Why Your Fear of Failure Is Destroying Your Productivity

And what to do about it.

Last week, a long-standing suspicion finally solidified into a full-blown belief: I am terrified of failure.

There are no two ways about it. When I think that people are counting on me, I melt like butter. I crumble like high-quality pie crust. I break down like my Hyundai Elantra.

OK — maybe it’s not that bad. But, it’s definitely not good. When I think of the volume of work I produce regularly, it’s disappointingly small. Why is that? Because I’m scared to do certain tasks. Well, why is that? I think the logic of it is twisted and confused, but here goes nothing...

I put off tasks for a number of reasons — maybe I don’t know what to do, maybe they’re big and scary, or maybe they’re just not very exciting. But, whatever my reason for putting them off, I feel shame, guilt, embarrassment, and frustration for having procrastinated in the first place. I imagine what my co-workers would think of me if they knew this “awful” truth. So, I push the work under the proverbial rug and hope everyone forgets about it, including me.

Unfortunately, this never works. Procrastinating does, however, succeed in making me feel like a failure. When these tasks come roaring back into my mind, I immediately feel beaten and defeated. So, instead of just doing the damn work, I run away all over again.

This is a vicious cycle. I hate it. I mean, I don’t like procrastinating. I don’t like not doing good work. I don’t like letting people down. But how do I get started when I feel like I’ve already failed?

Are you like this? Does your brain get in its own way? Or maybe you stick out a leg to trip yourself?

If so, how can we change our perspectives toward these tasks and the emotions they cause? How can we forgive ourselves for any past “wrongdoing” and simply move forward?

I’m ready to put this beast to rest. How about you?

The different types of fear of failure

In researching this topic, I’ve learned that our fear of failure is complicated. It can take many forms and involve different thoughts and emotions, but they all kill our productivity.

Where does our fear of failure come from? It can come from many sources. Maybe your parents were hard on you when you made mistakes. Maybe you had a traumatizing moment of utter and complete embarrassment. Maybe your teachers highlighted your errors rather than your accomplishments. Maybe it was a combination of these and more. Whatever the reason, though, we’re all left to deal with the aftermath.

Below, I’ve listed three reasons we fear failure. There are doubtless others, but these resonated with me the most.

#1 Failure means being embarrassed

Embarrassment is the worst, isn’t it? You feel naked and exposed, like people are combing over every inch of your soul, picking out all the worst stuff. It’s awful.

So, we naturally want to avoid being embarrassed. No one thinks, I hope I feel embarrassed today. It’s up there with heartache and sorrow as one of the absolute worst things we can feel.

But, doing something new or challenging brings with it the risk of failure. And failure can be embarrassing. No one wants to lose people’s respect and no one wants to look dumb. When our fear of failure consumes our thoughts in this way, it stifles our creativity, productivity, and desire to work.

#2 Failure means not being good enough

Achieving success is how most of us define our self-worth. If we’re externally validated by promotions and positive feedback, we’re on top of the world. We think we’re awesome.

Failure, then, is the opposite. When we fail, we think we’re not good enough — like we just don’t have what it takes to succeed. We think that the failure defines who we are and what we’re worth.

When we attach our sense of self-worth to the “success” or “failure” of tasks and projects, we’re telling ourselves there’s a lot on the line. If we sense the risk is too high, we’ll shy away from accepting challenging work or trying. After all, if we try and fail, that’s “proof” that we aren’t good enough; but, if we don’t try and fail, we can tell ourselves, I could have performed better if I’d tried.

#3 Failure means letting people down

A big fear of mine has always been the fear of letting people down. I played a lot of team sports growing up and this fear often stifled my performance. I would become so consumed with what others were thinking of me that I would, quite literally, forget how to play the game. There would be times that I would fail to perform even the most basic skills.

Today, when I’m struggling through a task or a project at work and I get stuck, I can’t help but worry that I’m letting people down. Whether it’s the people the project will impact or my peers, I start to think they’ll all be disappointed in the work I produce. Then, I start to doubt my ability to do the work, which decreases my ability to think clearly or creatively. This makes a bad situation even worse. But, instead of seeking the help I so obviously need, I am too ashamed to ask for it.

The worst part about the fear of letting people down? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You know it’s happening when it’s happening, but it feels like you just can’t do anything about it.

What can we do about our fear of failure?

If you have a strong fear of failure, chances are it’s not going to go away on its own. You might think that if you get that one, big success, you’ll never fear failure again, but I don’t think that’s how this works. If you fear failure today, it’s likely because you have a mindset that promotes this kind of thinking. So, what we need to do is change our minds, not hope that more external validation will fix the problem.

Here are five things you can do to help.

  1. Name your fear. This might seem unimportant but figuring out where your fear comes from can help you overcome it. At the very least, you’ll feel relieved that nothing’s wrong with you and that others feel the same way you do. If none of the reasons I presented above resonate with you, a quick Google search will likely bring you the answer.
  2. Reframe your goals. Goals are great for helping you get to where you want to go. Unfortunately, they can also cause you to fixate on certain outcomes to the neglect of others. Incorporate aspects of learning into your goals so that “failure” becomes much less likely — after all, there are immense opportunities for learning when things don’t go as planned. By taking this route, even when you “lose”, you “win”.
  3. Focus on the journey. We all have a bad habit of focusing on the outcomes of our goals, rather than on the steps we take to get there. But, gazing fixedly toward the horizon makes it far more likely you’ll trip and fall along the way. So, pay more attention to the journey — steps are easier to manage when taken one at a time, which can decrease your fear of failure.
  4. Think more positively. We all have bad habits of negative self-talk. Learn to see those thoughts more clearly and change them. But, this isn’t about lying to yourself, it’s about combatting your bias toward seeing negativity wherever you look. So, the next time you’re telling yourself why you’re the absolute worst person on the planet, consciously put some effort toward thinking true, positive thoughts. This can help you see the world a little more clearly and stop you from falling into vicious cycles of destructive thinking.
  5. Ask for help. This is a pretty obvious one, but we often feel too ashamed to do it. Many of us are taught that if we can’t handle our own problems, then we’re weak. The thing is, other people have perspectives and experiences that can help us. And people really do love to help! So, the next time you’re stuck, ask for help.

I hope that one or more of these steps helps make your fear of failure a little more manageable. I wish you well on your journey!

Thanks for reading!

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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