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Is the fear of failure stopping you from living your dream life?

Being a bit apprehensive of getting something wrong is natural. But some people completely avoid even trying just in case they fail. This isn’t healthy. My client, Nicole, had been living like this for years and it wasn’t until we worked together that she realised just how much it was affecting her life.

Fear of failure

She had passed up amazing opportunities. She’d didn’t pursue her dream career. She was bored and unfulfilled in the career she was in.

She had been letting fear hold her back and stop her from reaching her goals. As a result she felt stuck and miserable.

This sort of fear is part of a much wider problem. Dig deeper, it came down to to very significant things. Nicole’s opinion of herself and how much importance she put on what others thought of her.

Her lack of self love and fear of being judged had created this person that was too scared to even try. The fears fed off each other and grew into a monster.

Where did the fear come from?

Our fears are always a mixture of stuff that happened to us combined with our natural personality type. You only need to have had a couple of bad experiences to create a belief about yourself.

In Nicole’s case it was a combination of things. When she was growing up her parents were quite critical. They believed it was vulgar to talk about good achievements and never really encouraged her. As a result she grew up thinking it was wrong to give herself praise and she felt ashamed of any achievements.

Because of this, she needed approval from other people to make her feel good about herself. She certainly didn’t give herself approval because she had been told it was wrong.

So, at work she pushed herself really hard to be the best. She went out of her way to help people. Her work was meticulous. She always strived to be better than anyone else.

Then she made a mistake. She cost the company some money. And even though everyone was very understanding, she came down on herself like a ton of bricks.

And this was the point that Nicole’s fear of failure went into overdrive and anxiety took over her life.

Fear of failure limits your life

In Nicole’s case the fear had a massive impact on her professional development. I could tell she was bright, articulate, funny and clever. She didn’t have the same opinion of herself.

After that mistake she stopped trying new things, she played it safe and avoided anything too challenging. She often felt stressed and anxious as her thoughts of making a mistake spiralled out of control.

She spent hours procrastinating without making a decision. Unless everything was perfect and planned to the finest detail, she was terrified to even try.

Eventually she left that job, that she was good at, that had prospects. And she found a job that she knew she could do standing on her head so that the chance of failing was significantly smaller.

What did she do about it?

We talked about how Nicole could move on from her fear of failure and start to live the life she deserves.

Different people have different attitudes towards failure. Some see it as a learning exercise and an opportunity to grow. Nicole saw it as proof for how inadequate she was. Once she realised she was doing this, she was able to start retraining her brain to see mistakes as a good thing rather than a personal attack.

Nicole relied on other people to give her validation because she was told at an early age that it was wrong to be proud of yourself. So, we put a plan into place where Nicole would spend 30 minutes every day thinking about how hard she had tried that day. She refocussed her mind to believe that it’s not about being the best, its about trying your best. She stopped giving herself a hard time about the things she hadn’t completed that day and instead focused on the things she had done

When taking on new challenges, Nicole would imagine all sorts of awful things happening if she made a mistake. She didn’t just imagine it though, she felt the emotions too. She was terrified of trying anything new because her imagination convinced her that the world would end if she got it wrong. With some regular practise Nicole learnt how to use her imagination to her advantage. She learnt how to purposefully visualise what she wanted to happen rather than what she feared might happen.

When you are trying to reach your goals recognising what motivates you is really important for success. When your motivation for completing your goals is bigger than your motivation not to, you are more likely to reach them. Nicole didn’t achieve her goals before because she was allowing fear to be her motivator. Once she realised this, she was able to focus on the positive motivators instead.

If you throw yourself at overcoming a fear like this, it can soon become overwhelming. Taking baby steps is really important or achieving long lasting results. Being kind to yourself and taking one step at a time is the only way and this was how Nicole was able to build up her confidence again.

Together we unpicked what Nicole thought might happen if she did fail at something at put those thoughts into perspective. She learnt how to manage her thoughts and re-frame them into something much more helpful and realistic. She was able to ask herself, is it really going to be as bad as I think?


Naomi Buffery is an Anxiety Coach. After living with anxiety for 20 years, she now helps others achieve the same freedom she found.

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