How to Let Go of Fear of Failure

Don’t let fear of failure hold you back! Dr. Jim Taylor shows you how to overcome fear of failure for yourself and your children.

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A recent email from a reader asked the question, “My child keeps getting in his own way in his [sport]. He has a fear of failure! So, what can I do about it?” In this article, I’ll discuss ways in which young people (and all people, for that matter) can let go of their fear of failure.

Let me preface my thoughts by saying that there are entire books devoted to fear of failure and how to overcome it. In severe cases, months of psychotherapy are required. My point is that, as with most things in life, there are no magic pills or quick fixes. At the same time, if you or one of your children has a fear of failure, there are some things you and they can do to relieve the burden of fear of failure and begin to pursue success rather than avoid failure.

What Parents Can Do

A basic tenet of mine about child development is that “children become the messages they get the most.” What this means is that children weren’t born with a fear of failure. Instead, children develop their attitudes toward and beliefs about failure from the world around them.

Some of those harmful messages about failure, no doubt, come from our popular culture, overly intense coaches or teachers, and peers.

But, as sad as it is to say, fear of failure in children usually comes from their parents. Parents contribute to feat of failure in three ways. First, you react to your own failures by getting angry or despondent. Second, you send direct messages to your children that failure is simply unacceptable (“You better win today”). And, third, you react emotionally when your children don’t live up to your expectations — for example, getting angry at them after a bad game or grade. In all three cases, the message they get is “I can’t lose or I’ll really upset my parents.” The subtext of this statement, which is so difficult for parents to believe, is “If I lose, my parents won’t love me.” And there is nothing more fear-inducing in children than that.

But here’s the good news: If you can send unhealthy messages to your children, you also have the power to send healthy ones. And that is where you can first begin to turn your children’s fear of failure around.

Here are some practical steps you can take to ensure that your messages about success and failure are healthy:

  • Look in the mirror and get feedback from your spouse or close friends about your relationship with failure and how you react to it.
  • Be aware of your emotions the morning of a competition, exam, or recital, when your children are performing, and when the performance is over.
  • If you’re unable to control your emotions , stay home.
  • Identify any unhealthy messages that you directly or indirectly send to your children about failure and in what situations you send them.
  • Specify alternative healthy messages about failure that you can begin to send to your children and the situations in which you should send them.
  • Create a plan for what you will say and how you want to feel, so when you arrive at those situations you’ll be ready.

Other practical things you can do include:

  • Never talk about results with your children.
  • Focus on the process (what they need to do to achieve their goals) and fun when you talk about their achievement efforts.
  • If they talk about results, either ignore it, redirect the conversation to process and fun, or change the subject entirely (e.g., “Are you hungry?”).

Here’s an example to help you understand how this process can work. A parent client of mine — I’ll call her Deb — developed an intense fear of failure from growing up with a demanding father who expected only As in school and victories in sport. Though she became quite successful in her career, she was never happy or satisfied with her efforts. Early in her children’s lives, Deb realized that she was instilling that same fear in her children (she talked about their grades and results all the time, got really nervous before her kids’ performances, and was really upset if they didn’t perform up to her expectations) and was determined not to do to her children what her father did to her. So, Deb took several steps to change her behavior and help her kids develop a healthy relationship with failure (some failure is inevitable and is actually essential for long-term success). First, she stopped talking about results around her children. Second, Deb reminded herself constantly that the way to best support her kids’ goals was to emphasize their efforts and what it took succeed. Third, before every performance, she only said, “I love you” to her children and, after, whether they did well or not, she gave them a big hug, said “I love you,” and asked them what they wanted to eat. The end result? Not only did her kids start enjoying themselves more, performing better, and getting improved results in their sports, arts, and school lives, but Deb found that she was more relaxed and had more fun in her support of them.

What People Can Do

Reality test perceptions. Fear of failure is about the perceptions that you hold about failure. For the vast majority people, those perceptions are entirely disconnected from the reality of their lives. You perceive that bad things will happen if you fail, but the reality is that nothing particularly bad, aside from some disappointment, will likely result from most failure.

The main causes of fear of failure include disappointing others, being perceived by others as a failure, and having to conclude that all of your efforts have been a waste of time. Yet, I’m going to argue that none of these things will happen. You can challenge these perceptions by asking your family and friends if they will be disappointed in you (and, as a result, love you less), realizing that the most successful people in all walks of life failed frequently and monumentally on the way to success, and that you will gain far more than you will lose from your failures and learn many essential lessons that will help you in all aspects of your life. So, I encourage you to reality test those perceptions and find out if your fears will come true (I’m pretty sure they won’t).

Take risks. The very nature of life is that you cannot achieve your goals without taking risks. You won’t find real success unless you put yourself out there and “lay it on the line.” The problem is that when you take risks, you may fail. But, if you don’t take risks, you won’t reach your goals, which is the worst kind of failure.

I encourage you to make a commitment to taking risks for two reasons:

  1. To show you that you will be okay if you do fail.
  2. That when you take risks, good things will happen most of the time.

You should start small; for example, take risks in situations in which failure isn’t that bad, and slowly increase your risk taking in more important situations (e.g., job interviews, marriage proposals). In doing so, you get comfortable with taking risks, see that the downsides aren’t so down, and upsides are really up.

Adopt the “F&%# it” attitude. The “F&%# it” attitude (sorry for the bad language) means not caring too much about the results. It means being able to accept whatever results you have if you give your best effort and pursue your goals with commitment, confidence, and courage.

Take a leap of faith. Because there is no certainly in life, if you really want to overcome your fear of failure and achieve your goals you must take a leap of faith. The leap of faith begins with the conviction that you don’t want to go down the path that you’re currently on any longer. The leap of faith continues with, well, faith, that if you let go of your fear of failure and give your best effort, good things will happen. The leap of faith involves having a basic belief in yourself, your capabilities, and your goals. Recognize also that some misgivings are a normal part of the process — you can never be 100 percent sure that things will work out the way you want.

You must also understand that this leap of faith is not blind faith. Rather, you will have prepared yourself for the leap by preparing yourself to succeed; for example, by preparing for an interview or being on a conditioning program for an upcoming running race.

Take your shot. Taking your shot is inherently risky, but it is far better to take your shot and lose than to never take your shot at all. You have only one chance at life; there are no do-overs. At the end of your year, career or life, there is one emotion and one question you don’t want to have to face. First, you don’t want to feel regret, which will certainly come if you don’t take your shot. Second, you don’t want to ask yourself, “I wonder what could have been?” Win or lose, success or failure, you want to be able to say to yourself, “I left it all out there.” You may feel some disappointment if it didn’t work out that day. But you will also feel a degree of satisfaction knowing that you took your shot and gave it your all because, ultimately, that’s all you can do..

The great thing about all of these steps to overcome fear of failure is that they build on one another. The more you do to overcome your fear of failure, the easier it becomes. And, as you do so, you will learn two important lessons. First, failure is fleeting and you will long outlive it. Second, when you let go of your fear of failure, you will be more successful than ever, will likely achieve the goals that you want so dearly to achieve, and will experience far more meaning, satisfaction, and joy in your life’s endeavors.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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