Fear of failure can stop you in your tracks. It can paralyse your progress towards your goals and make you so cautious that you end up going nowhere. Most of us will fail at something during our life and survive, but for some the fear of failing leads to total risk aversion and stagnation.
Fear of failure is often unwarranted and involves worrying about events that may never occur. We become so afraid of failing that we cease to try at all. After all, it is impossible to fail at something you never attempt.
This way of thinking can lead you to shy away from trying new things and from taking opportunities.
It is a trait often seen in perfectionists. They will only explore challenges that they know they can complete perfectly. Avoiding anything where there is a chance of failure, stunting progress towards goals and hindering personal development.
Fear of failure also manifests itself in self-sabotage behaviours such as procrastination. Those battling with low self-confidence or imposter syndrome are often prone to this kind of behaviour in an attempt to avoid the spectre of failure.
Cathy O’Dowd, the first South African to summit Everest and the first women to climb Everest from both sides, talked about her fear of failure on the Tough Girl Podcast.
Growing up in South Africa as a youngest child and only daughter, she was a high achieving child and enjoyed gaining her parents approval via her academic endeavours. Cathy describes her younger self as “very much the good girl” who had a sheltered upbringing with no real experience of failure.
One of the lessons Cathy learned from her Everest expedition is that failure can be a positive thing, to be respected but not feared. The expedition, depicted in the film Everest, caught the imagination of a South African public not normally interested in climbing or mountaineering. The problematic group dynamic and tragic circumstances of the descent played out in the media like a “dysfunctional soap opera in the mountains”.
On Cathy’s return home to South Africa she was confronted by the public sharing their opinions of what she should and shouldn’t have done. This experience helped her to realise that failure is not world ending and that you can live through it.
“Yes, it’s awful but it doesn’t last forever”.
The positive side of her very public failure was that the media attention brought unexpected opportunities. There was an offer to write a book, corporate speaking requests and sponsorship opportunities for future adventures.
Overcoming Fear of Failure
Cathy’s reflections can perhaps help us to understand the secret of overcoming the fear of failure. To achieve our goals we have to face the risk of failing head on. Learning to view failure in a different way and reframing the experience, can neutralise the fear. Instead of harsh self-judgement we should focus on the lessons we can take from the experience.
Three steps to over-coming fear of failure
Re-framing –Take a deep breath and then think about that you can learn from this experience? How has it helped you to move closer to your goal? What can you do differently next time? If you can say you have learned something then it is not a failure but another step in the process towards success.
Positive thinking – Harnessing the power of positive thinking can help you to banish the fear of failure. Those regularly practising positive thinking are generally found to be happier and more resilient. They view failure as an experience rather than something catastrophic and bounce back more quickly from setbacks.
Contingency planning –Try to picture the worst-case scenario. What would you do if this outcome occurred? How would you act? How would you feel? Remove the element of the unknown. Planning can give you back control of the situation and how you react to it.
Cathy O’Dowd explained that experiencing failure has helped her to become more adventurous and more willing to try new things.
Nothing is truly a failure if you get something out of the experience of trying.
“I still don’t like failing but I’m much better at it now!”
To learn more about Cathy O’Dowd’s amazing story listen to her episode on the Tough Girl Podcast.