Define what it means to fail. Being specific makes even the worst case scenario seem less scary.
  • Actually answer your "what if" questions and make an action plan for how you would cope with failure.
  • Stop fantasizing about success. Imagine the reward, but also the steps it will take to get there.
  • Don't think in terms of black-or-white success. Aim for a worthy process instead of a perfect outcome. 
  • Remember the difference between failing and being a failure.

Have you ever wondered if you could do stand-up comedy? Start a small business? Become a YouTube star? Get into graduate school? Run for political office? What fun ideas for your life have you considered…and why haven’t you tried to go for it?

For many of us, the moat between us and something we want to try is usually made of a particular type of anxiety -- fear of failure. And this is not just something you and I experience. The most daring CEOs and charismatic performers will admit that they’ve felt this fear, too.

In fact, no matter how accomplished we are, how hard-working, and how talented, our lives are riddled with ways to fail: the social failure of being rejected, the romantic failure of a broken relationship, the professional failure of being fired, or even of not being promoted, or not becoming a smash hit when you release your next single...Even if we’re not dreaming that big, the possibility of everyday types of failures looms large. And the more we let this fear get in the way of us taking leaps, the smaller our world becomes. 

What to do in this minefield of possible failures? How do we move boldly forward so we can take the chances that may bring incredible rewards? This week, let’s examine “failure” up close, and find five tips for how to overcome our fear of it.

Tip #1: Be specific

You know how the scariest part of a scary movie is before you open the door to the attic, when your imagination runs wild about what horrors lie beyond? Once the monster is revealed, it loses a lot of the mystery, and you’re not as scared anymore. That’s because fear is worse when it’s vague. This includes fear of failure, which might sound like something all-encompassing: “Something bad might happen,” or “What if something goes wrong?” Suddenly, the ominous music starts to crescendo because everything holds potential for failure.

To fight this, define what “failure” really means to you. Perhaps:

  • “My company will go under and I’ll have to file for bankruptcy.”
  • “My great American novel will fail to get on The New York Times bestseller list.”
  • “I’ll totally freeze up in front of the class during my final presentation and get an F.”

Once your fear is sufficiently narrowed, it becomes much easier to wrap your head around it. It might even sound so far-fetched that it starts to seem silly. Or, even if it is likely to happen, "failure" may not be as catastrophic as you originally thought.

Tip #2: 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, go ahead and answer the question.

“What if I fail my midterm?” “What if my business fails?” “What if nobody likes my novel?”

Well, what if that happens? What would you do? How would you cope? How long would it take to overcome this “failure”? Who could support you? What would you learn from the experience?

For example, if you’re worried your small business will fail, think about how you’d cope if that actually happened. Perhaps you’d give your employees as much notice as possible, figure out your finances, talk to your lenders, and sell off what you can. Meanwhile, you would apply for jobs or reach out to your network. You’ll have planned ahead with some emergency savings. It would be tough. It would be a setback. But when you really answer the “what if” question, you come out the other side with a plan, which instantly makes things less scary.

When you really answer the “what if” question, you come out the other side with a plan, which instantly makes things less scary.

Tip #3: Stop visualizing success

You read 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 psychologist Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen 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, but include time to picture the hours of studying and numbers of times you’ll have to resist the urge to binge-watch Netflix 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, too.

Tip #4: Roll back the pressure

“Go big or go home.” “Nut up or shut up.” “If you’re not first, you’re last.”

Shooting for the stars is admirable, but sometimes you have to cool your jets. Setting a punishing, sky-high goal seems like it should fire up your motivation, but all it causes is procrastination and doubt.

So instead, set a goal about the process, not the end result. Instead of, “Get 100,000 users to download this app I created,” try, “Learn all I can about launching a new app.” Instead of, “Get my dream job by the New Year,” go for, “Attend three networking events a month.” Aim for experiences: learning, trying, mastering, and exploring, rather than just an endpoint. If you aim to experience, you can never go wrong, plus you come away with truly valuable knowledge. And that is never a failure.

If you're wearing the invisible "I'm a failure" hat, of course it's hard to muster up the excitement and motivation to pursue your dreams.

Tip #5: Failing is not the same as being a failure

When we claim to fear failure, what we truly fear is being a failure, which feels like something permanent and irredeemable. If you're wearing the invisible "I'm a failure" hat, of course it's hard to muster up the excitement and motivation to pursue your dreams. 

By contrast, the experience of failure is temporary and changeable, and even more importantly, universal. It doesn’t feel good while it’s happening, but you always learn something, you know you're not the only one who's gone through this, and you usually get the opportunity to regroup and come back smarter, stronger, and more versatile. 

In other words, failure isn’t an end. It’s a pit stop. It's not only okay to fail, it's necessary. So don’t let your fear of failure stop you from giving your first concert, starting a soap-making side hustle, or talking to that one person who's been giving you butterflies. 

To get over that first self-imposed barrier of fear, just, answer your what-ifs, visualize your obstacles along with your successes, and go easy on yourself. Failure won’t stand a chance.

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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

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.