I’ve been discussing leaders’ challenges and a big one is fear of failure, even though many refuse to admit to anyone they might feel it.
Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You?: Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can (Capstone, 2012), offers some background on causes. Several factors contribute to developing a fear of failure. A childhood history of pain or suffering can lead you to anticipate the worst and expect negative outcomes. Growing up around fearful people also plays a role, as does a lack of positive adult role models. Children in these environments struggle to learn optimism and perseverance.
Traumatic experiences framed by failure can train your mind to distrust life in general. Past humiliations and rejections can scar one’s spirit to the point of dismay and fear.
Placing too high a value on a specific goal transforms it into an unrealistic objective. This can distort reality to the point of obsession and magnify the possibility of failure. The dire need to obtain something creates the illusion that life will be awful if the goal isn’t accomplished; the consequent failure becomes traumatic. This all-or-nothing perspective has a potentially crushing outcome, one to be truly feared.
Perhaps the common denominator for all causes of fear of failure is an overarching sense of purposelessness or worthlessness—or, as University of Ottawa psychologist Timothy Pychyl describes it, a low sense of self.
Our culture often convinces us that losing face is to be avoided at all costs, adds Kelsey. Regardless of our background, nothing feels as hopeless as life without meaning. Rejection or humiliation from failure can prompt feelings of worthlessness. At this level of despair, we may choose an attitude of fear in an effort to prevent failure, but it backfires when fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.