Fear of Failure

“I can have fear, but I need not be fear – if I am willing to stand someplace else in my inner landscape”

(Palmer, 1998; p. 57).

Each day we hear countless stories of other people’s achievements and successes. Social media showcases the highlight reels of people’s lives, but often minimized, if shown at all, is the possibility of one’s past failures, or what it took to succeed. While many individuals wish they could strive for the same success they admire, many do not act upon their goals because of their innate fear of failure. Much of this fear of failure is related to what is known as performance anxiety. Performance anxiety is defined by DSM-V as a subtype of social anxiety disorder (SAD) (1). Research psychologist Powell (2004) describes performance anxiety as “strong but delimited fears that severely compromise an individual’s capacity to execute a task at a level that can be reasonably expected, which is crucial to that person’s normal adjustment” (2).

As a result of this widespread fear that paralyzes so many from even starting on projects or goals that they have, an enormous amount of literature has emerged. In Fact, just a quick search on Amazon for “fear of failure” search yields 28,879 results. Books such as Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success by Matthew Syed and Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Beilock have become best-sellers again and again because of their ability to discuss the brain science behind human performance. In an earlier contribution, researchers suggested that a fear of failure was a reaction to perceived threatening and aversive consequences of not reaching goals (3). These resources suggest that an individual’s fear of failure is a multidimensional construct, whereby the fear results in aversive consequences of not reaching one’s goals, including the added fear of self-devaluation, social devaluation, and non-ego punishment (3-4). However, when the fear of failure takes on an extreme form, then it is termed as Atychiphobia (5).

Atychiphobia affects both men and women and can be a debilitating disorder. It is characterized by an unhealthy aversion to risk. Research has found that one of the most maladaptive aspects of this failure avoidance is that it renders the individual intensely susceptible to setback and can lead to failure acceptance or learned helplessness (6). That’s right- this fear can lead to fear of subsequent failure.

While drug therapy may be used (atychiphobes are often treated with Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors to raise the level of serotonin in the brain), specific types of cognitive or behavioural therapy can have the most success (5). The professional staff of Dr. Eliana Cohen Psychology Professional Corp has been specially trained to help individuals overcome their fear of failure so that failure does not mean the end of life, but rather becomes seen as crucial for the growing process. Therapy sessions can help individuals learn to open up about his or her fears in order to collaboratively come up with effective solutions. Therapy is also scientifically proven to help individuals cope with the stress experienced when an individual is given a task that may result in a fear of failing to complete. During therapy, individuals learn to let go of negative inferences about themselves and their abilities so that their fear of failure eventually becomes replaced with self-confidence and greater self-esteem.

Imagine if you could do anything in the world you wanted to, without fear. Now imagine if there was counseling available to help you achieve this. This scenario does not need to be just in your imagination. Counseling exists to help you overcome feelings of fear or any negative feelings that are stopping you from reaching your dreams and full potential.

You do not have to become fearless. You just have to be willing to face your fears.


  1. APA-American Psychological Association. DSM-V-The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
  2. Powell DH. Treating individuals with debilitating performance anxiety: An introduction. Journal of clinical psychology. 2004 Aug 1;60(8):801-8.
  3. Birney RC, Burdick H, Teevan RC. Fear of failure. Van Nostrand-Reinhold Company; 1969.
  4. Sagar SS, Lavallee D, Spray CM. Why young elite athletes fear failure: Consequences of failure. Journal of sports sciences. 2007 Sep 1;25(11):1171-84.
  5. Rowa K. Atychiphobia (Fear of Failure). Phobias: The Psychology of Irrational Fear: The Psychology of Irrational Fear. 2015 Mar 3:40.
  6. Martin AJ, Marsh HW, Debus RL. A quadripolar need achievement representation of self-handicapping and defensive pessimism. American Educational Research Journal. 2001;38(3):583-610.