Overcoming the Fear of Failure


This month marks the one-year anniversary of a Good Place Therapy & Consulting. I’d like to take advantage of this milestone to get a little more personal with my readers.

My career path has been fueled by my desire to seek adventure and opportunity. I have pursued opportunities to push the boundaries, make my mark, and challenge myself to progressively climb the ladder through many leadership roles. There was, however, a comfort in the path I was on because it was based on a self-described idea of what I "should” be doing and where I “should” be in my career. Still, with every step I took, I struggled to feel fulfilled. I do feel a sense of pride when I look back at my successes and accomplishments, but the purpose of my steady, progressive climb eventually fell out of step with my personal and professional values.

My stubbornness and fear of being a quitter, or worse yet being mediocre, kept pushing me to pursue career milestones that were further out of alignment with my values. The daily grind of being a social worker and program administrator in community based and residential settings often involved risk, the kind of risk that had the sympathetic “fight or flight” part of my nervous system constantly activated. I operated in a hyper-vigilant state as if I were a navy seal. I was once called out to San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the middle of the night to fix a window in a family shelter we operated that had been broken in a street brawl, and was often called to re-mediate situations where young girls were pulling the fire alarm to try to escape our facility when staff didn’t have things under control. The demands were constant and in some cases the work was dangerous.

Despite all this, the notion of starting my own private practice was even scarier. The impending doom stirred up and all the "worst case scenarios" had me mired in inaction. Would I be completely spinning my wheels, have only a single client, or worse yet, no clients at all? Maybe I would pay them to see me! Would I have to give up my dream and go back to an agency job earning what I made the year I completed grad school in 2001?  Or worse yet, five years into my private practice, would I still be earning what I made in 2001?  And, once again, how exactly did I ever live on that salary in NYC?  No thank you, I didn’t want to go back!

Whether it’s a dream of entrepreneurial venture, or of finding a way to get out of the rat race, there are inherent risks with any change. You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. What is even more subtle and important is that to get over your fear, you first have to face it! And then, do it again and again.

There aren't a lot of guarantees in life. To stay in the safety zone, pleasing others while playing only a small role in your destiny can be oddly comforting.  Still, when we make decisions based on the “what if's” or we imagine the worst case scenarios, never straying from  “this is what ‘they’ expect of me and I can’t let them down” thinking, we create worse consequences in our lives.  We jeopardize our well-being more-so when we avoid when taking a risk and doing something that we may not succeed at.

Much of this risk-averse behavior doesn’t come from others, though it may be influenced and shaped by them. It comes from within ourselves and is reinforced by our negative and non-affirming self-talk.  It’s based on fear, and living a life that is not aligned with our truest intentions. When you are in a situation that no longer serves you, and you are not living out your values, you are not only short-changing yourself but also everyone around you. You must let go. It may be helpful to consider these steps in your approach:

  • Clarify your goal and purpose
  • Weigh the risks. Try to be objective
  • Consider the pros and the cons of each option
  • Ask yourself if you are ready and prepared for the risk and how you will grow from it

When you dig deeper, not only will you find that the pressure you feel is self-imposed, but when you look for people around you to support you, you will find them. If your network is more sparse than you’d like, you can begin building a community and surrounding yourself with the right people.

Central to the treatment of anxiety disorders, which constitutes more than half of my practice base, is the concept of fear and uncertainty. In the case of Panic Disorder, for example, people start to avoid things that make them anxious and panicked. They aren’t avoiding the situations that they fear, but the symptoms of the panic that trick them into thinking they are going to have a heart attack or pass out. Over time, they start to limit what they do, where they go, and sometimes reach a point where they can’t even leave their house or apartment. This is the comfort zone.  There is no shame in doing what is comfortable and to do something different and subject yourself to the feelings of doubt, anxiety and uncertainty is the harder thing to do!

Because I spend so much time having these conversations, I see this playing out in much larger contexts in life, where fear is a driving force. You have to have a goal and a plan with actionable steps, just as my clients who are committed to overcoming Panic Disorder do.  Letting go of the grip of safety and facing our fears can be very scary.

Readiness Stage

Think of a situation that you know is not serving you well. It could be a friendship, an intimate relationship, job, career, educational endeavor, or other responsibility.

Ask yourself these questions. It may help to journal them.

  1. Do I know what about this situation doesn’t serve me well or others?
  2. What exactly is not aligned with my values
  3. Can I envision a clear picture of a goal achieved?
  4. Do I know what steps it will takes to achieve my vision/goals?
  5. Can I commit, all in, while also embracing the uncertainty?


Measuring the Perceived Risk

Is it really a risk? Sometimes, you get so comfy that situations in which you have practically nothing to lose seem riskier than they are. Good examples include, sending out your resume to the job you don’t meet all the qualifications for, swiping right on the “catch” you see on Bumble, or going in for a job interview.  In each situation, ask yourself, really, what do I stand to lose? You may not risk anything, but you could certainly stand to gain from the experience.  It can be helpful to actually rate what you fear on a scale of 0-100 to gauge the real risk. The higher the risk the more you may need a plan.

Taking a Risk? What are Your Resources?

You bring much more to the table than you realize. How did you get where you are to begin with?

I like to think in terms of abundance, and say to myself “there will always be enough” and “I can always change directions in the future”.  There are two sides to my private practice; individual psychotherapy and organizational consulting. At first, the consulting arm was growing fast with many irons in the fire, but even though I focused on consulting, the psychotherapy work scaled and grew more quickly. Before I realized it, I had little time left for consulting. I felt like I was throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what pieces stuck at the time, and now I focus most of my time on the psychotherapy work.  I was able to manage the risk of starting my new practice by being flexible and changing my focus when I needed to. 

When you are trying something new, you should build in time to try a bunch of things that may not work. If one idea doesn’t work out, you will always have options. Plan B is also about realism and acceptance, as I discussed inPost 2  of this series. Sometimes it is also helpful to envision (but not to focus on) the worst-case scenario,  just so you can realize that you will survive and that you have options.

Fearing a lay off?  Being fired or laid off can leave us feeling intensely vulnerable. It can be devastating to the self-worth of anyone, let alone a perfectionist. New York is an ambitious and career driven town. We attach our self-worth to our career above everything else. At least once a day, the shame connected to a firing or a lay off comes up in my practice.  In this case, it may be helpful gauge the perceived versus real risk as stated above and to assess your resources. You may be seeing this as a negative message about you, but it’s how you then internalize this and act on this that will determine the real affects on you.

Adopt a Growth (v. Fixed) Mindset

Focus on the process of learning and the opportunities for growth, and less on the outcome and the praise that will come as a result. Sometimes, especially for those of us that are competitive, the focus becomes more about winning than even the outcome!

When Princeton Professor, Johannes Hausofer published his  “CV of Failures”  of all the schools he didn't get into and research papers that were rejected it went viral. He says "Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible".  This article was being passed around a group of educators and professionals I’m involved with who work with wealthy families in Manhattan all vying to do whatever possible to get their children into the most elite schools. There was widespread relief and gratitude expressed from these parents. Yes, even if your child doesn’t get into Park Avenue Preschool, she can still be successful in the future!  

Don’t Compare Yourself to Your Past – Look to the Future

Learn from your past successes and failures. What is something that you overcame before and how is this new obstacle different? What about how you handled that situation helped you get past it?  What did you do differently? What difficult decisions did you make?  What hurdles did you overcome?

As for me, one year into my private practice I am making 20% less than I was making in my last VP agency role. I raised this concern with my business coach, Amy Bloustine, in a session recently. She suggested that more relevant factors to consider were the accuracy of my planning and forecasting, the return on my investments (ROI) and my future earning potential and goals. She gently reminded me that I needed to refrain from comparisons to my former trajectory, as this does not serve me.  Obviously, I didn’t go into this new venture logically thinking in a year’s time I was going to be making more money. But it’s all too easy for the fear and doubt to creep in. As Amy reminded me, I’m doing much better than I thought I would be at this point, and isn't this a better marker of my success here and now? Moving forward, I need to make smart choices, and she wisely counseled me to look at my own spending and finances and to continue to learn what I needed to do to build a sustainable and thriving practice.

Humble Yourself

Really, it helps to get knocked down a few times to see the under-rated value of humility.  People relate to you and feel connected to you when they see their own vulnerabilities reflected in you. For more on this, see the previous post in this series here. Those in your life who value you for who you are and not what you look like, your status, or what you possess are likely to be the people you value yourself, and who inspire you to live with the intention to be your best self.  People who make you feel worse about yourself are likely feeling pretty crappy about themselves, and they project that onto the people that surround them, cutting them down to feel better about their own perceived inadequacies. When you put it into practice, your humility will shine through to others as well as affirm our own self-worth. 

Kerrie Thompson, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice downtown NYC. To explore working with her, contact her here.