Updated on 1/19/2022
Fear of failure, or “atychiphobia,” is when someone has an irrational and persistent fear of failing or the uncertainty that comes with an endeavor. This often becomes so debilitating it can hinder a person from attempting any goal that is not a guaranteed success. It feels safe and secure, but functioning in this state of rigidity might lead to negative consequences and will hold you back from opportunities, experiences and overall happiness.
Inside every human being is a desire to pursue wild ambitions and discover new possibilities. There’s a would-be entrepreneur, motivational speaker, freelance writer, stage performer, or off-the-grid traveler in all of us.
But unfortunately, most people spend their lives in a routine, nondescript comfort zone because they’re too intimidated to chase a goal that seems uncertain and prone to fail. About 19 million Americans have one or more specific phobias that range from mild to severe. The most common is a fear of personal or possible failure, which most of us define broadly as unemployment, financial ruin, and isolation from others.
Here are five potential indicators that a fear of failure has come between you and the life of purpose, excitement, or satisfaction you dream about.
You Procrastinate or Avoid Responsibility
Did you know there’s a direct correlation between the fear of failure and a person’s ability to manage assignments within the time allotted? According to Adam McCaffrey, a researcher that discussed that those who continuously have negative thoughts and panic at the idea of failing exhibit a lower sense of self-determination. This often causes a lack of motivation to finish deadline-driven projects. It also squelches the confidence to take on major responsibilities. If you feel immobilized to perform tasks out of concern that you won’t succeed, this extreme fear of failure can inhibit your productivity.
“Is it fear of failure, and/or fear of success? I sometimes see clients who feel the immense pressure associated with a fear of failure might also be struggling with some fears around what might come if they succeed; both of these fears could keep us feeling stuck. It might be helpful to ask yourself: ‘what fears do I have around success?’ You can journal, or voice note your answers, and see what comes up so you can figure out any best next steps for you. For example, if anything like low self esteem or perfectionism arise in your journaling, you can then experiment with ways to support yourself here in an effort to move through these fears, and closer to your life goals.”
You Feel Discontent in Your Career Path
At some point in your career, you’ll feel disengaged and antsy; ready for something new, but not paralyzed without knowing where your next step should be. Author and entrepreneur, Daniel Gulati, reported that job dissatisfaction rates are well above 80 percent, but that most people are unlikely to quit a current profession and seek out their real passion instead. He ascribes this trend to a behavior known as “risk-aversion.”
This theory of risk aversion suggests individuals are conditioned to choose safety and familiarity over ambiguity and unpredictability, often to the detriment of their own happiness. If you allow extreme caution to keep you stuck in a mediocre or creatively stifling position, this extreme fear of failure can stagnate your career growth.
You Worry About Disappointing Others
Did you know that one symptom of fear of failure is the fear of disappointing others? Those who define failure in terms of letting others down ignore their own aspirations because they’re too focused on cooperating with the opinions of everyone else.
Robbins argues that too much emphasis on outside voices will deter a person from experiencing fulfillment and authenticity. If you avoid disappointment, fearing failure can harm both your relationships and self-awareness.
You Experience Physical Effects of Stress
When people spend all of their energy fixating on the possibility of defeat, they risk suffering both physically and mentally. Our bodies manifest stress and anxiety in a wide variety of ways, including panic attacks, headaches, sweating, muscle spasms, insomnia, and gastrointestinal distress.
An outward sign of anxiety should not be disregarded, but rather, taken care of before it escalates into a more serious condition. If you have extreme reactions to stress, this fear of failure can jeopardize your physical, mental, and emotional health over time.
“When I work with clients struggling with moving through their fears around failure, it can sometimes feel helpful to take a moment to stop, take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself: ‘am I feeling unsafe, or am I feeling uncomfortable?’ Oftentimes, if we can confirm we are safe, but we’re feeling uncomfortable, this can help us take some action in moving forward through fear. Whether that’s speaking with your therapist about your fears, or writing down a list of what these fears are costing you in your life, experiment with different practices and tools that could feel supportive for you.”
You Aren’t Proactive About Your Future
In an article for HuffPo, Stan Popovich, author of A Layman’s Guide to Managing Fear, discusses that people tend to overanalyze future events because they’re unable to predict what might happen. This pattern leads to feeling powerless.
Without immediate assurance and instant gratification, the unknown becomes a source of distress for many individuals. If you sidestep thoughts, plans or conversations about the future, fearing failure can sabotage both your current goals and future prospects or opportunities.
Before you can overcome a phobia, it’s crucial to understand the reason it exists in the first place. Consider working with a therapist to uncover the causes of your anxieties regarding a potential failure. Once you commit to taking risks that are important to you, you’ll discover a stronger, bolder, and happier version of yourself.
- Facts & Statistics: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics
- Researchgate.net. Accessed December 28, 2021. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257594565_The_Complexity_of_the_Relation_between_Fear_of_Failure_and_Procrastination
- Olesen J. Fear of failure phobia – atychiphobia or kakorrhaphiophobia. FEAROF. Published December 28, 2013. Accessed December 28, 2021. http://www.fearof.net/fear-of-failure-phobia-atychiphobia/
- Stan Popovich C. How to overcome the fear of the future. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stan-popovich/how-to-overcome-the-fear-_1_b_7886360.html. Published July 28, 2015. Accessed December 28, 2021.