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Fear of failure


Almost no one likes to fail. To fall short, to not succeed, to make mistakes. Some find it so bad that they avoid challenges. As a result, they fail to achieve their goals, and this increases anxiety. Do you recognize yourself in this? Read about what fear of failure is, how to recognize it and how to overcome fear of failure.

What is fear of failure?

With fear of failure, you have a deep-seated anxiety or fear of failing and making mistakes and not achieving what you want to do. You experience intense anxiety and stress when faced with tasks or situations in which you think you will be judged. This can happen in all kinds of situations, such as at school, work, in social circles or everyday activities. Your anxiety often lies in fear of not being appreciated.


How do I recognize fear of failure?

Fear of failure can manifest itself in different ways. Below we list several symptoms.


Emotional and cognitive symptoms of fear of failure:

  • Negative self-image
    For example, you think you are not special enough to be seen by others. Or to receive love and belong. Or to achieve anything.You “know for sure” that you don’t have enough knowledge and skills to succeed. This leads you to postpone goals and you keep expectations of others low. You simply don’t want to disappoint. In many cases, this causes you to take no action at all. A characteristic thought is “‘I’m not going to succeed anyway, I can’t do it’”.
  • Chronic worrying
    You are preoccupied with your thoughts a lot. You ask yourself questions like: ‘What if things go wrong?’ ‘Can I do this?’ ‘What if someone doesn’t like it?’ These thoughts also create stress. Because you do want it. Ironically, your fear of failure often makes you perform less well. Because the stress causes your attention to focus on the fear instead of the task.
  • Perfectionism
    You want to do everything perfectly or everything should be perfect. You set extremely high standards for yourself. Perfectionism is often accompanied by an intense fear of making mistakes. This can also lead to excessive self-criticism and a constant need for validation.
  • Difficulty receiving compliments


Physical symptoms of fear of failure:

  • sweating;
  • trembling or shaking;
  • rapid heartbeat;
  • dry mouth;
  • upset stomach or nausea;
  • headache or migraine;
  • muscle tension;
  • difficulty breathing;
  • rapid or shallow breathing;
  • sleep problems.


Most people are familiar with fear of failure. But if it bothers you so much that it interferes with your daily life, the fear of failure may be part of a generalized anxiety disorder or social phobia.


Types of fear of failure

There are three types of fear of failure: social, cognitive and motor fear of failure.

  1. Social anxiety of failure
    In a social situation, you are much concerned with what others think of you. For example, in a conversation or during a presentation. You are afraid that others will judge you critically or negatively.
  2. Cognitive fear of failure (test anxiety)
    You are afraid of not being smart enough and failing a test, for example.
  3. Motor fear of failure (performance anxiety)
    You are afraid to perform a physical feat. Like walking again after surgery, taking a penalty kick in soccer or signing a document.


“Fear of failure often comes with a lot of stress. Because you want to, but you can’t. Ironically, your fear of failure often makes you perform less well.”


What causes fear of failure?

The most common causes of fear of failure are a negative self-image is and the performance society. In addition, fear of failure can also arise during childhood, due to an unpleasant experience or mental illness. We explain each briefly below.


  • Negative self-image
    Do you have a negative self-image and something goes wrong? Then chances are you will become even more insecure in the next similar situation.
  • High outside pressure – the performance society
    In our society, much revolves around performance. Many people experience the pressure of always having to be the best version of themselves: at work and in social relationships. They are afraid of never being good enough.
  • Parenting
    The feeling of never being enough can also come from your upbringing. For example, if your parents always hammered on getting good grades. Or when your parents served as an example by setting high standards for themselves. Many adults with fear of failure also had this fear as children.
  • Unpleasant event or psychological symptoms
    Sometimes you get fear of failure after an unpleasant event. Think of a death or experiencing trauma. Fear of failure may also be related to a mental illness, such as an anxiety disorder, depression or addiction.


How does fear of failure affect my daily life?

The consequences of fear of failure are that your negative self-image becomes even more negative and you avoid social situations. This is because you tend to see mainly the negative characteristics of yourself. You downplay positive traits or attribute them to external factors.


  • You develop an increasingly negative self-image
    Am I breathing too fast? Am I sweating? Is my voice shaking? When you have fear of failure, you pay a lot of attention to these kinds of signals from your body. This makes you less concerned with your goal and more and more nervous. This increases the chance of failure, which in turn confirms to you: I’m not worth anything. This is how you end up in a negative spiral.
  • You increasingly avoid social situations
    Because of your fear of failure, you often consciously or unconsciously avoid certain social situations: private and at work. These are becoming more and more frequent. Do you avoid (almost) all social situations in which you feel you have to perform? Then you have a social phobia.


What can you do against fear of failure?

These four pieces of advice can help overcome fear of failure:


  1. Talk to yourself like you talk to your friends and share your fears
    How do you talk to yourself when you’re scared? Just critically? Then try giving yourself advice, as you would to friends. Warmth and understanding (self-compassion) help you conquer your fears. The same is true when you talk to others about how you feel.
  2. Consider: mistakes make you stronger, and what went right?
    What things can you do and how did you learn them? Could you get everything right at once? No! So if you are afraid of a situation, try to see it as an experiment. See mistakes as opportunities to learn, not as the end. Above all, look at what is already going well.
  3. Make time for fun and relaxation
    Try to find pleasure in the things you do again and make sure you have enough moments of rest. Then your fear of failure will naturally diminish.
  4. Get professional help
    Don’t stick around with your symptoms for too long. This will make the symptoms worse. For example, do you suffer from procrastination? Ask a loved one to help you make a feasible schedule.


Treating fear of failure

There are several forms of therapy to treat the different types of fear of failure. Do you only have fear of failure in some situations? Try using the advice above to reduce the anxiety. Do you have fear of failure in many everyday situations and is it getting worse? It helps to talk to a psychologist about your fear of failure and treat the anxiety.

Common treatments for fear of failure are Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

  • EMDR
    The goal of EMDR is to experience certain negative experiences as more neutral. EMDR helps to reduce emotional stress and negative beliefs associated with performance. Therapy may also include building positive self-perceptions, developing coping strategies and improving overall self-confidence.
  • CBT
    CBT focuses on identifying and changing the negative thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that contribute to your anxiety. You learn to replace the thoughts with more realistic and helpful ones. You also learn breathing exercises to avoid becoming overwhelmed by anxiety.


Help with fear of failure

Do you have questions about fear of failure? Or do you have doubts about when to consult a psychologist?

publish-icon Published - 4 Jun 2024
Mariëlle specializes in anxiety and somberness symptoma. During treatment, she explores with you which factors play a role in the anxiety symptoms around expectations and not wanting to fail.

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