How to Get Past a Fear of Failure
A few years ago I launched a new service in my business. I was so excited to bring this project I’ve been working on for a few months into life. I was equally terrified. The closest I got to launching, the more nervous I was. My inner critic was strong and loud, telling me “what if you fail?” I was dreading it, but I kept going.
So I launched. And crickets.
I felt it all - the shame, the disappointment, the rejection, the frustration. But then, after a few days or so, I noticed a shift. I was feeling a sense of relief; now that I’ve experienced this kind of failure, I don’t need to dread it as much.
I shifted into a growth mindset, I was ready to learn. What seemed like 10 steps back became 15 steps forward. Not only the following launches got better and better, I learned that I can deal with failure. Sure, it’s always going to be uncomfortable, but guess what? Not only can we survive it, on the other side of it we have the opportunity to meet with a stronger, more empowered and resilient version of ourselves.
For me, knowing that I can deal with failure meant that I could stop holding myself back, or at least significantly less.
What helped me deal with that failure relatively ‘easily’? I believe I can thank 4 years in art school for that. A big part of art education is getting students used to brutal feedback in order to prepare them for the future of working in the art world. It’s also the most effective way to grow, develop and get better at what we do.
So like with anything, being open to negative feedback (whether it’s in the form of failure or criticism) and not holding back for fear of failure, is a skill anyone can practice.
In my years of coaching, I’ve seen clients not acting on their desires and brilliant ideas for fear of criticism / failure / negative feedback. I’ve seen clients being paralysed, unable to move, in the absence of approval and validation.
I’ve also witnessed the miracle that can happen when we address these issues, the freedom and courage that comes with that. The freedom that comes when we no longer depend on others’ validation or fear their disapproval.
Truth is, none of us reach adulthood without encountering failure thousands of times and many more such experiences await us in life going forward. Failure is such a common human experience that what distinguishes us from one another is not that we fail but rather how we respond when we do.
Maybe you’re working on speaking up more. Or you’re dreaming about launching that new business, or pursuing that artistic venture. Or you’re thinking about transitioning to more fulfilling work, or advancing in your current one. Or you’re just trying to be more of your real self and share what’s on your mind. All things that make you vulnerable to some kind of negative feedback.
So today I want to offer you some reframes, tools & shifts for negative feedback (whether it’s in the form of failure or criticism) that would allow it to serve you, instead of scare you:
The meaning you assign to failure
When Maya learned to walk, there was a lot of falling and standing up (all while clapping hands and smiling). Trying, failing, and trying again is one of the main ways toddlers learn. How are they so determined and persistent when they are learning something new? I believe a big part of it is that they don’t assign a negative meaning to failure. They can fall, it doesn’t mean they’ve failed. It doesn’t define them.
In an interview with Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, she says that when she was a child her father asked her on a regular basis, “What did you fail at this week?” When she replied, “Nothing,” he would respond, “Oh… that’s too bad.” Of this habit she says, “My definition of failure became ‘not trying,’ not the outcome.”
The meaning you choose to assign to failure can liberate you from its clutches. What interpretations, other than believing that something is wrong with you, are available for you? Can you see failure as information? Can you see failure as a step that gets you closer to where you want to be? Can you see it as evidence that you had the courage to step outside your comfort zone?
Failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you
Adopt a Growth Mindset vs. a Fixed Mindset
According to Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University, there are two types of mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset is what allows us to see failure as opportunity and not letting it stop us on our drive to success.
In a fixed mindset, people believe their qualities are fixed traits and therefore cannot change. They believe that talent alone leads to success, and effort is not required. Those with a fixed mindset avoid difficult tasks so they can avoid mistakes.
Alternatively, in a growth mindset, people have an underlying belief that their learning and intelligence can grow with time and experience. When people believe they can get smarter, they realize that their effort plays a part in their success, so they put in extra time, leading to higher achievement. The growth mindset person allows challenges to make them stronger and finds opportunity to grow through failure.
Neuroplasticity shows us that our brain can literally change, if our brain can change so can our mind.
Face your self limiting beliefs
Negative feedback, whether it comes in the form of criticism or failure, is more painful when it reflects our own insecurities. Often the problem isn’t the uncomfortable feedback but rather our own self limiting beliefs. We are upset because the negative feedback reinforces what we already believe about ourselves deep inside. Think about it for a moment. If you get negative feedback about something you feel confident about, would it throw you off in the same way?
Once we know that 9 out of 10 the painful experience of negative feedback isn’t about the thing itself as much as it’s about our own inner world, we’ve got power. We can use these uncomfortable experiences to discover the negative beliefs we hold about ourselves and do the work to change them.
If fear of failure / feedback / criticism is holding you back, ask yourself: What am I truly afraid of? What is the self limiting belief I’m afraid it would reinforce? Then do the work of breaking down that belief.
Grow a thick skin
Whenever you put yourself out there, whether it’s going to a job interview, starting your own business, starting a new job, giving a presentation at work or posting about something that deeply matters to you on social media, you risk rejection / criticism. You may decide “that’s not for me” but if you’re here to grow and evolve, you need to grow a thick skin. How do you do that? Not by thinking about or intellectualising it, but by putting yourself out there, being willing to get vulnerable and get messy. Negative feedback never stops stinging. But by putting it into perspective, you can develop the thick skin that will make that sting fade quickly away.
I hope you’ll find these shifts and reframes helpful. In truth, no matter how thick our skin is, we’re tender beings. We’re afraid of failure because we’re afraid of finding out we aren’t good enough. We’re afraid of finding out we’re more than good enough, so good that there’s no reason to keep stalling, perfecting, postponing – that it’s actually time to muster the courage and leap. What if that’s true?
When fear of failure threatens to quiet your voice, causing you to make yourself small or step away, ask yourself: What am I making failure / criticism mean? What other meanings can I assign to it? What meaning really resonates with my own inner wisdom? What limiting self belief is this failure mirroring? What new more empowering beliefs can I create, instead?
May you muster the courage to do the things that involve the risk of negative feedback. May you do the unconventional things that would bring you fulfilment and joy. May you move from indecision towards your spirit’s deepest cravings.
Onwards & Upwards,