When it comes to your work and career, do you avoid taking on new challenges for fear of messing up? Do you dread the thought of having to step up and present your ideas to others over Zoom? Regularly feel like a bit of an imposter when talking to your colleagues?
If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, then rest assured you’re not alone. A recent study by Nyenrode Business University and IE University found 40% of employees spend between 20-40% of their time worried about making mistakes.
Most people will experience some self-doubt and insecurity at some point in their lives, of course. However, these things may also be signs that we’re afraid of failure – and it could be holding us back.
Why do we fear failure?
Natasha Harvey (embraceyourchange.co.uk), a communications specialist and certified transformational coach, runs coaching and mentoring programmes for young women, to them help build self-awareness, self-confidence, strong communications skills and resilience. She says that to find the causes of fear of failure, we first need to understand what ‘failure’ actually means.
“We define success and failure on our own terms – what they look and feel like is unique to each of us and intrinsically linked to our values, beliefs and ambitions,” Harvey explains.
“What I consider to be a roaring success at the top of my ‘proudest moments’ list, you might consider to be a day-to-day task or a stroll in the park. And the same goes for failure.”
Harvey explains that fear is part of human nature. Experts say patterns of thinking from childhood (like if you had hyper-critical parents), a tendency for perfectionism and a fragile sense of self-confidence can all cause you to feel anxious about taking on new challenges.
“Fear of failure can often be part of the broader story we tell ourselves, built from our experiences in life – from feeling undermined by significant adults in our childhood, to encountering difficult situations or events in our adult lives that have left a lasting mark,” says Harvey.
Experiencing a traumatic event, such as your nerves getting out of control the last time you presented in a high-pressure work meeting, can also be a reason for you to shy away from opportunities to shine. And the more you avoid these situations? The more terrifying failure seems, says Harvey, causing you to avoid being the centre of attention at all costs.
Is fear of failure affecting your wellbeing?
Being afraid to confidently take on new challenges can paralyse us into inaction and hold us back from being the best we can be – not just in work, but in relationships and other areas of our lives too.
“Whether it’s reaching our potential, learning new skills, being creative or even leading a satisfied and happy life, many people struggle with self-sabotage and don’t take action to change it,” says Harvey.
She says the key thing to remember is that successful people don’t have a clean record; they actually fail all the time. “Have you ever met someone successful who has achieved everything they want in life, but has never fallen down and had to pick themselves up again?” asks Harvey. “I haven’t.
“The same goes for most great leaders. At some point, they have all faced the risk of failure and overcome challenges to reach where they are now. Failure is part of life and key to our success.”
Some of the most brilliant minds have experienced major defeats at work. Apple’s Steve Jobs famously launched numerous product failures before hitting the right note with the iPod and iPhone, and Bill Gates has said that his biggest mistake at Microsoft was allowing Google to develop Android. The key to their success? Not giving up.
“Feelings of inadequacy, coupled with a fear of failing, can lead to anxiety and lack of follow-through on our goals, as we attempt to do everything we can to avoid the possibility of failure,” says Harvey. “Put simply, if we don’t believe in ourselves and we’re afraid, we may fail from not trying. On the other hand, if we are afraid of failing but we believe that we’re capable of achieving what we want, we give ourselves the chance to succeed.”
Harvey adds that finding the right balance of confidence in our abilities, accompanied with a healthy dose of fear (that comes with any goal that’s worth it), keeps us aiming high and allows us to take risks – the path to successful outcomes.
Can you overcome fear of failure?
Want to kick your fear of failure to the curb? Here are Harvey’s six top tips…
1. Name your fear and try to understand it
“Picture what it is that you’re most afraid of and imagine the worst that could happen. Usually the answer is not as bad as we fear.”
2. Notice your internal self-talk and the language you use
“Try to consciously change negative thoughts about yourself. Focus on what you can change, rather than on what you can’t.”
3. Make a plan for what you want to achieve
“Set yourself realistic goals and manageable actions. If your goal feels too big and too scary, break it down and approach it gradually. What’s the first small step you could take to move towards it?”
4. Separate the myths
“Think about what you know to be true and create an ‘I’ve got this’ list of 20 things you’ve ‘handled’ in your life so far – challenges or fears you’ve overcome, situations you’ve navigated or things you feel proud of.”
5. Talk to trusted colleagues or friends
“Notice the people in your life who demonstrate strong self-confidence and self-belief. Consider what they believe, say and do. What can you learn and how can you use some of these techniques yourself?”
6. Make failure your classroom
“Most importantly when you do fail, get in the habit of using mistakes to your advantage. What can you appreciate about what’s happened and what can you learn from it? Start by trying to understand your fear, make a plan and take a small step forwards.
“As growth and comfort rarely go hand in hand, facing your fear of failure head on is likely to be uncomfortable, but let go of ‘perfect’ and embrace the chance of failure entering your life. If nothing else, it will be a valuable life lesson.”