Header Image
Tom Moon, M.F.T. Overcoming the Fear of Failure

Overcoming the Fear of Failure

We’ve all experienced dread at the thought of failing, but for some people this fear is so paralyzing that it’s a complete obstacle to personal success. Motivational speakers and coaches try to get people to overcome their terror of risking failure with anecdotes designed to demonstrate that a successful life inevitably involves failure. They remind people, for instance that Babe Ruth, who for many years held the homerun record, also held the record for the most strikeouts; or that Thomas Edison’s attempts to make a light bulb failed hundreds of times before he finally succeeded.

In Edison’s case, he succeeded because he saw his failures as providing valuable information, not as commentaries on his personal worth. But some people are more accustomed to thinking “I failed at this task, therefore I am a failure.” This kind of thinking makes it more likely for some to continue compulsive patterns of smoking, drinking, or eating; avoid people they’re attracted to or romantically interested in; or avoid pursuing jobs they’d love to have — rather than face the presumed shame that they believe will follow any unsuccessful attempt to make their lives better. When we conflate experiences of failure with our sense of our worth and dignity as human beings, than failure inevitably becomes an experience of humiliation, and humiliation is so painful that many of us will avoid it at any cost. That’s one of the reasons we become “risk averse,” and that leads to feeling stuck, bored, and unfulfilled in our lives.

All of this suggests that an important key to overcoming this fear is to learn to think of failure as a kind of experience, not a kind of person. As self discipline teacher, Theodore Bryant puts it (in Self Discipline in 10 Days), “…there is no such animal as a failure; no zoo in the world has a caged specimen. Sure, a person can fail at a particular task or project. But a person cannot be a failure. Moreover, a person can fail at the same task numerous times yet not be a failure as a person. The fictitious horrors of failure that are etched into our brains subvert our ability to exercise self-discipline in many of life’s arenas.” Many readers will be skeptical of this idea, because it’s not an idea that many of us are accustomed to thinking.

If the fear of failure is caused by our ideas about what it means, not by failure itself, then the tools of cognitive therapy should be of great help in overcoming it. The motto of cognitive therapy is “Don’t believe everything you think.” Fortunately, the cognitive therapy techniques for changing thinking patterns are so simple that some people can learn them from self-help manuals. One way to explore this option is to pick up a copy of David Burns’ book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and do the written exercises for changing cognitive distortions. As far as I know, this is the only self-help manual whose effectiveness has been scientifically demonstrated in five separate studies.


Author: Tom Moon