As human beings, we do not like uncertainty, so waiting for news can be challenging to manage as our brain anticipates possible outcomes to prepare for them (Feldman Barrett, 2018).
In our imagined future scenarios, we tend to focus on the negative consequences of not achieving the results we were hoping for. We may experience fear, disappointment, or embarrassment and worry about the future. These uncomfortable feelings can be difficult to tolerate.
We do not try out new things because of fear of failing. To master the fear of failure, we need to identify what we are afraid of to understand what prevents us from making progress. Once we identify the obstacles, we can explore ways of dealing with the situation. We also need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings to persevere with our efforts (Dweck, 2017).
Having doubts about our capacity to do the work may result from expecting a perfect outcome. An underlying drive for perfectionism may intensify the fear of failure. We will construe any setback as unacceptable, If the expectation is to achieve a perfect result, leading to a fear of making mistakes and feeling stuck. When we have this feeling, we are less likely to try out new things and avoid complex tasks, thus limiting our options for development.
We worry we may not meet our expectations and imagine the disappointment and the feeling we are letting ourselves and others down. Sometimes the fear of failure is due to worry about others’ opinions. When we attach too much value to external validation, it can have a negative impact on our confidence in our ability and our sense of self-worth. Thoughts about what we should have done, or did not do, may dominate, causing distress. However, it is likely that multiple factors influenced the outcome. Maintaining a flexible attitude enables us to navigate challenging times (David, 2016).
Regret is another uncomfortable feeling we get after we experience setbacks. We can have thoughts such as, “If only I had done something different”. When we think of it as something negative, we miss the opportunity of learning from our experience. Regret has a purpose, and it can highlight what is of value to us. It reminds us of what we want to do differently in the future. It is how we learn (Pink, 2022).
Tips to manage setbacks/fear of failure
Self-awareness: Take time to reflect and notice your thoughts and feelings and identify the situation that triggers the emotions. Ask yourself, “What is happening? How are you interpreting the situation? Then ask, what other alternative perspectives are there to interpret the event?”
Reframe the meaning of failure: Rather than seeing failure as a devastating event, interpret it as a challenge. For example, we can view it as an opportunity to learn and apply the new information in future situations. In this new definition, allow yourself to make mistakes.
We do not make mistakes on purpose, and often they happen because we did not know or did not notice that we needed to do something different. Paying attention to feedback and focusing on what we can learn from these situations help us adjust and move forward.
Define the meaning of success: We often assume that to do well, we need to get things right at the first attempt, thinking there is only one correct answer. Instead, find meaning: reflect on what matters most to you, and ask yourself, “How will I know when I have achieved my goal? What will be different?” Having clarity of what you expect will enable you to identify the steps to make progress towards your goal.
Adopt a realistic perspective: we imagine an ideal outcome when we set our goals, hoping to achieve our desired results. However, to increase the potential to achieve our goals, we need to identify the potential obstacles we might face to make things happen. The strategy called mental contrasting, identified by Oettingen (2015), can help us make progress.
Our motivation reduces when we imagine an idealised version of our goal. Oettingen advises that, besides imagining achieving our goal, we also imagine the obstacles we might face. Considering the hard work involved will increase the likelihood of achieving our goal as it prepares us to deal with what happens when we work towards it.
Reflect on your work: to review our work, we can use metacognition – our ability to think about our thinking. This strategy allows us to identify what is working and what is not, so we can correct to improve our work.
We can identify mistakes early when we monitor our work as we go along. This way, we can make corrections and improve our work. Ask yourself: “Am I making progress?” “What can I do differently? What is not working so far?” “How will I know when I have reached my goal?
Think about setbacks as feedback: Observe what you are doing and reflect on what is not working. Then, make adjustments, or try something different and observe what happens. We all experience setbacks at some point. Sometimes, things do not work out as we hope, and we may feel disappointment, embarrassment or worry about negative consequences. When these happen, we can practice acknowledging the feelings and accepting they are part of our human condition. Self-compassion can reduce negative self-talk, allowing us to make progress with the task.
Practice self-compassion: When you notice your imagination running ahead, anticipating negative scenarios, remind yourself that our brains are designed to predict potential problems to prepare for them. When we have “What-if” thoughts, it does not mean that we will fail. Instead, view these thoughts as just thoughts, not facts. Then bring your attention back to what you are working on, and focus on the next step. Self-compassion can reduce negative self-talk, allowing us to make progress with the task (Neff, 2011).
Maintain healthy habits: We need to maintain our energy to manage our emotions and persevere with our efforts. When we imagine the possibility of failure, it can trigger the stress response to prepare us to deal with the situation, so taking time to breathe and reflect will help manage the tension. Dedicate time to self-care by prioritising healthy habits to restore energy, such as protecting sleep time, eating healthy foods, taking breaks, and connecting with family and friends.
Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company..
David, S. (2016) Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life. London: Penguin Books.
Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.
Feldman Barrett, L. (2018) How emotions are made: the secret life of the brain. London: Pan Books.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Oettingen, G. (2015) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current.
Pink, D. (2009) Drive. The surprising truth about what motivates us. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Pink, D. (2022) The power of regret. How looking backward moves us forward. Edinburgh: Cannongate.