‘Fear of Failure’ Is More Than Merely Emotional Worry

“Fear of failure” sounds straightforward. I’m afraid that if I ask this person on a date, they will reject me, and so I won’t ask. I’m afraid that if I submit this idea to my boss, they will say no, so I won’t bother. Whenever we’re in a “fear of failure” moment, however, we know the decision making is much more complicated.

If that’s all we see, then “fear of failure” is an emotional worry. I fear the rejection or the failure because it will hurt my pride… because it will diminish my confidence… because failure means I am not a person who deserves love… because I fear shame.

There’s another angle to consider, though, which is loss aversion. Very often, fear of failure ties into consequences that go beyond the emotional.

My partner and I were discussing it recently in the context of my writing career. I want to pitch more of my writing to new publications and book publisher, but when it comes time to do it, I severely lag. I do it about one-tenth as often as I would like, maybe even less than that.

You could say the reason I don’t pitch as much I would like is fear of failure, and that certainly is part of it. But I’d argue that loss aversion is an equally pressing factor, one that’s connected to fear of failure. Every hour I spend crafting a pitch and researching editors and publishers is an hour I lose not working on paid assignments. I have plenty of paid assignments to keep me busy, but if I don’t do them often enough, they may start to disappear. Right now, those paid assignments are a sure thing. I write them, they get published, and I get paid. I’d like to keep it that way. So, yes, fear of failure is part of what holds me back from pitching more work that comes with no certainty, but I also fear losing what I already have.

Is it still “fear of failure” in that circumstance? Yes. The point is it’s not purely about emotion. The failure that we fear can include real consequences, too.

Understanding that real consequences can be at stake is important for developing a clear picture of how to go about changing our situation. If blame only our emotional incapacity to face fear for the things we don’t do, then we neglect the very real and practical risk assessment that goes into making decisions. Acknowledging fear of failure surely helps us overcome some of the obstacles that hinder us from doing what we want to do. Seeing all the gray area for what it is, however, and recognizing the role of risk assessment is just as important in making good decisions.


Image by Jasmine Halki, CC.


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