Overcome Your Fear of Failure [HMHE Podcast Show Notes – Ep 33]
Whenever I ask our community, “What is the most significant internal obstacle that is holding you back from creating the change you want to see in the world?” I often get responses along the lines of “fear,” “fear of failure,” and “fear of judgment.” So today we’re going to dive into these fears! How can we overcome the fear of failure and why do so many of us struggle with it?
This week I share the self & professional development work that has helped me to overcome my fear of failure. Then, I walk you through a step-by-step exercise to redefine your fears so that you can move forward in life.
Below is an outline of this week’s episode of the Happy Me Happy Earth Podcast, Ep 033: Overcome Your Fear of Failure. Please listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts to hear the full discussion and my personal examples.
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What is the fear of failure?
There is a clinical term for extreme fear of failure, atychiphobia, but that is not what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about the fear of failure that most of us experience daily. At times it does feel very intense.
Your fear of failure might present itself as an acute emotion related to a specific project or a more omnipresent, constant, general anxiety about failure.
More specifically, the fear of failure is the fear of shame and embarrassment. Fear of judgment and fear of failure are best buds! We fear that if we make a mistake or fail at something we will be judged by others or ourselves. And if we go a level deeper, that fear of being judged is a fear that we won’t be worthy of love and acceptance. We fear that we’ll no longer belong.
This fear also impacts our view of ourselves. If we judge ourselves or beat ourselves up every time we make a mistake or fail at something then we damage our self-confidence and self-trust.
Fear is also a biological response in our bodies. It’s physical. I invite you to note how your body responds when you’re experiencing fear. Does your breathing change? Do you want to move or do something?
When we experience fear blood rushes away from our brains and into our limbs so that we’re ready to run away from or fight the thing that we’ve identified as a threat. You can learn more about how our emotions manifest physically in this article.
Feeling Fear Doesn’t Mean Something Is Wrong
These fears are completely rational and natural. Humans are herd animals, so we evolved to deeply value belonging. Back in the day, being shunned by the group could directly lead to our demise. So, if you struggle with the fear of failure and judgment nothing has gone wrong and there is nothing wrong with you.
But, fear of failure can become a problem when it holds you back from working towards your goals, growing as a person, or courageously pursuing your change-making work.
Understanding Our Brains Motivational Triad
In order to keep us safe, alive, and prepared for any unexpected challenges our brain has certain tendencies. These tendencies often inform our fears.
The three main tendencies or “desires” of our brain are to:
- Avoid pain
- Seek pleasure
- Conserve energy
This is commonly referred to as our brain’s motivational triad.
So, practically speaking, you’ll always be motivated to do things that are easy, feel good, and don’t cause you pain.
But when we’re challenging the status quo, trying to create positive change in the world, and doing self-development work we are intentionally challenging that motivational triad. We’re exposing ourselves to the possibility of being hurt and feeling uncomfortable. Being a changemaker is not easy!
However, when we understand our brain’s motivational triad we can give ourselves a break. We can accept that our fear of failure is okay. It’s healthy. We can also work with our brain’s motivational triad to inspire ourselves to take action in spite of fear.
Overcoming my fear of failure and fear of judgment has been absolutely crucial to getting to where I am now in my life and in my career.
Overcoming the Fear of Failure
What if getting rid of your fear wasn’t the goal?
I haven’t “overcome” my fear of failure in the sense of defeating it or making it go away. Banishing my fear is not the goal. Not only is that unrealistic, but fear is a natural and useful human emotion that we need. It absolutely has its time and its place.
But I have “overcome” my fear of failure in the sense that I now know how to deal with it in a way that makes it no longer a problem. One of my life mottos is, “Fail Faster.”
I now see my fear of failure as an indication that I’m on the right path. In the wise words of Pema Chödrön,
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”
My mistakes and failures are opportunities to get to know myself better and grow as a person and as a changemaker.
Strategies to Heal Your Fear of Failure
Below are several strategies that I use myself, and when working with clients, to work with our brain’s motivational triad in order to “overcome” the fear of failure, get unstuck, and move forward in life. On the podcast, I give examples of how each of these strategies has helped me.
Tapping Into Your Self-awareness
It’s important to note that sometimes our fear of failure is actually covering up something deeper. When I’m feeling fear about taking on a project or starting something new I ask myself, “Is this fear pointing to something else? Is it a signal that something else in my life or in my psyche needs attention?”
You might also ask yourself, “Is this fear coming up because I’m pushing up against one or more aspects of my brain’s triad?” The answer to that question is almost certainly, “yes!”
Once we have this awareness we can choose to listen to that primitive part of our brain, or acknowledge and choose to do the scary thing anyway.
Self-compassion & Building Your Capacity for Self-love
I use to tie my failures to my self-worth, so if I failed I thought that meant I was a failure. Now I no longer hold that belief. I see each failure as an opportunity to grow and expand my potential, not as a sign that there is something wrong with me. I made this shift by studying and embodying the Growth Mindset.
Building Emotional Resilience
By building my capacity to hold all of the uncomfortable emotions that come up when I make a mistake or fail I’ve expanded my capacity to fail. Moreover, I now see failures as important opportunities to continue building this resilience. Each time I make a mistake or fail and come out the other side okay my fear of failure diminishes. Truthfully, I don’t come out the other side just “okay,” I come out stronger and wiser.
Because I trust myself to hold and process those uncomfortable emotions of shame and embarrassment I no longer fear failure as much.
Clearly Identifying Your “Why” AKA Your North Star
When I’m super clear about why taking a specific action is important, I’m more willing to take a chance and fail.
For example, I’m crystal clear about the mission of my business. So back in the day when only a couple of people were showing up to my live webinars, I kept going. If a program or course launch “fails” I learn from it and try again.
My commitment to pursuing my mission (I call this my North Star) completely overshadows my fear of failure.
Viewing My Life & Work as an Experiment
Nowadays, I view just about every situation in my life and my career as an experiment. This helps me to take things less seriously and to approach success and failure with an inquisitive mind. Setting up systems in my life and business that keep me in the Changemaker Mindset has helped me to stay in this experimental frame of mind.
Lastly, exposure therapy can be an incredibly effective way to overcome the fear of failure. For example, after a horrible public speaking experience in high school, I committed myself to improving this skill. In college and grad school I jumped at opportunities to speak in class and at academic conferences even though it terrified me. When working as an Architect in NYC I joined Toastmasters to continue practicing this skill.
Fear Setting Exercise
Anytime fear is holding you back from doing something that you know in your heart you really want to do, you can use this four-step exercise to address your fears.
Step 1. Define Your Fear
Finish the statement, “What if I…”
By writing down your specific fear you remove it from the nebulous, vague space where anxiety thrives. We can face our fear head-on and work with it once we have it down.
For example, “What if I completely flub this work presentation.”
Step 2: Define the Worst-case Scenarios
Step 3: Prevent
Analyze the above worst-case scenarios one by one. What could you do to prevent each of these worst-case scenarios from happening? How might you ask someone to help you prevent this from happening?
Brain-dump everything that you can think of to prevent your worst-case scenarios, and be sure to consider how you might ask loved ones or trusted colleagues to help you.
Step 4: Repair the Damage
Now consider what you would do if what you fear did occur. What if each scenario you identified did happen? What could you do to either repair the damage or get back on track?
I invite you to use this Fear Setting exercise and the other strategies that I mentioned above to address your fears instead of letting them get the best of you.
Now, go forth and take courageous action!
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