Overcoming Fear of Failure

Facing Your Fear of Moving Forward

Have you ever been so afraid of failing at something that you decided not to try at all? Or has fear of failure meant that, subconsciously, you undermined your own efforts to avoid the possibility of a larger failure?

Many of us have probably experienced this at one time or another. The fear of failing can be immobilizing – it can cause us to do nothing, and therefore resist moving forward. But when we allow fear to stop our forward progress in life, we're likely to miss some great opportunities along the way.

In this article, we'll examine fear of failure: what it means, what causes it, and how to overcome it to enjoy true success in work, and in life.

What Causes the Fear of Failure?

To find the causes of fear of failure, we first need to understand what "failure" actually means.

We all have different definitions of failure, simply because we all have different benchmarks, values, and belief systems. A failure to one person might simply be a great learning experience for someone else.

Overcome your fear of failure and move forward to achieve your goals.

Many of us are afraid of failing, at least some of the time. But fear of failure (also called "atychiphobia") is when we allow that fear to stop us doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals.

Fear of failure can be linked to many causes. For instance, having unsupportive or critical parents is a cause for some people. Because they were routinely undermined or humiliated in childhood, they carry those negative feelings into adulthood.

Experiencing a traumatic event in your life can also be a cause. For example, say that several years ago you gave an important presentation in front of a large group, and did very poorly. The experience might have been so terrible that you became afraid of failing in other things. And you carry that fear even now, years later.

How You Experience Fear of Failure

You might experience some or all of the following symptoms if you have a fear of failure:

  • A reluctance to try new things or to get involved in challenging projects.
  • Self-sabotage – for example, procrastination, excessive anxiety, or a failure to follow through with goals.
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence – commonly using negative statements such as "I'll never be good enough to get that promotion," or "I'm not smart enough to get on that team."
  • Perfectionism – A willingness to try only those things that you know you'll finish perfectly and successfully.

What Is The Definition of Failure?

It's almost impossible to go through life without experiencing some kind of failure. People who do so probably live so cautiously that they go nowhere. Put simply, they're not really living at all.

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But, the wonderful thing about failure is that it's entirely up to us to decide how to look at it. We can choose to see failure as "the end of the world," or as proof of just how inadequate we are. Or, we can look at failure as the incredible learning experience that it often is.

Every time we fail at something, we can choose to look for the lesson we're meant to learn. These lessons are very important; they're how we grow, and how we keep from making that same mistake again. Failures stop us only if we let them.

It's easy to find successful people who have experienced failure. For example:

  • Michael Jordan is widely considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. And yet, he was cut from his high school basketball team because his coach didn't think he had enough skill.
  • Warren Buffet, one of the world's richest and most successful businessmen, was rejected by Harvard University.
  • Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin empire, is a high-school dropout.

Most of us will stumble and fall in life. Doors will get slammed in our faces, and we might make some bad decisions. But imagine if Michael Jordan had given up on his dream to play basketball when he was cut from that team. Imagine if Richard Branson had listened to the people who told him he'd never do anything worthwhile without a high-school diploma.

Think of the opportunities you'll miss if you let your failures stop you. Failure can also teach us things about ourselves that we would never have learned otherwise. For instance, failure can help you discover how strong a person you are.

Failing at something can help you discover your truest friends, or help you find unexpected motivation to succeed. Often, valuable insights come only after a failure. Accepting and learning from those insights is key to succeeding in life.

How Not to Be Afraid of Failure

It's important to realize that in everything we do, there's always a chance that we'll fail. Facing that chance, and embracing it, is not only courageous – it also gives us a fuller, more rewarding life.

However, here are a few ways to reduce the fear of failing:

  • Analyze all potential outcomes – Many people experience fear of failure because they fear the unknown. Remove that fear by considering all of the potential outcomes of your decision. Our article Decision Trees will teach you how to map possible outcomes visually.
  • Learn to think more positively – Positive thinking is an incredibly powerful way to build self-confidence and neutralize self-sabotage. Our article Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking, and Positive Thinking is a comprehensive resource for learning how to change your thoughts.
  • Look at the worse-case scenario – In some cases, the worst-case scenario may be genuinely disastrous, and it may be perfectly rational to fear failure. In other cases, however, this worst case may actually not be that bad, and recognizing this can help.
  • Have a contingency plan – If you're afraid of failing at something, having a "Plan B" in place can help you feel more confident about moving forward.

How to Stop Living in Fear

If you are afraid of failure, you might be uncomfortable setting goals. But goals help us define where we want to go in life. Without goals, we have no sure destination.

Many experts recommend visualization as a powerful tool for goal setting. Imagining how life will be after you've reached your goal is a great motivator to keep you moving forward.

However, visualization might produce the opposite results in people who have a fear of failure. Research shows that people who have a fear of failure were often left in a strong negative mood after being asked to visualize goals and goal attainment.

So, what can you do instead?

Start by setting a few small goals. These should be goals that are slightly, but not overwhelmingly, challenging. Think of these goals as "early wins" that are designed to help boost your confidence.

For example, if you've been too afraid to talk to the new department head (who has the power to give you the promotion you want), then make that your first goal. Plan to stop by her office during the next week to introduce yourself.

Or, imagine that you've dreamed of returning to school to get your MBA, but you're convinced that you're not smart enough to be accepted into business school. Set a goal to talk with a school counselor or admissions officer to see what's required for admission.

Try to make your goals tiny steps on the route to much bigger goals. Don't focus on the end picture: getting the promotion, or graduating with an MBA. Just focus on the next step: introducing yourself to the department head, and talking to an admissions officer. That's it.

Taking one small step at a time will help build your confidence, keep you moving forward, and prevent you from getting overwhelmed with visions of your final goal.


Sometimes, being afraid of failure can be a symptom of a more serious mental health condition. Negative thinking can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While the techniques in this article have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only.

Readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over related illnesses or if negative thoughts are causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.

Key Points

Many of us are sometimes afraid of failing, but we mustn't let that fear stop us from moving forward.

Fear of failure can have several causes: from childhood events to mistakes we've made in our adult lives. It's important to realize that we always have a choice: we can choose to be afraid, or we can choose not to be.

Start by setting small goals that will help build your confidence. Learn how to explore and evaluate all possible outcomes rationally and develop contingency plans; and practice thinking positively. By moving forward slowly but steadily, you'll begin to overcome your fear.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (84)
  • Over a month ago Sarah_H wrote
    Hi LawrenceT,

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and what you have taken from this article.

    You say that you know you have low self-esteem and you know you have a negative thinking pattern - it is really positive to be able to identify this because it means you can then decide what you'd like to do about it.

    Please do check out our articles on self-esteem. Also have you tried the Decision Trees which may help map out more positive steps for the future?

    I know it can be hard when people advise you to learn to think more positively but
    positive thinking really is an incredibly powerful way to build self-confidence and neutralize that self-sabotage.

    Do let us know if we can help any further. The Forums are a good place to get support from the coaching team and also other members who may be experiencing similar things.

    All the best,

    Mind Tools Coach
  • Over a month ago LawrenceT wrote
    I struggled with school demands from age of 10 - it started because of an ADHD, but on top of that lies very well embedded the fear of failure. Living in a highly demanding family environment contrasted by the real characteristics of it, growing with the feeling that the fault was attributed to me all the time (critics in almost everything, very high-demanding mother - who found every time something bad to say about her own performance even when she was getting perfect results - plus not having my parents support in situations involving outsiders) made me grow up questioning every decision and every aspect. I became very analytic about every detail of my actions and thoughts, so much that at the age of 37 I still have no career. I struggled to get a degree in computer science (in my 5th year and stretching for 3 minimum 3 more semesters) so much that it's hard to see anything else that I might be good at. I'm having headaches every time I think about it, every time I consider opportunities that I didn't saw or missed because of my choices, every time I see my chances diminishing, every time I looking at the greater picture - the implications that my failed actions have in present. When I read this article I realized that I sabotaged the process of learning my entire life - what I thought to be a game addiction, turned out to be an escape route for my subconscious to release the tension from my head. The worst part is that it's a vicious circle: the more time I waste gaming and not learning, the less time remains until deadline - thus worst headaches and anxiety, which leads back to games, reading news, social media. The field of IT itself became unattractive since I have so many gaps accumulated across the years, that it gives me the feeling (probably it's the truth) that I will not succeed at work. I barely pass the classes that I don't drop (I ended up dropping more and more each semester and it's getting worse and worse). I had excellent results in my first year (A and A+), so I know I have the capacity to understand and apply the knowledge.
    The trouble with failure is that I don't have another plan B, since it's the path that I choose and there's too much time, energy and money spent on it to quit at the end. Yet, I will struggle so much in this field that no employer will want to keep me (considering that I will pass an interview).
    I know I have a low self-esteem (part of my identity I assumed) and I know I have a negative thinking pattern (I call it realistic). I also know that it would be in my own interest to be more positively, but I cannot be something that I'm not, right? Feels like in a downward spiral and having no starting point.
    It's hard to see the positive side of failure, since it's my life schedule that's constantly overdue...
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi TruckinMack,

    We all share a fear of failure to some degree. From what you describe, it sounds less like a fear of failure and more about setting your standards so high that you exhaust yourself in the effort. You are exceeding the academic portion of your program. Perhaps you could pull back a bit on the coursework (give yourself some breathing room) and put a plan in place to shore up your teaching skills.

    Mind Tools Team
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