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Overcoming The Fear of Failure


In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal ways and strategies to conquer the fear of failure.

First a quick update:

“What is a sober living home?”
In a new series of video interviews that chronicle leaders and developments in the addiction recovery world presented by Milestones Ranch Malibu Treatment Center, I interview Dave Casey, Executive Director at Bridge Sober Living Homes, about sober living homes — a place to transition from treatment to finding a new meaningful place in society. Dave Casey explains that compassion is critical to the recovery process and that his personal experience revealed to him that change and healing occur by uncovering the underlying core issues that lead to relapse. Watch the video here.

Now, let’s talk about ways to overcome the fear of failure.

Theodore Samuel “Ted” Williams (1918-2002) is a famous US baseball player with a 21-year Major League Baseball career with the Boston Red Sox. He holds the highest career batting average of anyone with 500 or more home runs and twice won the Triple Crown. Williams was the last ballplayer to hit .400 in a season. He also did two tours of duty in the military in World War II and the Korean War.

And yet, in spite of all of his life experience, successes, mass recognition and accolades, Ted Williams suffered from fear of failure.

“I was always afraid I might fail…I was pictured as being so cocky – I might have been cocky to some people, but not in my heart.”

In an interview with CNN’s Bob Greene, it was apparent that Williams always fixated on his own shortcomings.

When Williams was a young ballplayer, he said, “All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street, people will say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.’ ”

Williams made it a reality and he was nicknamed “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.”

But that still wasn’t enough for Williams.

“I would slide down in my seat a little bit when I heard someone say that,” he told Bob Greene. “Because I wanted people to believe it, but I didn’t believe it myself. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron — they were so good. When I would be at a dinner and someone would say I was the best, I would want to hide out of sight and sink into the floor.”

What Ted Williams was describing was much more than fear of failure alone – it was the feeling of not being good enough, never being good enough; the constant desire to be perfect. He achieved his goal and dream of being labeled as “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” and yet at the end of his life, he still expressed regret for not being enough, saying that he didn’t run fast enough.

Self-doubt and fear of failure plague every one of us – even the highly successful and famous people. And when a person achieves success but still subconsciously believes that he is not worthy of the success, that he is not good enough, then he becomes a victim of the “Impostor Syndrome” and usually sabotages his success – the way many celebrities do.

Read my articles:
“Are you an impostor?”
“Conquering self-doubt”
“Overcoming yourself”
“Self-sabotage and Law of Deservedness” – watch the video

Fear of failure often paralyzes you or at the very least leads to procrastination; the more fear of failure you feel, the more you will procrastinate. Williams had a desire to succeed, to achieve perfection along with a specific goal of becoming the greatest hitter who ever lived. And that desire, motivation and goal were collectively greater than his fear of failure, and thus he took action.

But for most of us, unless there is another force at play, fear of failure will stop us from even trying. And the less you try something, the smaller you become, the more fearful you become; you lose your belief in your skills, in your competency. In order to raise your level of competency, you must take action. But action alone (acting in spite of the fear) is not enough to overcome fear of failure.

What is fear of failure?

There are only two types of fears:

  1. Physiological/Neurological
    Fear that is hardwired in our brain, driven by instincts for survival
  2. Cognitive/Emotional
    Fears that we learn and are programmed

Read my article “What are you hiding?” to learn more about physiological and emotional fear

Interestingly, one of the greatest fears we have is the fear of public speaking. And that fear can create physical distress, nausea, anxiety or panic attacks.

Why are we so afraid of public speaking?

The perceived pain of failure – rejection, humiliation, shame, foolishness and so forth.

And this is the link to the fear of failure.

Beneath the fear of failure, driving it and keeping it alive, is the fear of experiencing painful emotions – humiliation, shame, rejection, ridicule, criticism, condemnation, isolation, and so forth.

The one key to setting yourself free from fear of failure is to become clear about which emotion you are ultimately trying to escape. Here are two key questions:

1. Which old emotions would failure trigger for you?
For example, if you were constantly criticized as a child whenever you made a mistake, and that criticism made you feel stupid, alone or unloved, then you fear failing because it would trigger feelings of stupidity, aloneness and feeling unloved or unworthy of love.

2. Which subconscious beliefs would failure trigger for you?
If your parents told you that you are stupid or a loser, or if you heard them speak harshly about other people, labeling people as stupid then you might easily have created the beliefs – “I am stupid” or “Stupid people are bad” and you would subsequently fear failure because it would trigger those beliefs of being stupid and bad (unworthy) as well as triggering the associated emotions (rejection, isolation, disapproval, feeling unloved and so forth.)

Obviously, the first step is to heal the past – to let go of the old emotions and to let go of the disempowering beliefs about yourself.

The second, but not mutually exclusive step, is to work towards achieving self-determination – the personal decision to do something or think a certain way; the ability to make your own decisions and thoughts free of the opinion or influence of other people.

I am just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocket full of mumbles such are promises
All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

“The Boxer” is a folk rock ballad written by Paul Simon in 1968 and recorded by Simon & Garfunkel. Simon says “…the song was about me: everybody’s beating me up, and I’m telling you now I’m going to go away if you don’t stop.”

Overcoming other people’s opinions and arresting our desire for their constant approval are key steps to overcoming fear of failure, and achieving self-determination and emotional freedom.

Here are a few tips to also help you to overcome fear of failure:

1. Relatedness (sense of community)
Although the goal is to avoid seeking people’s approval, we still need support from others; surround yourself only with people who express belief in you and want the best for you; feeling connected raises self-confidence and self-esteem; feeling disconnected leads to depression and insecurities

2. Competency
Focus on developing your skills; do so in small steps; write a list of your talents and abilities and achievements

3. Emotional autonomy
Release yourself from past negative emotional experiences; face the past pain and find resolution; stop hiding from yourself

4. Action/Being Separation
Do failures define you, or does your response to them define you? Separate yourself from the action and outcome; you can do something wrong but that doesn’t make you wrong; you can lose at something but that doesn’t make you a loser

5. Identity
We have learned to identify with and thus value ourselves based only on social status, career, and successes or failures. What makes you who you are? Write a list of all of your qualities, characteristics, abilities and values. This is what you truly are.

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that layed him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains

Finally, remember that it is normal and okay to experience, anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness, fear, regret and every other emotion. But you can pull through, even when it appears everything’s against you or you feel beaten down; you can pull through by drawing upon your inner courage and strength. It is there. Just look for it!

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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