How to Overcome Your Fear of Failure

08/26/2016 12:21 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2016
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Failure can be scary.

For one, there’s some stigma attached to failure. People usually think that failure is something to be ashamed of. You can even become a laughing stock. Sometimes, you’re seen as fair game for ridicule when you fail especially when you pursue big, ambitious goals.

Failure also forces you to confront your limitations. It shatters your illusion of invincibility and infallibility, or at least your fantasy of being better than you really are. Falling short of your own expectations can be painful to your ego.

Also, with failure come disappointments. You’ve probably imagined yourself riding high and being praised and congratulated, only to find your high hopes dashed against the rocks. It’s even more painful when our failures disappoint the people who are dear to us.

And so we try to avoid failure as much as we can. We limit ourselves to “safe goals” so we can minimize the likelihood of failure.

But refusing to leave your cocoon of safety has a high price — your personal growth and your dreams.

Seeing Failure in a Different Light

Many people are morbidly afraid of failure because they misunderstand it. They see it as a sadistic villain who gleefully smashes their hopes and dreams to smithereens. But actually, failure is a good friend, a brutally honest one. It tells you what you need to hear—that you’re not good enough yet. Then, it teaches you how to be better so you can be good enough later.

It shows you your mistakes so you won’t repeat them in the future.

It shows you what your limitations are so you can either transcend them or work around them.

It tells you what’s not working so you can find a better way.

Failure isn’t the opposite of success, but rather an important part of it. Many successes are built upon previous failures. A quick Google search will show you that there are many famous people who used their failures as stepping stones to success.

Of course, when you’re pursuing your dreams, you should set yourself up to succeed by learning from the mistakes of others, equipping yourself with the knowledge you need, getting the best training you can have, working hard, and following the best practices in your field.

But it’s impossible to completely insulate yourself from failure. And you can’t avoid failure by not trying at all. If you don’t do anything to make your dreams come true, you fail by default. 

Tell Your Lizard Brain Who’s Boss

You’ve probably heard about the “lizard brain” or the amygdala. Its mission is to protect you from danger. Because you’ve been conditioned to believe that failure is bad, your lizard brain will try to protect you from it by making you feel scared and uncomfortable whenever you’re facing a challenge. “It’s too dangerous,” it will tell you.

But it’s even more dangerous to allow your lizard brain to control you. It will kill your dreams and doom you to a life of regret, mediocrity and “what ifs.”

Here are some ways to tame your lizard brain and take control of yourself:

1) Realize that you may have more to lose if you don’t try at all than if you try and fail. The price you pay for not trying is losing the opportunity to get what you want and to grow in the process.

2) Focus on growth rather than a specific result. You may not always get the results that you hope for, but you stretch your abilities, increase your knowledge and develop your character in the process of trying to get what you want regardless of the outcome. Should you fail, you will be better equipped the next time you try or when you pursue other endeavors.

3) Live in the present. When you live in fear, you live in the future. Get detached from the outcome. Don’t think about what could happen and just focus on what you need to do at the moment.

4) Flip your fears. Fear and excitement feel the same way to our bodies. The only difference is that when you’re scared, you focus on the things that you don’t want to happen. When you’re excited, your attention is on what you want to happen. Change your focus and you transform your fear into excitement.

What if You Fail?

Like I said, you can’t insulate yourself completely from failure, but you can make it easier to handle. Here are a few ways to soften failure’s blow:

1) Failure is easier to handle when you stop caring about what other people think. You can’t stop people from reacting to the news of your failure. Their reactions may vary from pity to utter glee over your failure.

But your failures aren’t anybody’s business and what others think is none of yours, so why should you care? If their comments won’t help you, you don’t need to hear what they have to say.

2) Failure is also easier to handle when you are humble. Humility is not self-deprecation. Rather, it’s the willingness to accept the truth about yourself, including your limitations and faults. Failure gives you a healthy dose of truth. Be ready to accept yourself just as you are and it will be easier to cope with failure.

3) Remember that it isn’t over until you say so. Failure is temporary. It’s not the end of your dreams. It only becomes permanent when you give up. It may steer you to another direction. When it does, be open to taking another path, but don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal.

If you have dreams and you’re setting out to make them come true, you must not let the fear of failure get in your way. When you understand what failure really is, it becomes less terrifying. Use it to your advantage and don’t let any failure be your ultimate defeat.

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