When things don’t work out as you hoped: Managing fear of failure. Part 1.



Sometimes, despite our continued efforts, we do not achieve the results we want. We may see this as failure.

 “One of the greatest problems people have with failure is that they are too quick to judge isolated situations in their lives and label them as failures. Instead, they need to keep the bigger picture in mind.”

Mistakes happen, and any one of us can make them. When we make mistakes, or when things go wrong we can feel disappointed, frustrated, upset, or experience a mix of emotions. At first it may be difficult to look beyond the mistake so we tend to focus on what went wrong and overlook the wider context. Having a wider perspective on the situation can allow us to find alternative ways of solving the problem, so that we can eventually achieve our goals.

Generally, people view failure as an unwanted obstacle – as something to be avoided.  Fear of failure manifests in intense worry about not achieving – “what if I don’t get the grades I need to pass?”, “what if I fail the course?”, “what if I don’t get an interview/a job?”. And the likely thoughts and feelings we associate with these possible scenarios:  How embarrassing”, “What will others think of me?”, “what if I cannot do it?” and other thoughts and feelings that can bring our mood down. 

Often, it is not failure in itself that worries us, but the feeling that we may disappoint those that we care about, and perhaps feeling that something is wrong with us which can lead to feeling shame and embarrassment (Tsaousides, 2015). 

Whenever we do something new there is a risk of failing. The capacity to make mistakes is part of our human condition – it is how we learn and grow. It is thanks to the errors we make that we can adjust our knowledge and behaviour to make progress. Learning happens when we take the time to reflect on our actions and experiences.  (Schultz, 2010). 

           “Failure just means that things are not going the way you expect them to go
and you need to remain flexible to get  back on track.”   (Mlodinov, 2018)

In sports, for example, making mistakes and failure to achieve are part of the athletes’ training to improve their performance. Each time that their efforts do not work out as they hoped they review what happened, identify what they need to change, and then they practice again. Each time they make adjustments that help them improve their skills. This is deliberate practice: persevering with efforts, learning by doing, adjusting each time, practising, correcting, and practising again. This approach to training contributes to the development of skills and improving performance. The repeated practise, while monitoring progress and making adjustments to improve, allows them to develop their expertise. The same approach is used in learning to play music or any other activity that requires mastering skills.

Why making mistakes, or failing, can be so difficult?

One factor that exacerbates our difficulty in dealing with mistakes is self-criticism. This is when we ruminate about our errors and criticise ourselves for failing to meet the standards we expect of ourselves. The repeated negative thoughts can cause high levels of stress, and can lead to further frustration and low mood. It is likely to develop as a vicious circle of negative thoughts, which in turn can fuel negative feelings that can reduce our confidence and prevent us from taking action .

The way we use language when we criticise ourselves can have a very negative influence on our confidence, and our self-esteem.The continued negative self-talk can become a regular pattern that can interfere with our productivity. It can also have an impact in our body as it can stimulate an inflammatory response that can lead to developing illnesses (Davidson, 2012).

Stress is a significant factor that can affect our health, our performance and our ability to manage difficult situations. Often we need to make important decisions under pressure, and when this occurs our brain tends to focus on the negative aspects when weighing up information (Sharot, 2011).

What can you do to manage these feelings?

Develop your sense of self-efficacy:

Self-efficacy is the belief in our ability to manage difficult situations, and that we can tap into our personal resources to find a way to achieve our goals. By strengthening your confidence in your ability to manage challenges you will build your capacity to respond more effectively (Bandura, 1977). This may include reaching out to others you trust for guidance and support, and who may offer a different perspective on the situation.  By gathering information you can build your resource and your motivation to take action, so you can make the necessary changes to complete your task.

By increasing your confidence in your capacity to manage situations it will strengthen your resilience. The more you can trust yourself to be able to cope when mistakes happen, that you can deal with the possible negative consequences, the more you can tolerate frustration and disappointment. It is important to acknowledge our feelings so that we can understand what is important to us. Give space to your emotions, and without judgment. They indicate that something of value is at stake. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention, while being understanding of ourselves, to be able to find out what to do to improve things (Neff, 2011).

Redefine the meaning of failure:

What does the word failure mean to you? How do you define it? Perhaps as never being able to do things well? Or not trusting yourself to achieve results? Does it prevent you from taking action, or pursuing your goals? How we define failure makes a difference to how we react to events. Often it is not so much the mistake itself, but the consequences that it may lead to that we are afraid of.

In order to respond to failure in a constructive manner you can adopt a scientific approach, where experimentation through trial and error is an essential part of the process to find out about what works and what doesn’t. Mistakes are viewed as an integral part of learning. So as long as you continue to make efforts to learn, view mistakes as something that can happen as part of the learning process.

By reviewing the steps you took, and identifying where things went wrong, you can discover new information that you can use to make adjustments that will enable you to make progress with your tasks. By incorporating what you have discovered to your understanding of the task you can increase your knowledge, so that next time you can do something different to achieve your goals.



Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H.Freeman & Company.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. USA: McGraw-Hill.

Davidson, R. & McEwen, B. (2012) “Social influences on neuro-plasticity: stress and interventions to promote wellbeing.” Nature Neuroscience, 15.5

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.

Maxwell, J.C. (2000) Failing Forward. Turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Mlodinov, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.

Neff, K. (2011) Self-Compassion. Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York: HarperCollins Publisher.

Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.

Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. Why we’re wired to look on the bright side. London: Pantheon Books.

Schultz,, K. (2010) Being Wrong. Adventures in the margins of error. London: Portobello Books, Ltd.

Tsaousides, T. (2015) Brainblocks. Overcoming the 7 hidden barriers to success. New York: Prentice Hall Press.


When things don’t work out how you hoped: Managing fear of failure. Part 2.

In part 1 we looked at making mistakes and the meaning of failure. In this section we will focus on what you can do to manage situations where things don’t work out how you hoped.

Focus on the possibility of change, to get unstuck and make progress. When you doubt
your abilities 
focus on the belief that you can manage the situation. It is OK not to be
(Mlodinov, 2018)

How to manage fear of failure and find ways to get on with tasks?

Review and manage expectations of Perfectionism:

Perfectionism triggers further tension as it creates unrealistic expectations, which if not achieved exactly can cause significant distress. The associated negative thinking that comes with unrealistic expectations undermines our hope, and changes our behaviour – we are less likely to make efforts to persevere with our tasks (Ben-Sahar, 2009).

By not giving up when things get difficult, as you face the challenge you give yourself the opportunity to explore ideas and develop your strengths. In fact, this is the point where learning occurs. It is when we have to work at understanding the problem, and by thinking differently that we may see alternative ways of working out a solution. 

                                  “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare,
                                      it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”

Failure is a process. For example, not getting the grade you wanted in an exam, or not receiving an invitation to go for an interview does not mean there is no option ever again. Instead, review the process you followed, the various steps you took in your revision, or in your preparation for the job applications.

At times, it may be that you missed information, or that you needed to correct a step taken when working on the task. By reflecting on the actions you took, you can identify what needs to be adjusted so that you can deal with the obstacles that prevented you from achieving your goals. Then, make another attempt where you apply the learning from your experience. 

                 “The way you frame the problem has a profound influence on the results of your analysis””
(Mlodinov, 2018)

The way you think about the situation affects the actions you take, and your beliefs about what you can achieve. By viewing mistakes as stepping stones, that can lead to where you want to get to, can help to overcome the feeling of being stuck. This way you can change the perception that the situation is too difficult, which can leave you feeling frustrated and disappointed.

Instead, when setting goals expect a good result, but don’t get attached to the outcome. This creates tension and limits the capacity to be creative, which in turn limits the possibility of finding alternative solutions to the problem or task we are working on.  

Develop an optimistic attitude:

Seligman (1998), defines optimism and pessimism as explanatory styles: the way that we think about setbacks and when things go well. Optimism is when we believe that a) a mistake or failure is temporary, b) that we can change it and it is only this one situation, and c) that we can do something about it.  Pessimism on the other hand, focuses on viewing mistakes a) as permanent, b) that we cannot do anything about it, c) that it will last forever and that it will undermine everything that we do.  

To support the development of an optimistic attitude, it is essential to develop a growth mindset -this means having a flexible perspective that allows us to continue to learn and develop our abilities so that we can reach our potential (Dweck, 2006). Whereas a fixed mindset is when we think our abilities cannot change, and that we are not able to learn or develop further. This attitude prevents us from learning from our mistakes, and can hold us back from taking action, preventing us from making progress. Instead, when we adopt a growth mindset it allows us to work through difficulties to get things done.

It’s all in how you look at it. If you have a fixed view of how things should be you may be disappointed, and frustrated when things don’t work out as you expect them to. On the other hand, adopting a flexible attitude where you consider other options, you put things in perspective, can help to reduce the tension and worry about your ability to achieve goals.

Tell yourself: “I’m not a failure. I failed at doing something. There is a difference
(J.C.Maxwell, 2000).

The rate of change is increasing due to advances in technology, and it is having an impact on our ways of working. We need to develop our ability to manage change while maintaining our energy and our health to be productive, and live a meaningful life. Every day we are likely to face situations that we would not have faced ten or even five years ago. To cope with the changes we need to adapt, and to do this we need to change the way we think. This includes how we view mistakes, and how we view ourselves when these happen. 

It is essential to learn to become less uncomfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradictions. We need to develop what Mlodinov (2018) calls elastic thinking, referring to the capacity to let go of the need for certainty, to challenge our ingrained assumptions, be willing to experiment and tolerate failure. By learning to use our imagination, creativity as well as our logical mind, we can learn to solve problems creatively and effectively.

“To raise new questions, a new possibility, to regard old problems from a new angle,
requires creative imagination.”
(Albert Einstein)

Tips to build your strength to cope with mistakes, and turn them into learning opportunities:

1.Develop elastic thinking: Adopt a broad perspective, and a flexible attitude. When dealing with adverse situations experiment looking for alternative ways in which you can interpret the event. Aim to understand what went wrong, with a view to find out what you can do different next time. By developing openness and flexibility we can expand our creativity to finding solutions that can help us to manage our tasks, or deal with problems.

2.Become your best friend: we like to be kind and understanding with our friends, we give them the benefit of the doubt and encourage them to keep going. Do the same thing for yourself, be understanding and give yourself the opportunity to learn from the mistake so that you can improve. For example, if in an exam the result was not what you hoped for, consider what happened to understand what you can do different next time. Perhaps the module/topic was more difficult, or there was more material to revise and required more time than you anticipated.

3.Reflect on your experience: by taking time to review the task and what you have done it can help to identify what went wrong to correct and make adjustments. Acknowledge your feelings, without self-criticism, and give yourself some time to recover from the difficulties you are facing.

4.Focus on the process leading up to the mistake: look at each step you took, what can you do differently? Do you need more information? More time? Who can you contact? What can you do differently? And apply your learning next time.

5.Manage stress: identify the triggers that caused you tension, and prevented you from focusing on your tasks effectively.  You can do breathing exercises and use mindfulness techniques to relax your muscles and clear your mind. Do some exercise, go for a walk outdoors to absorb natural light and enjoy the green spaces around campus/home/other. You may also feel you want to talk with your house/flatmates, family and friends.

6.Develop an optimistic attitude: although it may be difficult to accept a result you were not expecting, adopt the view that this was a temporary setback, something you can work on and improve next time. Focus on building your confidence by learning to manage worry thoughts, and strengthening your belief in your ability to manage challenges.

In addition, by practising tolerating frustration and disappointment you can build your capacity to respond proactively in challenging situations, rather than delaying taking action which can lead to procrastination and feeling stuck.

7.Keep expectations realistic, and maintain an open mind: while aspiring to high standards, do not make these a “must”. That is, that the result or outcome you hope for has to be achieved or it would be a failure. Instead, use your standards as a direction to guide your actions, and that it  keeps you on track. It could be that the outcomes are different to what you expected. It may not be obvious at first, but it could be that there are many ways to achieve your goals.

8.Maintain healthy routines: develop a regular pattern of healthy eating, sleeping and exercising. Taking care of your body nurtures and strengthens your mind. 





Bandura, A. (1977) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H.Freeman & Company

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. USA: McGraw-Hill.

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.

Maxwell, J.C. (2000) Failing Forward. Turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Mlodinov, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.

Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.

Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. Why we’re wired to look on the bright side. London: Pantheon Books.

Schultz,, K. (2010) Being Wrong. Adventures in the margins of error. London: Portobello Books, Ltd.

Tsaousides, T. (2015) Brainblocks. Overcoming the 7 hidden barriers to success. New York: Prentice Hall Press.