I’ve been afraid of one thing my whole life: Failure.
Whenever I think I might fail at something, my body launches into a full-blown panic attack. My heart races, my breath quickens, I can’t get enough air to my lungs and I’m sure I’m going to die.
My reaction may sound a bit extreme, but fear of failure plagues all of us at one time or another. Perhaps you’re afraid to love after the last break up. Perhaps you’re afraid to ask for a promotion again after being rejected. Everything worth having comes with the risk of failure. And so we hold ourselves back. Maybe it’s easier to live alone than risk a broken heart, or to stay in the cushy job you hate than risk failing at a more challenging job you would really love.
But to live a full, happy life, you must take that risk. The key is to know that you can recover from failure. If you know how to handle it, failure can even be your friend.
The perfect child
My failure anxiety started young. I am the youngest of three siblings, and my parents pinned a lot of their hopes and expectations on me to achieve: pressure to get perfect grades, have lots of friends—to be the best at everything. And when I wasn’t perfect, I would quit and pretend I didn’t care. I couldn’t let anyone find out how imperfect I was.
So I avoided my dreams in order to avoid the possibility of failure. In my 20s, I knew I wanted to be a writer, speaker and coach. When a top Los Angeles literary agent rejected my first manuscript, I was crestfallen. For the next five years, I barely wrote a word and continued in my unhappy corporate career. Self-hatred and denial set in.
Breaking free of fear
I tried to convince myself that life was fine, but my body knew better. I experienced migraines and severe depression. Every month, I begged my psychiatrist for more medication. And though I was a healthy 34-year-old, I came down with shingles. Something had to change.
My mother told me to use my failure as fuel. I made a list of every regret, dream, fear—everything I wished I had done but hadn’t and began doing them one by one. I traveled the world alone, bought a boat, ran a marathon, and eventually went to graduate school.
Failure is the precursor to success
I have failed many times since making that list. When I first applied to graduate school, I was rejected from every single program. When I held my first group coaching program, no one signed up. And guess how many signed up for the second one? Zero again! I crawled into bed crying and swore I would never try again. But I did try again a month later, that third time, three people signed up. Now, I regularly get more than a dozen women signing up for each coaching retreat.
Fuel for growth
The latter is called “grit.” University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance toward a long-term goal. Her research suggests that the grittier you are, the more successful you will be.
So next time failure (or fear of it) rears its ugly head and you want to hide, try this instead:
Venting, denial and self-blame in the face of failure can lead to a sense of powerlessness and something called “learned helplessness,” which is closely linked to depression. But according to positive psychology founder Martin Seligman, Ph.D., you can also choose to learn optimism. When you fail, you can see it as temporary, isolated and opportunity for growth. To fail and come back again—that is strength!
We all fail and most of us feel ashamed when we do. The sooner you accept this human truth with kindness and self-compassion, the happier you’ll be. Research from NYU’s School of Medicine shows that acceptance, versus suppression, reduces anxiety and suffering. Plus, research from 2014 shows that self-compassion can improve resilience, optimism, and self-efficacy. Accept that you’ll never be perfect. Rather, laugh at yourself for wanting to be perfect and move on.
2. Positive reframing
Too often, our lesson from failure is not to try again. That holds us back from love, purpose and joy. Instead, reframe failure as an opportunity to learn new skills, enhance creativity, and become a better problem-solver. Find the nugget of wisdom, strength or courage in your failure and apply it to the next opportunity. Then get back on track and focus on your long-term goals.
3. Stay focused on the long-term goal
All successful people have one thing in common: Failure. Think about Apple’s original MacIntosh, or times when Michael Jordan missed the game-winning shot. If Steve Jobs or Michael or J.K. Rowling had given up easily, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy their eventual colossal successes. When you fail, step back from the momentary challenge and remember the bigger prize. Angela Duckworth’s research found that achieving difficult goals requires sustained focus over time.
4. Take a risk!
It’s simple enough: You won’t get anything unless you try. Start with something small. Let yourself fail. Do it again and again until you succeed. Let that small success be fuel to try something a bit bigger. The more you overcome fear of failure, the more motivated you will be. And if you need help getting over fear and going for your dream, get support. Hire a coach or join a support group that will help you identify the base of your fear and motivate you to move forward. You deserve to live fully. You deserve to thrive!
I wish I could tell you that failure no longer scares me—quite the opposite. I’m afraid every single day. I just know what to do with it now: Be compassionate with myself. Laugh with myself. Gain wisdom from the failure. Reframe it as fuel. And try again.
Carin Rockind is a speaker, author and coach with a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from the University of Pennsylvania.