What Is the Fear of Failure?

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No one likes to fail, but for some, the fear of failure is so intense it can impact their daily lives and ability to complete tasks. When thought of as a specific phobia, the fear of failure is known as atychiphobia.

Read on to learn about how atychiphobia is characterized and what can be done to alleviate it.

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Definition of Fear of Failure

Everyone worries about failing at some point in their lives, but for those with atychiphobia, the fear of failure is pervasive and extreme.

Ranging from mild to severe, this irrational fear of failure can prevent people from trying to achieve goals and can cause paralyzing anxiety.

What Is Atychiphobia?

People with atychiphobia may internalize failure, viewing it as a reflection of their worth. This causes them to see failure as a constant threat. They worry it will lead to embarrassment or that others will view them negatively.

Fear of failure may also be rooted in other anxiety disorders and is tied to perfectionism.

Characteristics

Fearing failure to the point it causes you to avoid situations and prevents you from achieving goals could mean you're experiencing atychiphobia.

The fear of failure can manifest in a number of ways, both physically and emotionally.

Physical Symptoms

  • Sleep difficulties, often due to overthinking and severe anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • An upset stomach or other digestive distress
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Tingling sensations

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feeling insecure and worrying excessively about failing
  • Procrastinating/avoiding tasks that trigger anxiety
  • Intense feelings of anxiety, fear, and panic when faced with situations that don't have a guarantee of success
  • Lack of setting goals and working on goals
  • Excessive focus on the future
  • Engaging in all-or-nothing thinking
  • Thinking you lack the skills to manage a situation or fulfill a task
  • Missing deadlines or being late with assignments
  • "Self-sabotaging" (failing by not try instead of risking trying and failing)
  • Feeling an intense need to escape
  • Feeling “unreal”/detached from yourself
  • Fear of losing control
  • Knowing the fear is irrational, but being unable to control it

Diagnosis

Although more complex than many phobias, atychiphobia can fall under the umbrella of specific phobias.

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), to be diagnosed with a specific phobia, the following criteria must be met:

  • A persistent, excessive, unreasonable fear that occurs in the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation
  • An immediate anxiety response when exposed to the source of fear, which may take the form of a panic attack
  • Recognition that your fear is excessive or disproportionate to the actual threat posed
  • Avoiding the source of fear, or enduring it with intense anxiety or distress
  • Avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress caused by the source of fear that significantly interferes with your normal routine, work (or school) functioning, or social activities and relationships, or a feeling of marked distress about having the phobia
  • Persistent fear, typically lasting for at least six months
  • Anxiety, panic attacks, or avoidance associated with the source of fear not being better explained by another condition or mental disorder

If the fear of failure is impacting your life, it's worth seeking professional help, such as with a mental health professional.

This can start with a visit to your primary healthcare provider. From there, a referral can be made to a mental health professional, if necessary.

Famous Failures

Even successful people fail sometimes, including the following:

  • Basketball great Michael Jordan didn’t make the varsity basketball team his sophomore year of high school.
  • Successful filmmaker Steven Spielberg was rejected by a film school three times.
  • World-renowned entertainer Beyoncé lost on the TV competition show "Star Search" as part of her group Girls Tyme.
  • Esteemed physicist Albert Einstein failed the entrance exam to a polytechnic school.
  • Singer-songwriter Katy Perry's first album only sold 200 copies.
  • Multitalented director, actor, and playwright Tyler Perry's first play was attended by only 30 people.

Causes

Specific phobias can be caused by a number of factors, including:

  • Direct learning experiences: A traumatic experience in the feared situation, such as failing at something that had significant consequences or experiencing humiliation after a failure
  • Observational learning experiences: Seeing others experience the feared situation, or living with that phobia, including growing up in a household in which an adult of significance such as a parent had a fear of failure
  • Informational learning: Learning about the source of fear through avenues like the news, books, or television

Some factors that may be involved with fear of failure specifically include:

  • Perfectionism, a personality style characterized by viewing anything short of perfection as being unacceptable
  • Self-perception that is based on how others see you, and a fear of being viewed as a failure
  • Growing up in a critical environment, unsupportive of mistakes or failures

Treatment

Professional treatments are available for specific phobias, including fear of failure.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a broad term that encompasses many types of talk therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy often used to treat phobias.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy is an approach that helps people better understand underlying conflicts and dynamics contributing to irrational fears of failure.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT involves identifying unhealthy or harmful thinking and behavior patterns and changing them into healthy ones.

Part of CBT for phobias may include exposure therapy, in which you are gradually introduced to the source of your phobia with increasing intensity in a controlled environment.

Medication

Medication is used less commonly than therapy for fear of failure, but antianxiety medications may be prescribed if you and your healthcare provider feel it would be beneficial.

Coping

Self-help is often suggested as a first-line treatment for fear of failure, depending on the severity of the phobia, access to professional therapy, and the amount of support needed.

Some ways to address your fear of failure include:

Redefine Failure

Changing the way you see failure can help you cope with it.

Look at failure as:

  • An opportunity to learn
  • A natural and universal part of life experienced by everyone
  • A challenge to tackle instead of a threat

Be Pragmatic

Try to look at the situation or task as it really is, asking yourself:

  • What are the likely outcomes?
  • What can I do if the worst outcome happens?
  • How can I plan for addressing challenges as they arise?

Be Kind to Yourself

  • Recognize that some failure is inevitable for everyone.
  • Practice forgiving yourself when you do fail.
  • Focus on the failure as a failed task, not an indication of your self-worth.
  • Look at what went right in the situation, even if the overall goal was not met.
  • Challenge negative self-talk.

Mindfulness Techniques

Mindfulness and relaxation exercises can help you feel calm in the moment. They can also help to manage your overall anxiety. Exercises to try include:


Summary

Atychiphobia is an extreme fear of failure. It falls under the umbrella of specific phobias. This irrational fear of failure can prevent you from trying to achieve goals and can cause paralyzing anxiety.

If the fear of failure is impacting your life, it's worth seeking professional help, such as by seeing a mental health professional. Treatments are available for specific phobias, including psychotherapy and medication.

Certain self-help techniques, like practicing mindfulness and challenging negative self-talk, can also be beneficial.

A Word From Verywell

If the fear of failure is impacting your daily life, treatment is available to help you feel more confident and in control.

Your first step is to consult with your primary healthcare provider, who can refer you to a mental health professional, if necessary.

How you talk to yourself matters. Realize that everyone fails from time to time and that every failure is a learning experience. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help ease anxiety and allow you to live in the moment.

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10 Sources
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