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The Damage of Fearing Failure

Best of Our Blogs: July 16, 2013We are taught from a young age that failure is bad.

Our performance is measured and graded, and we are often defined by our level of success as others perceive it. We are conditioned to fear failure because it is anti-success and therefore downgrades our worth as a person.

Doesn’t it?

The short answer is no, it doesn’t. But the fear of failing can cause a lot of problems.

Fear of failure can be paralyzing. People may turn down new opportunities and opt out of everything from a new job to a new relationship because they are too afraid that they will fail. Yet failing can often be a blessing in disguise. And it is very often the precursor to amazing success and breakthroughs. So why is it so hard to see failure as an acceptable risk?

What does fear of failure look like?

Most people won’t tell you directly that they are afraid to fail, but it isn’t hard to recognize the signs. People who continually refuse to try new things, or deny an opportunity or talent, are usually doing so due to a fear of failing. They are terrified by the idea that they won’t be successful at the new venture and as a result will be looked down upon. Their need to not fail overrides their desire to succeed or try something new.

This behavior is evident in many areas. We see children who won’t try a new game or raise their hand in class. Adults may turn down invitations to parties or new activities. In the extreme it may even keep people from pursuing a new job or trying to do something they have always wanted.

What are we really afraid of?

Failure itself is usually not the true issue, but rather the problem is the feelings that failure brings with it. Falling short on any particular task can bring on feelings of embarrassment and shame.

  • “Why am I not as good as those around me?”
  • “Everyone is judging me.”
  • “I am not good enough or smart enough.”

These are all feelings that, given the chance, we choose to avoid. But when we begin to limit ourselves and make choices that keep us isolated because of not wanting to feel these feelings, things have gone too far.

The truth is that it is the opinion of others that we truly fear, or rather our perception of their opinions. The challenge to our self-esteem and negative feelings of self-worth is too much to face.

Why failure can be a good thing

Embarrassment and shame are difficult feelings to combat. Deciding that it is worth it to chance feeling that way is not an easy decision to make. Most people will tell you that it is a risk worth taking.

No one is born an expert and the premise of trial-and-error is a cornerstone of learning. When you make an attempt at a new game, job or academic effort you are likely to make some missteps. We learn from our mistakes and without these “fails” we wouldn’t be able to grow

In fact, most of the great changes in our world and life altering inventions have been the result of many failed attempts prior to eventual success. Failure shows us where we can improve and exposes flaws that we may not have recognized.

Taking a chance on things that may lead to failure can also lead to greater happiness. If you never try new things because you are sure you won’t measure up, you deny yourself many new experiences. Your world can become very small as a result.

It is natural to strive for success and want to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that failure can bring. But without failure there will be no success.

We need to recognize that this fear affects us all and that everyone is susceptible. No one successful has gotten where they are without having failed somewhere along the way. You have to take those chances in order to progress. So, as difficult as it feels, try looking at failure as the opportunity that it is. 

The Damage of Fearing Failure

Kurt Smith, Psy.D., LMFT, LPCC, AFC

Dr. Kurt Smith is the Clinical Director of Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching and writes a blog about the issues facing men (and the women who love them). As an expert in understanding men, their partners, and the unique relationship challenges couples face today, he regularly appears on The Huffington Post, NerdWallet and PsychCentral. Dr. Kurt is a lover of dogs, sarcasm, everything outdoors, and helping those seeking to make their lives and relationships better. Check out his weekly tips on Facebook or Twitter.

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APA Reference
Smith, K. (2018). The Damage of Fearing Failure. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 20 Nov 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.