In the spring of 2019, I was in the midst of interviewing for my final internship of graduate school. My studies were focused in substance abuse and trauma therapy, so I was applying to competitive internships. I interviewed at a program that felt like the perfect fit. My would-be supervisor led the program with a mindfulness-based approach, utilized top tier interventions, and provided superior supervision. I felt like I interviewed well and was confidently awaiting a job offer. The following week, I received a phone call saying that I lost the internship to a stronger applicant.
In that moment, strong waves of shame washed over me as I felt like I had failed. I was embarrassed for having been arrogant enough to believe that I’d be selected for the internship. However, I gritted my teeth and thanked the interviewer for their time and asked for feedback.
Two weeks later, the supervisor called me about a new internship with a different manager that I’d be a strong candidate for. My pride wanted me to turn down the opportunity, but my humility knew that I had to explore the role. By letting go of my pride, I was able to intern at the same company under a different manager—who ultimately allowed me far more autonomy and creative license than the original supervisor. By allowing myself to grow in my experience of failure, I was able to have a positive professional development experience that contributed to who I am as a therapist today.
Why do we hate failure?
I write this knowing that failure is terrifying to many of us. Each week in sessions, I am told that fear of failure is someone’s reason for not pursuing a goal. If you can relate to this fear, know that you are not alone. Talkspace reports that, “An estimated 34.2 million Americans experience some type of phobia. The most common is a fear of personal failure.” This means that the fear of failure is highly common.
Knowing where our fear of failure comes from is essential to supporting us in addressing that fear. According to Very Well Mind, some common causes of the fear of failure are:
- Critical Upbringing – If someone is brought up in a home where their failings are regularly criticized, and their successes are rarely celebrated, it is common to fear failure. Someone may avoid failure to avoid criticism.
- Trauma – Some failures can feel traumatic such as losing a job or losing a relationship due to a personal choice. Some may avoid the possibility of failure due to its trauma triggers.
- Meaning of Failure – We all likely define failure differently. If someone defines failure as something not going according to plan, they are likely abiding to unreasonable expectations, making failure common.
These causes for fearing failure are valid. However, the fear of failure can lead to negative consequences, like poor self-image, low motivation, self-sabotage, and shame. Each of these consequences may prevent us from achieving our highest potential. If it weren’t for major failures, some of our greatest successes would not be where they are today. For example, Oprah Winfrey was publicly fired from her first anchor role in Baltimore for being “too emotional.” Vera Wang failed to make the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating team and failed to be named Editor-In-Chief at Vogue prior to building her fashion design empire.
I imagine these experiences of failure were likely excruciating for Winfrey and Wang, but the experiences did not render these women obsolete. Instead, they channeled their experiences into next steps. These transitions would not have been possible if Winfrey or Wang were thwarted by fear of failure.
How to overcome your fear of failure
Practice failing in a controlled environment.
One of my favorite interventions to use with clients who fear failure is to intentionally fail. One safe way to do this is to invite some friends to have dinner with you and to intentionally ruin the recipe. You cannot tell the other people that you ruined the meal on purpose. The goal is to see that even if you do fail, those who care for you will continue to do so.
Set reasonable and achievable goals.
Failure is more common for those of us who set goals that we cannot attain. If I set the goal to run a 5k in 20 minutes when my best effort is 30 minutes and I haven’t done any training, I will certainly fail. If I set the goal to run a 5k in 25 minutes and follow a training plan, I have a chance at success. Even if I do fail, I will know that I put in my best effort. Here is a guide to setting SMART goals to find success.
Answer your “What if” questions.
I often hear, “What if I fail my exam?,” or “What if I ask them out and they say no?” These are valid questions, but if we contemplate the answer to those questions, we often realize the consequences are not as severe as our fear. Likely the answer to the question is not dire and makes the risk of trying feel more reasonable.
Focus on your journey, not your destination.
Even if we fail, we have likely gained something along the way. In high school, I was demoted to the C-team soccer team from Junior Varsity as a sophomore. Though seems like a failure, I had far more fun with my C-team teammates and would not trade that experience.
Failure is inevitably a part of life. I invite you to observe your own experiences to see if you can challenge your own fears of failure to pursue your goals.