Is fear of failure holding you back?

Coaching and fear of failure

Are there things you want to do, to change perhaps, but something is holding you back? I’m fascinated by what holds us back, what gets in the way of us achieving what we want and will be looking at this over the next few posts. One theme that comes up over and over during coaching conversations is the fear of failure.

Telling someone

To start with, speaking out loud makes a world of difference. Actually identifying and saying it – I’m afraid of failing – can already start changing things. The next step is to define what failure is for you.

We all have our own take on things, our own experiences, our own ‘map of the world’ as it’s called in Neuro Linguistic programming, and each one of ours is unique – unique upbringing friends family – even if we’re twins. So we see everything through these unique filters.

Failure is a lack of success in doing or achieving something, especially in relation to a particular activity

dictionary definition

We then probably need to look at what success means.  Both failure and success are so personal and subjective.

Success is basically achieving what you set out to do. But sometimes you find you achieve something else and that can also be seen as success, if you allow yourself some flexibility.

Failure – what does it mean for you?

First, take a moment to think about what you want to achieve. Make it clear and well defined.

Now think about what failure means.

We all carry thoughts and fears in our heads that go round and round, perpetuating our beliefs about what we can and can’t do.  It’s so important to realise this and notice what’s going on.

Stop for a moment. I use the acronym SNAC for moments like this.  Stop, Notice, Acknowledge, and Challenge. The acknowledging part is important – don’t let the saboteur, this inner critic start taking over here. Just acknowledge that this is a thought pattern that you have, that you can examine and leave there.  Then challenge yourself, in the nicest, most supportive way to think differently.

“If we change the way we see things, the things we see change”

Wayne Dwyer

 Because if we’re not able to stop and realise what we’re doing, how we’re thinking, we can never challenge or change it.

Ask yourself what if I fail.  What would happen?

Let’s look at a few difference scenarios where the fear of failure has a big impact.

If you’re going for a new job, what’s the worst thing that can happen? You might say the wrong thing.  That’s open to interpretation isn’t it! But if there is a right and a wrong, then what?

Embarrassment? Regret? Yes we all experience that.  What if we could reframe, think of it in another way. 

Turn that crap channel down and turn up the kind channel.  Ok so you said the wrong thing.  That’s ok. You might also have said some good things? And if it was all disastrous, then what can you learn from it? You might learn to prepare better? You might think actually that was the wrong job even .  Or could you do some work on your presentation skills? Are there some concrete things you can do in terms of preparation that will reduce the chances of this happening?

What can I do about it?

In other words, ask yourself what can I do about it? I always think there is something we can do, however small, to influence the outcome.

What about a new direction for your organisation? What’s failure here? Define it. Often the definition will bring clarity to it and help you realise that there are things you can do to mitigate the risk. Or you might realise that the inner saboteur was running a script that predicts failure and so stops you doing it, when actually, just challenging this thought opens up more possibilities to continue.

On a more practical level, you may come up with things like…

People don’t like it? Then what? What can you do about that? Is there any planning you can put in place to mitigate for this?

Who can you get on board beforehand? Who can you sound out the ideas with? What if aspects of your plan don’t work? Then what? You can tweak and try again? There will be lots of leaning opportunity. Maybe it wasn’t the right timing? 

Again, it’s vital to ask yourself what can I do to increase the chances of success?


Or what about starting a new business.  What if that fails? To begin with, something we often do is catastrophise and go straight to the end product – we’ve lost everything, our homes, our job, our money our dignity, our self respect.  But there will be a number of events way before that and signals that will help you avoid this ending.  You can tweak your business idea. You can ask others for thoughts and opinions, you can plan your investment carefully and only take risks that you have thoroughly considered. 

Again, defining what failure means here and asking yourself what you can do about it will help you put a plan together to increase the chances of success.

So stop first and ask yourself if the failure you’re dreading is really that realistic.

Case study

One client I worked with was afraid of taking over as sole owner of a very successful business.  They’d been in a partnership for many years and the other owner, for personal reasons wanted out.  Kate had been doing a brilliant job as managing director, pretty much running the company, but feared being the main owner as she was worried they would fail and people would criticise. 

This put her into such a situation of paralysis that they she nearly pulled out completely herself, saying she should just sell the business or shut it down and go and get a job..  When we spent some time looking at what failure meant – the business going bankrupt, she realised the chances of this happening were very slight.  They had long term customers and a great reputation.  Business was profitable and forecasts were good. She realised that the chances of this happening overnight were pretty much impossible and laughed when she thought that this was what was holding her back.

We put a plan together of possible threats to the business and what needed to be done to maximise the chances of its continuing success.  Kate felt more in control, clearer about what was realistic and able to face her fears and take on the business, which is still thriving.

Her worry about what others would think is also a prime factor for holding people back and we’ll be looking at this in a future post.

To summarise, as with most things that we put off or dread, it’s worth breaking things down into small pieces.  Failure in our heads can be a huge thing.  Break it down, ask yourself what does failure mean, what would be the first sign of failure? 

Then ask yourself what can I do to mitigate that? There’ll be something I can do, most likely that will reduce the likelihood or change the direction.

Hopefully once you’ve throughly explored your own personal definition of failure and broken it down into smaller pieces, asking yourself what will be within your control, things won’t be looking so scary.

It’s worth writing this down – what the elements of failure might be and what you can do to plan ahead to reduce the risk. Planning is really important.  They say, after all, failing to plan is planning to fail.

Then you can look at the various scenarios of what could go wrong and what you can do about them.

As things become clearer, and you challenge the crap channel or inner saboteur who likes to stop us doing stuff, then your route ahead will hopefully feel more straightforward

As always, speaking to others about this helps.  If you have a trusted friend or colleague, discuss your ideas and plans as well as explaining your fears.  So often, when the fears are described out loud, we realise some are unreasonable and others are ones that can be addressed.


One super important stage of addressing the fear of failure is acceptance.

We must accept that sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes things don’t work out.  But we tried.  We can work out what we learned from the experience .  Adopting a growth mindset of seeing it as an opportunity to learn is so much more helpful than a fixed mindset of this reflects badly on me and it’s all my fault.  I never want to try new things, I can’t do it. 

As someone once said, We miss 100% of the shots we don’t take.  If we don’t try, we will never know.  We will stay the same,  Looking back, we’re usually glad we tried. Getting started is the best thing we can do.

So if there’s something you want to start, do, change, ask yourself what’s getting in the way.  If it’s fear of failure, define it, break it down, plan to get around it, accept that mistakes happen and ask yourself if you’d prefer to look back not having tried.

Be bold, be audacious, and remember this quote by Goethe.

Whatever you do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

If you’s like to know more about how working with me as your coach can help get you to where you want to be, get in touch.

You might like to listen to this on a podcast instead of reading.