by Taniya Dutta
Fear of failure can be a debilitating burden, or a source of motivation. It’s all about perspective.
We often describe failure as an inability to achieve success or expectations. In today’s society, we are obsessed with achievement, with success, so much so that we cannot recognise the potential value in mistakes. This widespread obsession carries with it a ubiquitous fear of failure, often stemming from societal expectations and perfectionism. To learn more about how this fear arises and how we can respond to and shape our own feelings of failure, I interviewed Amit Sharma, the founder and chief spokesperson of Study Minds.
Amit began by introducing himself and his experience with helping people overcome their fear of failure, “Study Minds is an institution I set up 2 years ago to encourage and guide students when they struggle to choose the right career path following their 10th-year examinations. In our institution, we provide services to not just young students, but also to people who want to switch careers. When choosing a career path, the possibilities people face can intimidate them—as well as the effort and time that it might take to establish themselves—which is only made worse by the apprehension of failure. This is where our services are most useful. We conduct surveys and lectures weekly. Our model is strength-based, building on the updated information that we get from our surveys. We provide free lectures at local branches to discuss new and effective ways that people can cope with stressors in their life, particularly stress stemming from academic and career decisions.”
“Most people, one way or another, are afraid of failing in a specific venture. However, an unreasonable and severe dread of failing is called atychiphobia. This phobia could result from a specific situation or emerge as a response to a particular stimulus. Often, it results from mental health concerns, such as anxiety or depression. It is important to note that this is just a term used to define a particular phobia and not everyone experiences it.”
Do you think society plays any role in the development of fear of failure?
“As humans, we do not exist in a vacuum. We have to acknowledge the fact that we are a part of a society that has its own set of rules about how and when everything should take place. We have an evolutionary need to connect with other individuals, and frequently, we compare and contrast their lives to ours. Most of the time, we seek validation of our behaviour from our peers or others that we respect, who are part of the same social feedback system. Undoubtedly, the community that one lives in, and society at large, contributes to the development of fear of rejection or failure.”
How do societal expectations correlate with an unhealthy fear of failure?
“The best way to explain this is via the meso, macro, and micro framework, essentially a way to examine the different social structures we all live in. The macro-level is the broader society, whereas the mezzo is an intermediate stage that includes neighbourhoods, families, and so forth. Whatever happens at the mezzo- or macro-level impacts an individual on their micro-level. From a mezzo-level perspective, many times from a young age, students are punished for their failure. The punishment can range from verbal lectures on how one can improve to even corporal punishments in some parts of the world. In contrast, parents often meet their success with a neutral response. At the macro level, the community around the person also affects how one perceives failure. Since the society that we live in values success more than failure, an individual develops a tendency to avoid failure in order to escape from the shame or embarrassment that might result from their failed ventures. It is quite clear when someone tries to secure a job, get admission into a well-recognised educational institution, or even any social gathering where a successful person seems to be more interesting and a mentor for the audience, compared to someone who has not experienced academic or vocational success yet.”
“You can also observe how societal expectations correlate with fear of failure by looking at how different cultures conceptualise failure. Individualistic cultures promote the success of a single person and hold an individual responsible for unfulfilled ventures. In contrast, collectivistic cultures aim to create group cohesion, and they attribute thus both success and failure to all the members of the group. Collectivistic cultures may also be less internally competitive when compared to their counterparts, so it is plausible that people living in countries that promote collectivism might not be as afraid to fail.”
Are we born with this apprehensiveness, or do we learn it from our environment?
“Conventionally, we think evolution has ensured we feel scared, as it made us more alert and attentive during dangerous or otherwise important times. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that fear is in part inherited through genes. There are hereditary factors that contribute to a propensity for fear, but they change as youngsters grow into adults. Both our genes and our environment play a significant role in how we assess and respond to fear.”
Can fear of failure be beneficial?
“Well, if you feel afraid of the outcome of a certain venture, that means that you care about it. That is the most important thing when one tries to do even the most mundane tasks. That very fear of failure can actually help focus and motivate, though it is important to not let the fear overwhelm them. They might organise, plan, and prepare better before carrying out any endeavour if they have a little fear.”
Can we redefine failure that stems from societal expectations?
“Predominantly, fear of failure that has its roots in expectations from society often reflects itself as shame and embarrassment. We allow fear to prevent us from acting as we would like to, or to make such acts less joyful. We let shame ruin our relationships and happiness by making us feel horrible about who we are and how our lives are going. Therefore, it is particularly important to let go of that embarrassment that halts our progress. We need to forget about looking foolish or not meeting someone else’s expectations. We need to realise that it is our goal, and we can decide how to perceive the outcome. Depending on whether you are driven by the desire to obtain a favourable outcome or the desire to avoid one, we can categorise our goals as approach goals or avoidance goals. One should always set approach goals because they allow us to be more optimistic, in part as they seem more attainable.”
What are some of the things people can do to cope with a fear of failure?
“Once someone feels like they have failed at something, they should try to ask themselves three questions: What was the lesson they learned from the experience? How can they grow as a person from this experience? What are 3 positive things about the situation? Initially, it might be a little difficult to come up with answers to such questions, particularly when one feels overwhelmed and ashamed by the outcome. However, if one constantly practices these questions, and reflects on the situation in a more optimistic way, the result of their unsuccessful attempt does not seem to be vain and often they realise they gained more than they lost from their attempt.”
Is there anything people can do from home to prevent an unhealthy fear of failure?
“There are several strategies that people can adopt to avoid feeling scared of failure. First, try to think about all the outcomes. Usually, it is the uncertainty of the situation that creates our fear. Once you feel you have a grasp on the likely outcomes, the fear can subside. Sometimes, even looking at the worst-case scenario helps, in the sense that we might exaggerate a negative possibility to seem world-ending, when in reality it is nowhere near that bad. More often than not, this simple practice can give you back control. Second, make small goals that will lead you to achieve your bigger goal. By doing that, you would feel less at risk. Achieving those goals will also help you feel more motivated for the next step. And finally, always have a contingency plan. This will help you gain confidence as there is always a backup if things go wrong.”
Amit covered a lot of ground in our brief interview, but central to all of it was the role society plays in our fear of failure. Fear can often stem from the shame that an individual feels when unsuccessful (McGregor, 2005). An individual is part of a system, and thus, anything that happens in its outer society will impact that individual. Different cultures perceive failure contrastingly. While individualistic cultures consider an individual responsible for unsuccessful ventures, collectivistic cultures seem to believe in shared responsibility (Zhang, 2011). However, it is certainly possible to redefine failure in order to motivate a person to move forward without being paralysed by apprehensiveness. As Amit discussed, there are several strategies we can use to help redirect and utilise our fear. This can also include setting approach goals rather than avoidance goals. Approach goals guide us to prioritise small goals in order to achieve the bigger goal in sight, while being motivated by the success of previous small goals (Peppercorn, 2018). Being more optimistic and striving to learn better from each experience can lead us to work from our own goals, our own understanding, and with less comparison to how others perform. It is in finding this balance that we can truly learn to break free from the shackles of society’s expectations and fear alike.
McGregor, H. A., & Elliot, A. J. (2005). The shame of failure: Examining the link between fear of failure and shame. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 31(2), 218-231.
Peppercorn, S. (2018, December). How to overcome your fear of failure. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/12/how-to-overcome-your-fear-of-failure
Zhang, M., & Cross, S. E. (2011). Emotions in memories of success and failure: A cultural perspective. Emotion, 11(4), 866.
we are obsessed with achievement, with success, so much so that we cannot recognise the potential value in mistakes.
Since the society that we live in values success more than failure, an individual develops a tendency to avoid failure in order to escape from the shame or embarrassment that might result from their failed ventures.
We allow fear to prevent us from acting as we would like to, or to make such acts less joyful. We let shame ruin our relationships and happiness by making us feel horrible about who we are and how our lives are going.
Depending on whether you are driven by the desire to obtain a favourable outcome or the desire to avoid one, we can categorise our goals as approach goals or avoidance goals. One should always set approach goals because they allow us to be more optimistic, in part as they seem more attainable.’
Once someone feels like they have failed at something, they should try to ask themselves three questions: What was the lesson they learned from the experience? How can they grow as a person from this experience? What are 3 positive things about the situation?