Fear of failure might be at the root of your procrastination: How to overcome Atychiphobia
By Eleanor Hope-Jones
Dec 02, 2022
Fear of failure can be a heavy weight to bear.
From not accepting an amazing opportunity to procrastinating the day away to protect our sense of self, a fear of failure, and the negative thoughts that come along with it, can stop us in our tracks.
Maybe it’s because you’re a perfectionist in every aspect of life, or a particular task scares you. Your fear of failure may also come into play alongside other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
(As if it wasn’t enough to deal with by itself.)
Let’s take a look at what a fear of failure looks like, what causes a fear of failure and what you can do to overcome it.
What does a fear of failure look like?
Most of us will experience a fear of failure at some point in our lives, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Certain projects or tasks may be a stretch for our abilities, and we may procrastinate or have more negative self-talk than usual.
But overcoming that fear, managing our mental health needs, and trying our best anyway are important parts of growth.
An irrational and persistent fear of failure is a bit more of a problem and can contribute to chronic procrastination.
If you’re so terrified of taking on a new project at work you pass up the opportunity, but your work is a supportive, growth-focused environment that will empower you with training, you may want to address that fear of failure.
Fear of failure will affect people in different ways, but some common experiences include:
“If you never try then you never fail” is a statement lots of people with a fear of failure live by.
Common kinds of self-sabotage include procrastination, the dreaded writer’s block and deliberately not trying hard enough or doing your best.
When it comes to a fear of failure, avoiding new opportunities, projects or experiences can sometimes be the safest way to protect ourselves. This effectively keeps us stuck in the same place as we’re avoiding anything that might lead to something we want, like a new job or life goal.
It might surprise you but perfectionism and fear of failure are innately linked. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr Brené Brown, a social worker and professor who studies emotions, defines perfectionism as:
“a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgment, and shame.”
Only doing things you believe you can do ‘perfectly’ means you can avoid failing, but it also deprives you of things that will help you grow or get what you want in life.
Self-efficacy is the belief that we’ll follow through with what we say we’ll do. This could be as small as getting up at a certain time of day, or as large as starting a new business venture.
Fear of failure can be so paralyzing that over time we stop believing in ourselves which (you guessed it) only cements our fear of failure more deeply. Low self-efficacy can lead to low self-esteem and can even make us feel powerless.
The anxiety that comes with having a fear of failure can lead to physical symptoms if you’re ever trying something new that scares you. This might look like your heart rate increasing, feeling a tightness in your chest, sweating, dizziness or even digestive problems.
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Why do we fear failure?
We know almost everyone experiences a fear of failure at some point in their life, but a chronic fear of failure can be pathologized as atychiphobia.
Let’s take a look at some of the things that can cause a recurring fear of failure
1. Parenting styles
If your parents taught you that you must always achieve excellence and put lots of value on your success or accomplishments, this can contribute to a fear of failure in later life. Especially if they were overprotective and never let you experience failure as a child.
In fact, some researchers have suggested certain attachment styles in childhood lead to relationship sabotage in adults.
Your parents may have had the best of intentions but reflecting on your childhood can help you unravel which long-held beliefs may be undermining what you want to achieve as an adult.
2. Genetic predisposition
No, there is not a fear of failure gene. But there is a gene that makes us predisposed to anxiety.
In terms of fear of failure this gene means you are more likely to feel intensely anxious about stressful things, like a task you could fail at.
Learning how to manage your anxiety is a useful tool in helping to overcome a fear of failure.
3. Experiencing trauma
In his seminal book, The Body Keeps Score, Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk explains how trauma interferes with the brain circuits that involve focusing, flexibility and being able to stay in emotional control.
A body that’s stuck in flight, fight, freeze or befriend mode can struggle with an extreme fear of failure if it perceives failure as a threat.
4. Definition of failure and a fixed mindset
Depending on your life experiences at home, school and early on in the workplace your understanding of the word failure will look very different.
Dr Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets exemplifies this most clearly. Dr Dweck proposes that a growth mindset views intelligence, talent and performance as changeable based on effort and skill developed over time.
Someone with a fixed mindset will view these as innate unchangeable qualities.
Someone with a growth mindset can view failure as a springboard, an opportunity to grow their skills or try a different approach. Whereas someone with a fixed mindset will see it as confirmation that they are not (and never will be) good enough.
A growth mindset sees failure as an inevitable and necessary part of getting smarter, stronger or better. A fixed mindset sees failure as a nail in the coffin of their sense of self.
The good news here is that your mindset itself is not set.
Do Atychiphobia and Kakorrhaphiophobia mean you fear failure?
You may have heard these words thrown around in association with a fear of failure, and yes Atychiphobia and Kakorrhaphiophobia are broadly both a phobia of failure. Though Kakorrhaphiophobia also covers a fear of rejection.
What’s important to note is the difference between a fear of failure and a phobia of failure. Fear of failure is not listed as a psychological condition in the most recent edition of the DSM.
(The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, AKA a psychotherapist's handbook.)
But if a fear of failure meets certain diagnostic criteria, it can be pathologized as a phobia. Those diagnostic criteria include:
- Excessive and unreasonable amounts of fear
- Extreme distress or avoidance
- Limits your ability to function
- Causes immediate intense anxiety
- Lasts for at least 6 months and is not caused by another condition
How to overcome fear of failure?
Overcoming fear of failure is a journey that may take some time, experiments and (ironically enough) failures along the way. Make sure you’re kind and compassionate towards yourself, as even admitting that you’re afraid is a huge step in a positive direction..
There are two broad strategies you can use to overcome a fear of failure:
Managing the symptoms of your fear when it does arise
Challenging the root beliefs and experiences that cause your fear
Managing your feelings around your fear of failure
These are techniques you can use to help feel in control when your fear arises, and ways you can recognise and de-escalate your emotions around failure.
Remember we’re all different, so some of these techniques might not be for you, and that’s a-okay.
Plan ahead and break down the task
When it comes to a fear of failure (and the inevitable procrastination that follows) it’s far more likely to take hold if you feel like you have an insurmountable task or goal ahead of you. Create systems, where you break down and prioritise tasks as a matter of habit.
Try not to think about the big picture, such as delivering the presentation, buying a house or getting married, but the next smallest chunk of work ahead. Like structuring a draft of the presentation script, finding 5 properties to view or calling 3 venues to visit.
Breaking large abstract concepts down into smaller mundane tasks, lessens the psychological weight of the goal, which can help reduce your fear.
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Create a ‘failure’ plan
Let's imagine the worst-case scenario. You fall over at the presentation, the marriage crumbles, or the new business venture fails.
Realizing there’s a life after failure is a great way to take away its power over you, and knowing you have a plan b may be the reassurance you need to try it anyway.
(This technique is a bit like marmite, so if imagining the failure sends you spiraling and the hypothetical solution doesn’t help – perhaps this isn’t the way forward for you.)
Remind yourself of previous successes
Try making a list of things you have achieved in your life so far, and build up your sense of self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is the belief that you can and will follow through to achieve your goals. Looking back at previous successes and analyzing how you achieved them can help improve your confidence ahead of your next set of plans.
They don’t have to be comparable in difficulty either as you’re focusing on the qualities you used to achieve them. For example, if you ran a 5k, you can remind yourself of the discipline and techniques you used, to improve your confidence for a 10k.
Have a growth mindset mantra
If you think you have a fixed mindset, and that’s part of what’s holding you back then start observing your thoughts when your fear of failure comes up. Are you internalizing the belief that failing once means you’ll never be able to do better?
If so, be ready to counter those thoughts with a growth mindset mantra or story that reminds you those thoughts are not helpful or accurate.
A mantra might sound like ‘sometimes you win, sometimes you learn’ or ‘if it doesn’t challenge me, it won’t change me’.
Read our article on procrastination quotes to find more inspirational phrases that might resonate with you.
Keep reading to learn about famous people’s failures who found success through a growth mindset.
What are examples of famous people who failed?
One of the most popular examples of a failure leading to huge success is Michael Jordan.
Today he’s considered one of the greatest basketballers in the history of the sport, but he was cut from his high school basketball team by his coach. When reflecting on the experience Jordan has said:
“I just wasn’t good enough. In terms of the best thing that could happen to me was to get cut, 'cause it made me go back and get caught up with my skill level at my height.”
Even Oprah experienced significant failure when she was demoted from a TV reporter to a cohost on a talk show in her early twenties. Though it was technically a demotion Oprah now refers to it as a lightbulb moment where she found her purpose.
Oprah is now worth $2.5 billion and has her own TV channel, which she owes all to that demotion.
Challenge your extreme fear of failure by working with a mental health professional
If you think your fear of failure is more deeply rooted and may be Atychiphobia then you may want to consider talking to a medical professional like a therapist or psychiatrist.
They can help you look into treatment options like psychotherapy, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or medication.
If you think your phobia or deep fear is a result of trauma it's really important you speak to a mental health professional, as you deserve expert support to work through your past experiences.
How do I start again after failure?
Rock bottom is a beautiful place to build up from.
If you have perceived yourself as failing before in life, take time to reflect and learn from the experience. It can be tempting to rush into the next project, relationship or goal, but reflection is how we learn and do better.
Over time you’ll recognise what you can learn from your failure, and be able to create a positive, even if bittersweet, narrative around a failure that allowed you to grow.
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