Overcoming Fear of Failure

February 14, 2023

By Gina Cipriano

Often, people only share their successes with others rather than being transparent about the grit it took to reach a goal. While failure is an inevitable part of life, people seldom speak about their shortcomings. When people fall short, it can contribute to feelings of shame. According to Brene Brown, shame can be defined as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame tells us that we failed because we are somehow less than everyone else.

Martin and Marsh (2003) explain that people can fall into different categories regarding their approach to success or failure. These categories include the following:

1) Optimist: recognizes failure as part of life and is driven to succeed

2) Overstriver: avoids failure at all costs and is driven to succeed

3) Self-Protector: avoids failure and avoids success by blaming potential failures on an outside force

4) Failure Acceptor: accepts failure and does not act in a way that would enable them continued success

The optimist and overstriver have similar results, but the process looks different. While the overstriver will be riddled with anxiety during the process of working towards a goal and interpret failure as a character defect, the optimist will be able to accept and learn from failure.

The failure acceptor views failure as inevitable but their perspective on failure is unique; they may think, “failure is inevitable, so why bother even trying?” The self-protector may blame failure on another force rather than considering what they can do better. They may blame their failure on someone else or set expectations low for themselves so that they know they will not fail.

The optimist has the most self-compassionate approach to failure, so it can be helpful for a person to develop an optimist’s approach to failure. This may entail doing the following:

- Taking a curiosity approach to failure:

- Allow yourself to be curious so that you can view failure as something that happened rather than a character defect

- Ask yourself, “what went wrong this time around, and what can I do to learn from this experience?”

- Going back to your why:

- Ask yourself why you want to pursue a particular goal and keep that at the forefront of your mind

- Consider your values when working towards a goal (such as honesty, integrity, truthfulness) so that even if failure does occur, you can recognize that you stayed true to yourself throughout the process of working towards a goal

- Seeking mentorship:

- It can be useful to seek out mentors who are open to speaking about their own relationship with failure

- This can create a safe space to talk about failure so that shame can be reduced

- Attending therapy to discuss your family of origin:

- It is important to consider that a person’s family of origin may influence their relationship with failure

- Therapy can help increase your insight into how you viewed failure and success as a child and how this is now influencing you as an adult


Martin, A. J., & Marsh, H. W. (2003). Fear of failure: Friend or foe? Australian Psychologist, 38(1), 31-38. https://doi.org/10.1080/00050060310001706997

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