Ways to Overcome the Fear of Failure

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We generally understand that a chronic fear of failure can be detrimental to our careers or personal relationships. But recently, scientists have discovered that such negative feelings take a serious toll on our physical health, as well.

Adrenaline and catecholamines

For better or worse, every thought in our head positive or negative affects our internal biochemistry. Fear, worry, self-doubt and other emotional “downers” do much of their behind-the-scenes damage by stepping up secretion of adrenaline and other hormones called catecholamines.

Even in individuals with perfectly normal hearts, catecholamines can trigger a condition called paroxysmal tachycardia skipped or rapid heartbeat. This has been linked to sudden death.

Elevated catecholamines also boost cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Result: Increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Over time, chronically elevated levels of catecholamines raise the heart’s metabolism, forcing it to work harder. The same chemicals reduce the body’s output of insulin. Reduced insulin production raises the risk of both diabetes and atherosclerosis.

A steady flow of catecholamines also erodes the inner lining of small blood vessels. The vascular “potholes” resulting from this erosion fill up easily with platelets and cholesterol even if cholesterol levels in the body are normal.

Our fear of failure can keep cholesterol at peak levels for long periods of time. Illustration: Cholesterol levels of medical students remain high even weeks after major exams.

Chronic worry also wreaks havoc on the immune system, reducing the effectiveness of our protective T-cells. Anxiety can also stimulate the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol, setting the stage for peptic ulcers.

Changing our perceptions

To counteract the potentially deadly fear of failure, we must change our perceptions. Key: Realizing that failure itself is an unavoidable fact of life.

Each and every one of us has stumbled at some time or other. But that doesn’t make us failures.

Even a long string of setbacks or mistakes doesn’t qualify us for this sweeping, negative label. The scripts of our lives are filled with failures and unhappy scenes as well as successful and joyful ones.

Helpful: Replay and savor the positive scenes. Don’t dwell on the negative scenes.

Review negative scenes only long enough to learn from them and then move on.

People who view themselves as failures or chronic worriers are simply stuck in their negative scenes. They can’t put the script down and move on to another page, so to speak.

A vicious cycle ensues, as the belief that they are failures and the constant fear of failing again discourage them from trying new experiences or persevering at tasks that can lead to more positive results. That holds true for their health, their careers and their relationships.

Finding the silver lining

Mini-case study: Imagine two clerks in the same office, doing pretty much the same work.

One clerk thinks the work is beneath his talents and abilities. He resents having to take orders from a female boss and fears being viewed as a failure for having such a low-level job.

The other clerk, a child of recent immigrants, is glad to have a job that pays enough for her to attend evening classes and complete her college degree.

Although both clerks are performing the same tasks for the same pay, the first views the work as dreadful, the other as a great opportunity to get ahead.

To put it another way, the second clerk views her work as a new, interesting and challenging experience (NICE).

Clearly, the same stimulus can trigger NICE or negative feelings, depending on our perceptions. Positive perceptions allow us to control our world by altering our interpretations of situations and events. This helps us focus on our successes while gearing up for any difficult tasks that might lie ahead.

Four reasons not to give in to fear

• Internal messages

You can’t do it, you’re not good enough, you’ll never make it and you’re going to fail whether intentional or not, verbal or otherwise, sap our confidence, energy and creative juices.

When we give in to fear and worry, our mental eye is fixed only on images of failure, weakness and embarrassment, blocking out positive, encouraging images.

• We are often less worried about failure itself than about how we will look to others

We are often less worried about failure itself than about how we will look to others if we do fail. But excessive concern with appearances robs us of our initiative and of the freedom to take control of our lives. It programs us to behave according to others’ expectations setting us up for chronic anxiety.

• Fear of failure, self-doubt and other “can’t do” emotions

Fear of failure, self-doubt and other “can’t do” emotions are what I call “master” addictions. They can lead to smoking, overeating, alcohol and drug abuse and other potentially deadly habits.

• The word “worry” comes from the Old English wyrgan, meaning “to strangle.”

That’s what we do when we worry we strangle our ability to think and perform effectively, along with our strength, flexibility, enthusiasm and belief in ourselves.

Concern an awareness of problems and a desire to overcome them spurs us on and helps us find solutions to our problems. By contrast, worry keeps us from taking any action at all.

Taking positive action

To free yourself from the stranglehold of fear, uncertainty and doubt…

• Remind yourself that everyone makes errors

More important is what we do with those errors. Don’t allow your mistakes or failures to color your self-image. Instead, say, this led to results I really didn’t want. Next time I’ll avoid that and look for another way of behaving.

Helpful: Set clear goals. Know where you want to go, and then divide your journey into small, manageable trips. Follow these three easy rules…

  • Don’t sweat the little things.
  • Everything is little.
  • If you can’t flee, go with the flow.
  • Almost every problem has a lighter side look for it!

Humor is a great healer. It helps you avoid “sweating” the minor irritants and hurdles in your life and serves to put matters in perspective.

Try smiling especially when you don’t feel like it. You may have to act at first, but the happy feelings will soon follow. Act confident and upbeat and soon you will be.

• Take the focus of fear and worry off yourself

Use your talents and strengths to help someone else a child struggling with homework, an elderly neighbor, a troubled friend. Often the best way to feel better about yourself and your life is to do something for others even if that means simply offering your companionship and support.

• Don’t wring your hands over the things you can’t control.

Focus only on those things you can control.

• Don’t go it alone

If a task seems overwhelming, ask for help. Doing so is not a sign of weakness, but of resourcefulness and strength.

Make yourself part of a community. Whether it’s a family, neighborhood, house of worship or any other caring group, feeling that you belong is an effective antidote to fear.

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