December 4th, 2023
By: Amber Labow, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist
If hearing the word “failure” immediately sends shivers down your spine… you’re not alone. Your body is basically screaming at you, letting you know that something is wrong. It is literally a visceral reaction! So, how can a word be so jarring and carry such a negative connotation?
Failure is defined by “a lack of success or the inability to meet an expectation” (3). If you fail to meet a goal you set for yourself, it is common to experience shame, disappointment, sadness, frustration, and even worthlessness. Therefore, failure can have a significant impact on our self-esteem, which is closely tied to our self-worth. Meaning, our worth can be threatened when we do not achieve our performance goals or demonstrate competency (2). Our perception of ourselves – whether that be of our achievements, abilities, or characteristics – can also influence self-worth. In addition, the worth you believe you hold as a person in various areas of life (e.g. romantic relationships, friendships, work, family) can equally play a defining role in our self-esteem. With that said, if a given failure threatens our sense of self-worth, then it makes sense that our bodies would let us know – and they can do that by increasing heart rate, trembling, sweating, or muscle tension, for example.
A single “failure” can trigger a fear of failure, which means an intense apprehension of not meeting expectations or falling short of achieving a goal (3). If we perceive the potential consequences of failure as catastrophic, dangerous even, this can lead to anxiety and avoidance or possibly alter your perception of your capabilities. Steering clear of situations or tasks that might have a high risk of failure can provide temporary short term relief (both emotional and physical). And, will certainly remove any possibility of failure. However, before you know it, the fear might increase reluctance to take on new challenges, step outside of our comfort zone, and confront risk or uncertainty, which can be limiting both personally and professionally.
Let’s dive deeper into how we perceive failure. Because, if our interpretation of failure is that it is catastrophic this can significantly guide our emotions and behaviours. Here are some examples of common cognitive biases that actually fuel the fear of failure and maintain anxiety and avoidance (1) :
So how do we move away from a distorted mindset and embrace failure?