I’m afraid of a lot of things: illness, failure, birds, the mouse living in my roommate’s wall, interacting with strangers, the list goes on. But I’m only human! It’s natural that I have a lot of fears. What’s important is that I’ve been trying very hard to overcome my fears. Well, at least the ones that negatively impact my life. My fear of birds isn’t hurting me, so there’s no need to fight that one.
If you let it, fear can take over your life. I’ve been there! I let agoraphobia control me for three months (I’ll tell that story some other time) before I realized it was getting in the way of achieving my goals. When your fear starts to control you, that’s when you need to step in and do something about it. It will be scary and stressful, but it has to be done.
Last year, I overcame one of my biggest fears: Flying. My fear of flying started on a family vacation to Disney World when I was five years old. I don’t remember much about the trip, but I do remember overhearing my mom say she was afraid of flying. At the time, I thought my mom was fearless, so if she was afraid of planes, they had to be terrifying death traps. Why else would my mom be scared? For 16 years, I shared my mom’s fear of flying. (Mom, I’m very sorry to blame you for my fear of flying, but it kind of was your fault.)
As I got older, I found reasons to be afraid of flying other than “because my mom said it’s scary.” I’m a control freak, so being on a plane terrifies me since I have absolutely no control. At least when I’m a passenger in a car I can see through the windows and warn the driver if I see danger. I can’t warn a pilot about danger! I have to trust the pilot with my life, and that is horrifying. That’s a whole lot of trust to put into the hands of a stranger.
Also, turbulence freaks me out. When I was 16, my parents and I flew to California to visit my brother. During takeoff, there was a lot of turbulence, and I spent the entire trip still feeling shaky from the bumpy plane ride. When we got ready to board the plane to fly home, I had a full-fledged panic attack. A flight attendant tried to explain to me that there was nothing scary about flying by describing the mechanics of the plane, but that made my panic worse. No amount of science and technology can make me believe that an airplane can stay up in the sky. I’ve convinced myself that planes run on magic, and I refuse to believe otherwise. Eventually my parents managed to calm me down, and I made it from Los Angeles to Philadelphia without dying from my fear, but it was a huge wake-up call. My fear of flying was controlling me, and it had to stop.
After the plane-induced panic attack, my psychiatrist prescribed me medicine to ease my fear of flying, which helped. Thanks to the medication, I managed to fly to Spain on a class trip, and a few years later, I flew to London for a semester abroad. With the medicine, I could fly with no fear.
I thought I was cured of my fear until I decided to fly solo. While studying abroad, I took a trip to Italy with a few friends, and my plan was to leave them after a few days to travel with some other friends to Ireland. To do so, I had to fly alone from Bologna, Italy, back to London. I had never flown alone before. I always had my parents or a friend next to me to hold my hand if I got scared. This was going to be a brand new experience for me, and not only would I be alone, I had to leave from a foreign airport where I didn’t speak the language. I was terrified, but I had to do it. My ticket was booked, my bag was packed and my friends were waiting for me. So I went to that airport and made my way through security. While I waited for my plane to board, I listened to a playlist I made of soothing songs and took some deep breaths. I was shaky, but I was no where near as anxious as I was when I flew home from California. I boarded that plane and told myself I was confident. I even tricked myself into believing that! At one point, I traded in my window seat for a middle seat because a daughter didn’t want to sit away from her mother, which gave me a lot of Airplane Karma points. I landed in London feeling fantastic and ready to fly across the world solo.
A few months ago, I flew from Philadelphia to Boston alone and without any medication, which was a huge step even if the flight was 45 minutes long. There’s even a chance I will fly from Boston to San Francisco by myself next year. I will definitely be medicated for that, but that’s still a long flight to be alone. I’m making progress!
Next on my list is to get over my fear of the ocean. A few years ago, I was frolicking in the ocean with friends when a large wave knocked me over and pinned me down. I felt like I was going to drown, and ever since then, I’ve been terrified of waves. Even standing ankle-deep in the ocean makes my heart race, but I love the beach! It used to be my happy place, and now I’m afraid of it. By next summer, I want to be able to frolic in the waves again, and if I can get over my fear of flying, I know can get over my fear of the ocean.
If you want to face any of your biggest fears, here are a few tips:
- Fake it. Tell yourself you’re brave and confident, and you might be able to trick yourself into believing it.
- Sing a song. My roommate and I developed a new trick for when we’re scared: Singing the Degrassi theme song! There’s something comforting about belting out “Whatever it takes, I know I can make it through!” If you’re not a Degrassi fan, any other uplifting song will do the trick. Listening to a relaxing or uplifting song also helps.
- Use the buddy system. Bring a friend or family member along when you try to face your fears. Having someone to talk to makes it so much better. Eventually, though, you’ll have to do it alone.
- Distract yourself. When I fly, I bring books, coloring books, a deck of cards and two iPods (just in case one dies) to keep myself occupied. Taking your mind off your fear will keep you from remembering how scared you are.
- Consult a professional. I wouldn’t have been able to move past my fear of flying without the help of my psychiatrist. If you’re really afraid of something, talk to a therapist about it. They’ll have great coping techniques!
Facing your fears can be scarier than the fear itself, but it’s totally worth it! Knowing I can travel anywhere I need to by myself is a huge relief, and I’m so glad I managed to get past my fear of flying. Yeah, I’m still scared, but at least I’m able to face that fear now.
Overcome your fear of failure to keep moving forward to your goals.
Have you ever been so afraid of failing at something that you decided not to try it at all? Or has a fear of failure meant that, subconsciously, you undermined your own efforts to avoid the possibility of a larger failure?
Many of us have probably experienced this at one time or another. The fear of failing can be immobilizing – it can cause us to do nothing, and therefore resist moving forward. But when we allow fear to stop our forward progress in life, we're likely to miss some great opportunities along the way.
In this article, we'll examine fear of failure: what it means, what causes it, and how to overcome it to enjoy true success in work, and in life.
Causes of Fear of Failure
To find the causes of fear of failure, we first need to understand what "failure" actually means.
We all have different definitions of failure, simply because we all have different benchmarks, values, and belief systems. A failure to one person might simply be a great learning experience for someone else.
Many of us are afraid of failing, at least some of the time. But fear of failure (also called "atychiphobia") is when we allow that fear to stop us doing the things that can move us forward to achieve our goals.
Fear of failure can be linked to many causes. For instance, having critical or unsupportive parents is a cause for some people. Because they were routinely undermined or humiliated in childhood, they carry those negative feelings into adulthood.
Experiencing a traumatic event at some point in your life can also be a cause. For example, say that several years ago you gave an important presentation in front of a large group, and you did very poorly. The experience might have been so terrible that you became afraid of failing in other things. And you carry that fear even now, years later.
How You Experience Fear of Failure
You might experience some or all of these symptoms if you have a fear of failure:
- A reluctance to try new things or get involved in challenging projects.
- Self-sabotage – for example, procrastination, excessive anxiety, or a failure to follow through with goals.
- Low self-esteem or self-confidence – commonly using negative statements such as "I'll never be good enough to get that promotion," or "I'm not smart enough to get on that team."
- Perfectionism – A willingness to try only those things that you know you'll finish perfectly and successfully.
The Definition of Failure
It's almost impossible to go through life without experiencing some kind of failure. People who do so probably live so cautiously that they go nowhere. Put simply, they're not really living at all.
But, the wonderful thing about failure is that it's entirely up to us to decide how to look at it.
We can choose to see failure as "the end of the world," or as proof of just how inadequate we are. Or, we can look at failure as the incredible learning experience that it often is. Every time we fail at something, we can choose to look for the lesson we're meant to learn. These lessons are very important; they're how we grow, and how we keep from making that same mistake again. Failures stop us only if we let them.
It's easy to find successful people who have experienced failure. For example:
- Michael Jordan is widely considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. And yet, he was cut from his high school basketball team because his coach didn't think he had enough skill.
- Warren Buffet, one of the world's richest and most successful businessmen, was rejected by Harvard University.
- Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin empire, is a high-school dropout.
Most of us will stumble and fall in life. Doors will get slammed in our faces, and we might make some bad decisions. But imagine if Michael Jordan had given up on his dream to play basketball when he was cut from that team. Imagine if Richard Branson had listened to the people who told him he'd never do anything worthwhile without a high-school diploma.
Think of the opportunities you'll miss if you let your failures stop you.
Failure can also teach us things about ourselves that we would never have learned otherwise. For instance, failure can help you discover how strong a person you are. Failing at something can help you discover your truest friends, or help you find unexpected motivation to succeed.
Often, valuable insights come only after a failure. Accepting and learning from those insights is key to succeeding in life.
How Not to Be Afraid of Failure
It's important to realize that in everything we do, there's always a chance that we'll fail. Facing that chance, and embracing it, is not only courageous – it also gives us a fuller, more rewarding life.
However, here are a few ways to reduce the fear of failing:
- Analyze all potential outcomes – Many people experience fear of failure because they fear the unknown. Remove that fear by considering all of the potential outcomes of your decision. Our article Decision Trees will teach you how to map possible outcomes visually.
- Learn to think more positively – Positive thinking is an incredibly powerful way to build self-confidence and neutralize self-sabotage. Our article Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking, and Positive Thinking is a comprehensive resource for learning how to change your thoughts.
- Look at the worse-case scenario – In some cases, the worst case scenario may be genuinely disastrous, and it may be perfectly rational to fear failure. In other cases, however, this worst case may actually not be that bad, and recognizing this can help.
- Have a contingency plan – If you're afraid of failing at something, having a "Plan B" in place can help you feel more confident about moving forward.
How to Stop Living in Fear
If you are afraid of failure, you might be uncomfortable setting goals. But goals help us define where we want to go in life. Without goals, we have no sure destination.
Many experts recommend visualization as a powerful tool for goal setting. Imagining how life will be after you've reached your goal is a great motivator to keep you moving forward.
However, visualization might produce the opposite results in people who have a fear of failure. Research shows that people who have a fear of failure were often left in a strong negative mood after being asked to visualize goals and goal attainment.
So, what can you do instead?
Start by setting a few small goals. These should be goals that are slightly, but not overwhelmingly, challenging. Think of these goals as "early wins" that are designed to help boost your confidence.
For example, if you've been too afraid to talk to the new department head (who has the power to give you the promotion you want), then make that your first goal. Plan to stop by her office during the next week to introduce yourself.
Or, imagine that you've dreamed of returning to school to get your MBA, but you're convinced that you're not smart enough to be accepted into business school. Set a goal to talk with a school counselor or admissions officer to see what's required for admission.
Try to make your goals tiny steps on the route to much bigger goals. Don't focus on the end picture: getting the promotion, or graduating with an MBA. Just focus on the next step: introducing yourself to the department head, and talking to an admissions officer. That's it.
Taking one small step at a time will help build your confidence, keep you moving forward, and prevent you from getting overwhelmed with visions of your final goal.
Sometimes, being afraid of failure can be a symptom of a more serious mental health condition. Negative thinking can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over related illnesses or if negative thoughts are causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
Many of us are sometimes afraid of failing, but we mustn't let that fear stop us from moving forward.
Fear of failure can have several causes: from childhood events to mistakes we've made in our adult lives. It's important to realize that we always have a choice: we can choose to be afraid, or we can choose not to be.
Start by setting small goals that will help build your confidence. Learn how to explore and evaluate all possible outcomes rationally and develop contingency plans; and practice thinking positively. By moving forward slowly but steadily, you'll begin to overcome your fear.
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