Not everyone is motivated by the same things or to the same degree. It’s what makes us unique. We don’t start the day expecting to fail at our jobs, but it does happen. The environment of a workplace and the perceived pressure to succeed can lead to fear of failure.
It’s unfortunate that so many work environments have a culture of perfection, with a belief that failure and any deficient work is unacceptable. This often leads to unwarranted stress and dread in the workplace, which can lead to smokescreens, finger-pointing, and the blame game. Some people are able to thrive in such a setting, but most are not.
Spending time in such environments can magnify existing fears of failure. Someone can become so terrified of failing that they may shrink from challenges and pull away from everything. When you don't put yourself out there, you lose the opportunity to demonstrate your abilities and contributions professionally.
When fear of failure overwhelms you and you can't accept the possibility of making a mistake, you will not be able to progress in your career. You’ll question everything about your career and choices. When an important decision needs to be made, fear of choosing incorrectly can lead to delays, frustration, or no decision at all. Fear of failure can also lead to you shrinking back from opportunities that can improve your career, and it will take a toll on your health. It’s important to recognize when enough is enough, and your health is more important!
Why we tick the way we do
No one likes to fail. For some, failing presents such a significant psychological threat that their motivation to avoid failure at all costs exceeds their motivation to succeed. Sounds crazy, right? This unnecessary fear of failure causes some to instinctively interfere with their chances of success in a variety of ways.
Failing can provoke feelings of discontent, irritation, frustration, sorrow, shame, and confusion. While this is unpleasant, it’s usually not sufficient to trigger a full-blown fear of failure. Indeed, the term is somewhat of a misnomer because it is not failure by itself that underlies the behavior of people. Rather, a fear of failure is a fear of shame. People who have a fear of failure want to avoid failing not because they cannot manage the basic emotions of disappointment, anger, and frustration, but because it makes them feel shame. They go to any lengths not to encounter the feelings associated with failure.
One of the most psychologically toxic emotions is shame. Instead of feeling guilt about an action, shame makes someone feel bad about who they are as an individual. No one needs that kind of negativity in their life! Humiliation gets to the core of our egos, identities, self-esteem, and emotional well-being. The damaging nature of shame makes those of us with a fear of failure avoid the psychological threats associated with failing by finding ways to alleviate the consequences of possible failure. Some find it easier to rationalize why they failed rather than look at the root cause.
Here are some unofficial diagnostics. If you feel that these criteria are very characteristic of you (very being an important distinguishing marker because we all feel these things to some extent), you might want to examine the issue further, either by doing more reading about it or talking to a mental health professional.
You might have a fear of failure if the thought of failing makes you . . .
• worry about what other people think about you. In this day and age of social media, it lends a distorted image of what is actually “cool” or the “in thing.”
• worry about how smart or capable you are. We are all capable of succeeding; it just depends on how badly we want to make it.
• worry about disappointing people whose opinion you value. Don’t be so hard on yourself but do strive to do your best!
• worry about your ability to pursue the future you desire. Honestly, you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to achieving
• tend to tell people beforehand that you don’t expect to succeed in order to lower their expectations. Everyone stinks at something. For me it’s paying attention, and not procrastinating. Imagine how things will be when you blow away people’s expectations.
• develop last-minute headaches, stomach aches, or other physical symptoms. This was what every morning during the workweek used to be like for me—dry heaves in the shower and tears in traffic on the way to work. I made a change and the issues disappeared.
• worry that people will lose interest in you. So be it! It’s not you, it’s them! They probably can’t handle your cool factor. People come and go throughout our lives; it’s part of humanity.
• often get distracted by tasks that prevent you from completing your to-do lists, which in hindsight are not as urgent as they seemed at the time. This is me to a T! My to-do lists have to-do lists. If I don’t complete them, I don’t sweat it. Oh, look, another cute cat video on Facebook . . .
• have trouble imagining what you could have done differently to succeed. My childhood dream was to be an astrophysicist. Enter college physics, so I decided to go into medicine, until I had to take calculus and I failed miserably at it. This is how I ended up in dentistry. Imagine that!
• tend to procrastinate and run out of time to complete something adequately. Hey, sometimes some of us do our best work at the last minute. A little stress can build character.
I’m sure we all exhibit some of these signs at various times in our careers, however, there are some who have it worse. In its extreme form, fear of failure is called atychiphobia. Individuals coping with atychiphobia experience crippling self-doubt and extreme fear of failure due to the perceived ridicule they might face. This is often precipitated in a negative work environment. The phobia can cruelly affect someone’s quality of life, causing them to go out of their way to avoid taking risks on even the minutest level. If you recognize the irrational fear of failure in yourself or someone else, then you owe it to yourself to regain control over life.
Some of the specific signs of atychiphobia include:
• Excessive anticipation of situations that bring on extreme fear symptoms (panic, rapid breathing, dry mouth, sweating, nausea)
• Extreme mental anxiety
• Immediate fear response or panic attack to situations that bring on fear
• Increased digestive issues
• Frequent headaches
• Avoidance of the situations and objects that may bring on anxiety
• Chronic muscle tension
• Self-recognition that the fear is severe and irrational
You'll be able to see these symptoms when you’re asked to do something you believe you won't do perfectly. You'll become so overwhelmed with fear that you’ll appear to break down mentally and physically. We all have off days, but if you experience symptoms for six months or longer, you should consult with a medical provider. If this phobia remains untreated, symptoms could get worse and cause other medical and psychological issues.
If you work in an environment where fear is the dominant theme, you need to develop specific skills to succeed. Stay tuned for tips to succeed in this atmosphere!
Natalie Kaweckyj, BA, CDA, LDARF, CDPMA, COA, COMSA, CPFDA, CRFDA, MADAA, is past president of the American Dental Assistants Association.