How to overcome the fear of failure

You’ve been here before; in the throes of nail-biting, gut-wrenching, leg-crippling fear. You know what you want to do, need to do, but you’re unable to move past the block that exists only in your mind. Perhaps you’ve failed at that particular endeavor before, or maybe it’s your first time trying. Either way, you’re struggling with the voice in your head telling you that you can’t do it. You’re not good enough, you don’t have what it takes – skills, talent, or simple luck. What will people say if it doesn’t work out? What will you say?

Atychiphobia, the fear of failure, is a real and powerful fear that often prevents people from living up to their full potential. It can hinder you from taking major steps. It can also impede daily activities, resulting in less creativity and unwillingness to take even calculated risks. Many fears are learned, and the fear of failure is one of those that can be unlearned/managed. Here’s how:

  1. Acknowledge: The first step to overcoming the fear of failure is recognizing and acknowledging it for what it is. Doing this allows you to externalize it, and enables you to approach it objectively, like you would if you were helping someone else deal with it. Beyond acknowledging the general fear of failure, you should also articulate the exact thing you’re afraid of in the given context as this is critical to overcoming it and moving forward.

  2. Analyze: Next, analyze the fear with a view to finding its cause. Sometimes the fear of failure manifests as a result of childhood patterns. If a person grows up in an environment where even little mistakes are criticized/punished, it’s possible to carry that pattern into adulthood. Fearing failure can also be as a result of a perfectionist personality. Wanting everything to be perfect can lead to a crippling avoidance attitude towards goals, where, instead of seeking to achieve positive outcomes, one focuses on avoiding negative outcomes. Another possible cause could be, a major experience with failure in your past. Whatever the case, articulate the reasons for your fear, as sometimes just looking at them can make the fear seem easier to deal with.

  3. Act: Take practical steps to tackle the reasons for your fear. Ask yourself, “is this fear valid?” Fear can be irrational, but sometimes it is valid. For example, the fear of failing when considering a career change is a valid one. Perhaps you’re a banker who has decided to try your hands at interior design. Your education/training and experience gave you the required skills and confidence to succeed as a banker, so seek to gain education/training as an interior designer. Then to gain experience, offer to design spaces for your friends and family. Over time your confidence will grow, and you’ll find that you’re no longer afraid.

    If the reason for your fear is a previous experience with failure, or a perfectionist personality, work towards overcoming such mindsets. Sometimes, simple actions like practicing positive thinking and reframing what failure means to you, are effective. Surround yourself with positive re-enforcement by reading relevant books, getting encouragement from friends and family, etc. Learn about people who have gone before you. Humanity is rife with examples of famously successful people who started out failing. Reading about them and their experiences can boost your own confidence. In the case of previous failure(s) being a hindrance, learn to separate the event(s) from yourself. Just because you failed at something in the past does not make you a failure.

    If, however, the fear you experience is really deep and you’re unable to move forward, consider working things out with a professional coach/therapist.

  4. Take the plunge: Sometimes the best way to move forward is to, like the famous sports brand says, just do it. Break down your goal into smaller activities and then tackle the first one. Using our previous example of switching careers from banking to interior design, the first step could be to register a business. Seeing a business certificate with your business name can spur you into doing the next thing on your list, and before you realize it, you’ve achieved the goal.

  5. Visualize:
    • The worst that can happen: This might seem counterproductive at first but visualizing the worst-case scenario can be really helpful. In many cases, you’ll discover that it’s not actually as bad as you imagined. Go further by articulating steps to take if the worst does happen. Being prepared with a plan in the event that the venture doesn’t work out can give you the confidence you need to move forward.

    • The best that can happen: Now that you’re armed with a backup plan for the worst-case scenario, visualize yourself on the other side of fear. Imagine your happiness and fulfilment when you succeed. Focusing on this image or pulling it up whenever you begin to panic can be powerful enough to get you over to the other side.

    • The cost of inaction: think about what happens if you don’t go through with the endeavor. Will your career suffer? Your family? Will you be content and fulfilled or will you always wonder? Next, enumerate the benefits of attempted effort. Even if you try and don’t succeed, are there any benefits to be gained from the process of trying? Perhaps you’ll gain enough experience to try again, or maybe learn something new that will be helpful on a different venture. Comparing the cost of inaction with the benefits of attempted effort might make it easier for you to push forward.

  6. Unclench your jaw: Relax. Everyone has failed or will eventually fail at something in life so see failure as an inevitable learning step. If you do fail, articulate the reasons and either try again or move on to something else.

Ultimately, fear of failure can (and should) be turned into motivation to succeed, if handled correctly.

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Dania Nwizu is a creative entrepreneur based in Lagos, Nigeria. She spends most of her time writing, telling food stories and walking on water.

This article is intended to provide general information about finance and investments and does not replace or should be taken as professional financial advice. The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article except information on Citibank N.A. – UAE products referenced herein.
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