The Fear Of Failure: Understanding The Psychology Behind It - SACAP
Applied Psychology

The Fear of Failure: Understanding the Psychology Behind it

Feb 26, 2024
Student sitting with their laptop thinking about the psychology of failure

They say that nothing breeds success like failure. Indeed, most of us accept that failure is a reality of life. That it is even essential for personal growth. But why, when we intellectually acknowledge that failure can be turned into an opportunity, are we so afraid of it? And how are parents, in an attempt to soften the blows of failure, doing their children a great disservice? When it comes to its essence, what is the psychology of failure really about?

Failure and Self-Worth

According to Professor Martin Covington of The University of California, the fear of failure is directly linked to our sense of self-worth. Professor Covington’s research on students was published in the Handbook of Motivation at School. Itfound that one way we protect our self-worth is by believing we are competent. And by convincing others of it, too. For this reason, the ability to achieve is critical in maintaining self-worth. To fail to perform essentially means that we are not able and, therefore, not worthy.

Professor Covington also found that people engage in practices that seek to preserve their self-worth. This happens when someone doesn’t believe he or she has the ability to succeed. Or if repeated failures diminish that belief. Most often these practices take the form of excuses or defence mechanisms.

4 Ways of Dealing with Failure

  1. Success-oriented people love learning for the sake of learning. They see failure as a way to improve, rather than a slight on their value as a human being.
  2. Over-strivers are people that are “closet-achievers”. They are so afraid of failing that they avoid it at all costs. Even if it means exerting themselves beyond what is reasonably expected.
  3. Failure-avoiding people don’t expect to succeed. Instead, they just want to avoid failing. In order to do so, they frequently make excuses, procrastinate, or simply don’t participate.
  4. Failure-accepting people have given up trying to succeed altogether. Unsurprisingly, these are the most difficult students to motivate because they have internalised failure.

Seeing failure as inextricably connected to our sense of self-worth – or lack thereof – puts it in perspective, says Professor Covington. This is because if you make your self-worth contingent on categories, such as academic success, appearance or popularity, you fail to value yourself. Truly valuing oneself comes from accepting that you are a human being and that failure is part of the human experience.

The Gifts of Failure

Self-forgiveness is key to overcoming failure, say the experts. As found through research conducted by Kristin Neff, an associate professor in the University of Texas’s department of educational psychology. He found that people who practice self-compassion recover more quickly from failure and are more likely to try new things.

Dangers of Overparenting

Furthermore, it is important that children be allowed to make mistakes. A study conducted at the Queensland University of Technology by clinical psychologist Dr Judith Locke and associates demonstrates the harmful effects of so-called “over-parenting”.  Which is defined as a parent’s misguided attempt to improve their child’s personal and academic immediate and future success.

Researchers interviewed psychologists, guidance counsellors and teachers. They found that such over-parenting had the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine their education in independence. Dr Locke emphasises that students need to suffer setbacks. This is in order to learn important life skills such as responsibility, organisation, manners, restraint, and foresight.

American clinical American Clinical Psychologist Wendy Mogel expands on this in her best-selling book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. In it, she describes letting children struggle as a difficult but vital gift to give them. She suggests that children insulated from unpleasant situations or challenges become less capable of dealing with adversity. She also puts forward a reminder that a parent’s job is to prepare their children for the road. Not to prepare the road for their children.

Understanding Failure

Are you interested in how failure can assist or detain someone’s growth? How their approach to life and how much they succeed can be changed by reframing their outlook on failure? If so, then look at SACAP’s courses in counselling and psychology. To find out more, click here.

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