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Take a moment. Think about something you really want to do, but haven’t yet because you are afraid it might not work out:

Taking up that new project at work. Starting your own homemade cupcakes business. Shifting to a new house. Starting a fitness regime. Investing in some property. Taking a break from work to travel. Telling that someone special you love them.

Your mind is probably telling you: What if it doesn’t work out? What if it is a big mistake? What if I fail? Sometimes, when you want to take up something new, your mind will tell you that you are not ready, even if you are. Yes, taking up something new does come with changes and some amount of risk but it also comes with a gamut of exciting possibilities.

When you are scared to fail, you take a step back. You colour inside the lines. This fear limits you from attempting certain activities, taking risks and you start to undermine your potential.

Why do We have Fear of Failure?

Making a mistake or failing at something makes you feel disappointed, angry and frustrated. You regret your decisions and you start brooding over what you “could” or “should” have done. However, research shows that what underlies this feeling of failure is embarrassment or shame. Most of us actually have a fear of the shame that accompanies a mistake. Shame can be a toxic emotion. Marilyn Sorenson (Author and Clinical Psychologist) explains “Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong. When a person experiences shame, they feel ‘there is something basically wrong with me’.” We then internalize this feeling and attribute labels to who we are as people- “not good enough” “incompetent” “worthless”.

In today’s society, failure has become something to fear. We all have duties and responsibilities, structured routines and plans to keep pace with life’s demands and the competitive environment. It is useful to have these plans. They provide a sense of purpose and stability. However, we think that if we fall, if we stumble, we will get left behind. So, we move through each day at a time cautiously, trying to get everything right. We avoid making mistakes or taking risks. We stick to the plan, we play it safe.

With time, this belief that mistakes are “bad” gets internalized by the psyche and operates from a sub-conscious level. We might not even know it’s there. What we forget is that lack of failure or mistakes does not equal to success. What we are actually doing is putting ourselves in a box, limiting ourselves and our possibilities.

Why is Failure Important?

As children, when we first learn to ride the cycle; we fall many times. There are scratches and bruises. It hurts but you don’t give up. You can hear your father encouraging you and telling you that “Don’t worry, you will get it.” You get back up and try again, knowing that you might scrape your knee again. Eventually, you do succeed. You feel happy and exhilarated at this achievement.

As we grow older, we lose sight of this perspective. The error that we all make is that we don’t give failure its due importance. Research in this area encourages the age-old adage that “Failure is a teacher”. A recent study states that an error-free approach might not be as efficient. In fact, by challenging ourselves to generate new scenarios and solutions, we tend to improve our performance.

So, How is Failure a Teacher?

– It provides a change in perspective. Sometimes, we avoid stepping out of an uncomfortable or unpleasant situation because we feel that if we do, we would have failed. For example, if you are unhappy in a stressful job or an abusive marriage, you don’t look for changes because quitting the job or looking at separation might make you feel like you have failed. However, chances are making this change would make you realize that you are happier and in a more peaceful state of mind now than you were before.

– It supports active learning. When you take up something challenging, you are engaged in the process of learning. On making a mistake, your mind is able to pick up cues as to what went wrong and thus enhances learning. Thus, it also teaches us what not to do; we learn to work on our weaknesses. It shows us to look for a Plan B and pushes us to look for another approach until we find one that works.

– It shows you that if you never try, you’ll never know how far you can go. By just trying, you are not limiting yourself but actually being open to all the various opportunities that life has to offer.

– Failure teaches us about our strengths. When we make a mistake, we realize that we do have the strength to overcome it. When we fail, we grow. We learn from our mistakes, our past experiences. We gain the courage to deal with challenges that we might face later on.

Even though we are conditioned to believe otherwise, it is essential to remember that failure is not the opposite of success. Moreover, it is a step on the path to success.

How You can Overcome your Fear of Failure

Overcoming fear of failure might not seem easy, but it can be done. Carol Dweck, (Professor and Psychologist, Stanford) emphasizes the importance of cultivating a growth-mindset rather than a fixed-mindset. This means keeping an attitude where one believes that they can learn from their mistakes, and through effort. This growth- mindset helps to cope with the fear of failure, lending itself to a more adaptive response to mistakes – not just behaviorally, but also neurally.

Thus, we have to work at changing our reaction to failure and the ideas that we have about what failing means. It requires you to keep an open mind and step out of the box, but you can do it.

Failure is a Part of Reality

No matter how careful you are and how much you stick to the plan, there are certain things or situations that are not in your control. All of us stumble and trip at some point. We all go through hardships. It happens to the best of us. Don’t look at it as big, black clouds looming over you. Rather, look at it as the rain before the rainbow. Doesn’t seem so scary now, does it?

The Spotlight Effect- Remembering that it is Okay to Make Mistakes

We all fall prey to the spotlight effect; it is when we fear that we will be judged by others for our mistakes. This leads to us feeling embarrassed and ashamed every time we take a fall. There will be many negative thoughts that will go through your head when you feel like you have let yourself or someone else down. The more you dwell on them, the worse you feel. However, this perception of being under constant scrutiny is merely in our minds. We overestimate and exaggerate the extent to which people pay attention to our mistakes. It is human to err; we are fallible. So, be compassionate towards yourself and let go of past mistakes. Allow some room for error and start seeing your mistake as a point to guide your next attempt.

Failure is Temporary

Failure feels permanent, but it isn’t. Intellectually, we know that but emotionally, we let ourselves believe otherwise. Take a minute. Try and remember the last time you feel you failed at something. Chances are that your world didn’t turn upside down. Even if it did, realize that you managed to get through it, that you learned something from it. It has made you stronger even if you don’t acknowledge it.

Face your Fear

Don’t let this fear cripple you. Ask yourself this: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” This does not mean that you take major risks without thinking of the possible consequences. It means, start looking at things you’ve wanted to do, changes you’ve wanted to make but haven’t because you’ve been too scared of what happens if things don’t go as planned. Saying yes and allowing yourself to change things can mean uncertainty – but also the possibility of enormous personal growth and success.

Set Goals and Focus on Aspects in your Control

We understand that the uncertainty that comes with taking chances can be unnerving at times. Start with making a list of changes you want to make. You can start with the smaller changes. Don’t look at it as “setting up yourself to fall” but as “trying something new.”

The good thing about this is that you can identify certain areas that are under your control and work on them. So, set goals and take that leap of faith. Trust your own potential. You are more capable than you give yourself credit for.

Ask for Help and Encouragement

We sometimes forget that we are not expected to know everything. We are so entwined in doing everything right and doing it independently that we forget to turn to our friends, family or colleagues for support. People can help us through our apprehensions and troubles. Knowing that there is someone who has your back can help taking this leap seem easier and less scary.

Some of the most successful people will admit to having gone through multiple failures before arriving to where they are now. Take J.K Rowling, the author of the famous Harry Potter Series who went through years of struggle before becoming one of the most loved authors of this generation. Or Thomas Edison, who failed to create the light bulb 1,000 times before getting it to work. Allegedly, he said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.”

It helps to remember that there are others who are taking risks and stepping out of their comfort zone. Why go far, look amongst people in your environment for inspiration and encouragement.

Value the Lessons your Mistakes teach You:

Throughout life, you are learning and studying; preparing yourself for each day. There is only so much you can learn from books or others’ experiences. The kind of learning you gain from personal experience accounts for much more. So, follow your passion and don’t get stuck in your past mistakes. Appreciate that you are pushing yourself; that you are improving. You’d be surprised at how much freedom that gives you to move forward and achieve things that you otherwise thought difficult or impossible to achieve.

Sometimes what we call failure is just that necessary struggle called learning. So, don’t give up on your goals and dreams. What we need to realize is that “Success isn’t about getting where you want to be; it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point.”

What do you think would make it easier to overcome fear of failure? Do tell us through comments. Also, if you know anybody who would benefit by reading this article, please do share it with them.

Image Credit: Kiwi-Wings


Post contributed by: Anusha Manjani

Anusha is a Clinical Psychologist and she worked with children and adolescents at Inner Space, from 2013 to 2015. 



  1. Dear Ramesh,
    Thank you for your feedback. I’m glad you found the article insightful.
    I agree that our attitude towards failure is to some extent shaped by our childhood experiences. Hence, the kind of messages that we do give out to children must encourage an environment that allows room for mistakes and sees it as a point for growth and learning. However, if one does have a fear of failure, one must work towards overcoming it as this fear holds you back and sets limits on what you are capable of. It does take courage to change these patterns but every step you take towards this change is one more step away from the fear of failure. 🙂

  2. Ms. Manjani, thank you for this very insightful article. Fear of failure is indeed a major factor in how much risk we are willing to take in every aspect of life. However, this risk appetite is largely shaped in the early childhood, when parents either encourage us to take risks despite failures, or chide us every time we fail. People who attain greatness are those who persevere despite repeated failures, and believe in themselves. As most self-help gurus would say, one must never give up, as one doesn’t know how close one is to one’s goals.
    As this is one trait which remains in the subconscious mind of the person since early childhood, parents and tutors in particular must be careful how they behave with their wards / students who fail. Their attitude can severely affect their children’s attitude towards failure too, which will define their “fear of failure” throughout their life. It would take a person immense self-determination and self-belief to overcome adverse responses to failure. Their social setup can help immensely to cope with failure, as failure is just a stepping stone towards success. It is easier said than done, but the article gives enough inputs for people to cope with this. Thanks again.

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