To fear or not to fear?
To fear or not to fear?

In day to day life the most common fear is the fear of failure. I see this a lot in the therapy room so it’s something that I know causes people problems and stops them from fulfilling their potential.

Chances are that most people when they were growing up had good outcomes positively reinforced with rewards and less favourable outcomes dusted under the carpet, downplayed or worse, punished. Failure isn’t something we generally celebrate, yet it often teaches us more than when we achieve things.

For example, think about being young and perhaps struggling with maths, practising your sums, rubbing out mistakes and feeling frustrated that you just couldn’t get it right. Or how about still-life drawing in art class: the bowl of fruit in front of you seemed to resemble something melting in your translation of it to paper. Maths, drawing; they all take practice, much like a lot of life skills. Unless they turn out to be one of our innate talents then it could take some time to perfect these things and this can be said of improving things like confidence, managing anxiety, putting boundaries in place and learning who to trust, if not least trusting yourself.

Our interactions around the time of learning new skills can impact on our perceptions of our capabilities and limitations. If your teacher/ parents didn’t help you with your maths problems you may have felt alone and isolated and incapable. If your fruit bowl drawing was ridiculed or compared against other pieces then that may have dented your confidence to be expressive. Any thing where we were undermined or humiliated in childhood can remain with us long into adulthood.

We all fear failure of something at some time so it’s not an uncommon experience but when that fear stops us from even trying, it can become debilitating and make life a lot less pleasurable; limiting beliefs (‘I can’t do this, I’m not good enough’) can crop up and start to rule our lives. We become less experimental, less creative and less willing to push our own boundaries because we maintain a comfort in what we already know, and in doing so, we embolden our fear of the unknown.

How do we help our fear exist?

  • Finding excuses to get out of plans that are unusual, different, new or push your comfort zone
  • You avoid situations where your work or your self are held up to feedback or comparison- things like annual reviews at work fill you with dread for fear of underachieving or not meeting someone else’s expectations of you.
  • You stick to a routine and when plans go wrong you take that quite hard
  • You find you are easily upset by being let down by others
  • You self-sabotage to prove you cannot do something- like procrastinating the task or avoid reaching goals- this becomes evidence you cannot do it and you were right to think so
  • You have a perfectionist streak and only very high levels of achievement are good enough for you- this makes it harder to accept failure when it does come along.
  • You use self-debasing statements that already plan your failure- ‘I’ll never be good enough,’ ‘I can’t do that,’ ‘I’m not what they are looking for.’

We can’t avoid failure. It’s a certainty that we will fail at some things that we attempt, so perception of failure and perhaps the language we use to describe it can be used a little more creatively to increase our comfort about the situation.

Finding excuses for new tasks: I’ll give it a go, can you come with me on the first try please?
Avoiding feedback situations: I’ve already thought about 3 things I can improve on and 3 things I know I have done well. Can we see if we are thinking the same?


Can you help me get to where I need to be with this?

Sticking to a rigid routine: I’ll add in one new thing a week that I’d like to try
Self- sabotage: I have a deadline; can someone assist me to meet this?


I almost got it right, I know where I went wrong, I would like to try again next week

Perfectionism: £300 in savings would be a great achievement this month but so would £100 and that would also help me if I couldn’t manage the full amount.
I’ll never be good enough: I only tried once, I survived, I can try again


Perhaps more can be doing to celebrate the ‘trying to’ and not just the achieving? As I said earlier on- it’s not something we do that often and it seems it becomes less practised the older we get. Think about when you were learning to ride a bike- stabilisers first, then they come off, you hurtle into tress, shrubs and duck ponds but all the while someone was saying: ‘Keep going! You can do this! Scabby knees will heal! Well done, keep at it! Nearly there!’

How often do you say this to yourself? Have you got people around you celebrating your attempts?

Reducing the fear of failure:

Other than changing the language you use about it (as above) the following can assist:

  • Consider the worst possible outcome and weigh up is it actually that bad now you’ve thought about it?
  • Consider a few possible outcomes- this can help prepare you slowly for whatever you’re planning
  • Plan- how can you reach you goal- can other people help you?
  • Baby steps- can you make smaller plans to get to where you need to be eventually?
  • Visualise yourself doing that task and succeeding- how does it feel?
  • Engage in positivity- how would attempting the task make you feel- regardless of completing it or not
  • View ‘trying’ and ‘achieving’ on the same continuum; they are part of the same path

Work towards a life of scabby knees and trying; you might be surprised about what you can achieve.

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