In Silicon Valley, there are many high achievers, and the pressure to “succeed” can be intensely overwhelming and difficult to navigate. Many individuals are accustomed to achieving at high levels and being recognized for it. Fear of failure becomes a daunting thing for such high-achieving tech professionals to address. It is all too easy for those struggling with fear to enter a vicious cycle of feeling insecure, being angry about this insecurity, and then becoming depressed because of not feeling “good enough.” These folks also tend to feel even more insecure when comparing themselves to others when everyone else seems to be coping just fine.
You yourself may be in need of help to address these fears but haven’t sought it because you see it as a sign of weakness and think you should just be able to handle it. Yet it is possible to learn to work effectively with fear of failure. Many of the people we know and respect – even people you consider to be fearless leaders or emotional rocks – have had to learn to cope with their fear of failure with help from a therapist. Fear is something that can be embraced rather than shied away from. And the first step in embracing fear is to be curious about fear as a learning experience that can help you grow.
In my work with professionals in the high tech industry, I use the following techniques to help them cope with fear of failure:
- Change your relationship to fear. Fear isn’t your opponent. Fear is a normal, understandable part of living life based on your values. Ask yourself these questions: What fears do I need to learn to embrace in order to pursue my goals? How can I hold the thought “I’m worried about never being a true success,” yet continue to move forward towards my goals?
- Accept your feelings. Instead of trying to rid yourself of unwanted feelings, notice your emotions, acknowledge them, and make space for them. When you experience anxiety or fear, be compassionate toward yourself. Treat yourself with kindness. Validate your feelings, as they are a normal and understandable part of your self and your experiences as you pursue what’s most important.
- Label your thoughts. A helpful technique when it comes to coping with self-defeating thoughts that provoke anxiety is to “notice it, label it, and take the power away from it.” Acknowledge your thoughts, decide whether they are helpful or unhelpful, and let the unhelpful ones go by like clouds or passing trains. You can’t get rid of these thoughts altogether – and the harder you try, the more likely they’ll keep coming back.
- Accept your mistakes. We all screw up. Trying too hard not to make mistakes or worrying about making them only adds to your stress levels and actually increases the likelihood that you’ll make more. Instead, focus on “unhooking” from destructive self-judgments. Mistakes are part of our learning process. You can focus on your values – like being a risk-taker, or resilient, or adventurous – and on what you can learn from the mistakes you do make.
- Real success is living your values. Take actions mindfully and engage fully in what you do. Act with confidence and rely on yourself to do what matters. Remember, true success is defined by achieving outcomes we can control. And the one thing you truly can control is living a life that’s true to your values and true to yourself.
- Channel your passion about the process. Life is not a race. Chronic dissatisfaction can occur at any stage, even if we think we’ve checked all of the proverbial boxes and have “arrived.” Ask yourself these questions: How do I want to be as I pursue my goals? How do I want to look back on this time regardless of the outcome? Who do I want to be right now as I go through this?
- Know that no pain is unbearable. No matter what you’re experiencing, no matter how great the pain, you can find a place inside yourself that the pain cannot reach. That place is one from which we can observe our experiences without being caught up in them and is one in which our thoughts and our feelings do not control our actions. As such, being able to access this inner “observing self” allows us to consciously choose our actions. By looking at your thoughts and feelings from the standpoint of this “observing self,” you’ll find that what you fear may destroy you is what ultimately builds strength and character.
- Trust that failure is an amazing teacher. Failing can be painful, and that pain can be a powerful guide that leads us to what’s most important. Accordingly, failure can be viewed as a tool that is instrumental to growth. Ask yourself these questions: Can I learn to value growth from failure? What can I learn about myself as I go through this journey?
Examining your fears using these methods can yield great results. For example, one of my clients recently wasn’t able to raise funding for his company. However, he was able to say that he liked who he was as he was going through the process and felt good about it even when he did fall short of his goal because he stayed true to who he wanted to be throughout the process. This kind of outcome is the goal of therapy for fear of failure, and for living everyday with the tools to combat it.
I often use ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to help people to change their relationship with painful thoughts and feelings. It enables them to develop a transcendent sense of self, to live in the present, and to take action, guided by their deepest values, to create a rich and meaningful life. The view in ACT is that suffering is caused by experiential avoidance, i.e. by attempting to avoid, escape, or get rid of unwanted private experiences (such as unpleasant thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges and memories). When we avoid these things in the short term, it works; but, in the long term, it fails and doesn’t change our suffering. I teach mindfulness skills to help them change their relationship with their painful thoughts and feelings so that these thoughts don’t impact and influence us as much. I help people invest their energy in living their life via their deepest values. For more information on these and related services I provide, please email me or call me at 650-260-3775.