It is not failure that people fear. It is the perceived negative consequences that follow the failure that stresses them out. This fear can lead to lowered self-esteem, avoiding challenging tasks, being pessimistic and even cheating.
Psychologists have identified the five main things which people fear a failure will lead to:
- Experiencing shame and embarrassment
- Readjusting how you see yourself
- Having an uncertain future
- Upsetting important others
- Important others losing interest
Reducing The Fear of Failure
So how to overcome fear of failure? Here are seven suggestions:
No shame policy – The most common fear of failure that young people report is the fear of shame and embarrassment. This is seen in students who don’t volunteer an answer to a question in class for fear of looking bad in front of their peers; or in athletes who play it too safe as they don’t want to be the one who makes a mistake. For these people, trying is seen as not cool. Trying and failing is definitely seen as not cool. We can overcome this fear by creating an environment where failure isn’t followed by laughter, ridicule and embarrassment.
Address the problem – Psychologists believe that there are three ways people cope with situations. These are Avoidant, Emotional and Problem Focused. Let’s say you are worried about snakes in your garden. You could decide to never go into your garden again (avoidant focused), or convince yourself that having snakes in your back garden isn’t that bad (emotion focused) or go into your garden and get rid of the snakes (problem focused). Whereas avoidant and emotional focused coping may provide a short relief, problem focused coping addresses the issue head on, allowing you to make long term gains. Don’t be an ostrich and bury your head in the sand. If something is worrying you, work out how you can make it better.
Learn from your mistakes – Forty years ago, a psychologist in America studied how primary school students viewed an upcoming test. Some viewed it as an opportunity to see how much they’d learnt; others saw it as a chance to compare themselves to their classmates. Those who focused on their learning are called task-orientated (incidentally, this was the basis of some of Carol Dweck's early research). Creating a task orientated environment (by focusing more on individual development and less on comparison to others) should increase motivation, confidence, self-regulation, academic performance as well as reducing anxiety.
Don’t bottle it up – Teams are often stronger than individuals, so if something is worrying you, talk to someone like a parent, friend, teacher or coach. These people can give advice, support, or even just listen to you. Using the support available to you is one of the strategies that Olympic champions use to develop their resilience.
Question your fears – Are your fears actually irrational and highly unlikely to come true? Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." This is a great quote as it captures perfectly how many students end up worrying about the worst case scenario, often for no logical reason. It’s good to reassure them that if they have put the hard work in, there is no reason to assume the worst.
Focus on what you can control – When people focus on things that they can’t change, it often makes them stressed or nervous. By helping people focus on what they can control, it gives them a sense of certainty and confidence. Elite athletes, such as Tom Daley, call this being process focused, which is not focusing on the outcome (i.e. the result, which they can’t control), but focusing on what they need to do (the process) to give them the best chance of success. The same applies to school – students can’t control what grade they will achieve, but they can be processed focused if they concentrate on what they can control (their effort, their attitude, how organised they are).
Embrace the grey – In education and in sport, sometimes the result can paper over the cracks. Young people can think that a good grade or a win in their last competition means that everything is good. On the flip side, a poor grade or a defeat and everything seems all doom and gloom. This sort of black and white thinking can lead to stress, anxiety and fragile self-esteem. Judging yourself on your attitude, effort and what you’ve learned are better markers and are probably more likely to result in the good grades and wins that they so desire.
To recap, failure in itself isn’t threatening. It is just a source of feedback on your current level. It is the negative consequences that people think will follow that they fear. The most common of these is the fear of shame and embarrassment. There are many techniques and strategies that can help young people overcome their fear of failure, helping them push on and realise their potential.
For even more info take a look at our page How to Develop a Growth Mindset, where you'll find links to blogs and research.