Defeat Your Fear of Failure: Shift Threat to Challenge

Failure—a very short, powerfully negative word that inspires fear in many of us.  And why not? By definition, failure is “lack of success...insufficiency...subnormal quality or quantity.”  Why shouldn’t something that negative be feared and avoided?  This common perception of failure makes us more inclined to view difficult situations or opportunities that may increase our chance of failing as threats.  For instance, a big project or presentation, a new leadership position, an important athletic performance. All of these can feel threatening—a threat to our sense of capacity, sense of worth, even our very sense of self.

But like many things in life, defining failure isn’t black and white.  What if failure was only viewed as a possible outcome from rising to a challenge?  More importantly, couldn’t failure simply be a stepping stone to growth and opportunity that only a challenging pursuit can provide?  Like failure itself, isn’t any difficult pursuit a challenge to meet rather than a threat to avoid? It’s making this mental shift—from threat to challenge—that can help you overcome your fear of failure and increase your chances for success.  

The physiology of threat vs. challenge

If you hold the looming perception of failure, somewhere in your memory banks, you probably have the uncomfortable memories of a difficult life event that put you in danger of failing.  You felt threatened.  You recall the rising heart-rate, the shallower breathing, indecision, the negative, internal dialogue that kept your mind racing in any direction except a focused path to success.  You had become so transfixed by the scepter of failing, that your body and mind were putting you on a path to do just that. Your body had gone into a fight-or-flight stress response that sabotaged your efforts.  

However, that very same life event, viewed as a challenge not a threat, could have brought about a very different stress response.  The challenge would register as a good stress.  As a good stress, your body and mind would experience a very different physical and psychological response.   The body and mind “rises to the challenge” of good stress by feeling energized, more alert, more decisive and accurate, more confident.  This markedly different good stress response has a much higher chance of success than that of the threat response.

Easier said than done, right?  Sure. But researchers at Staffordshire University initiated the Smart Thinking Project to outline and promote the benefits and how tos of making the mental shift from threat to challenge.  Based on psychological research, the Smart Thinking Project points to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) as an “extremely efficient and effective approach that helps individuals take control of their emotional and behavioural reactions to adverse events in sport, work, and life.“  They have found that REBT has direct applications to performance in many environments—corporate, military, elite athletics, academia.

How to Make the Shift from Threat to Challenge?  Build Your Resources

Logically, you will feel more capable of successfully facing a difficult situation as if it’s a challenge (vs. a threat) if you actually have the tools to meet the challenge.  Based on performance research, Smart Thinking Project maintains that you do this by building three key resources.

Three key resources to meet a challenge

  1. Self-Efficacy (a belief that you are capable of succeeding)

  2. Perceived Control (your sense of autonomy over your skills)

  3. Achievement Goals (focus on what can be gained by meeting the challenge)

If you believe you can succeed, believe you have the freedom in how to use your skills, and stay focused on the reward of meeting the challenge, you will boost your performance.  Your body and mind will respond in a positive challenge state rather than a threat state. By contrast, if you approach the situation with doubts you’ll succeed, don’t feel you have control, or are focused on what could be lost if you fail (rather than what you could gain in success), you will enter a threat state. Your performance suffers.

What if I still fail?

Boosting your odds of success by developing the right mindset about challenge, as described above, is a great strategy.  But it’s not full-proof. If you’re challenging yourself, failure can still happen. And that’s OK. Taking risks brings about growth regardless of the outcome.  Even in failure, growth is a byproduct as long as you are reflective enough to notice. In growth (any growth), opportunity can follow. Whether opportunity to do something differently the next time, or an opportunity to experience something new altogether, because you had the courage to try in the first place.  

In using failure as a learning opportunity and an opportunity to develop resilience, you are giving yourself the gift of a second chance.  You are giving yourself a chance to reframe your thinking and use failure as a springboard to new and enriching experiences. There’s nothing more empowering than overcoming a fear and proving your capacity to yourself.  In the meantime, as you build your resilience and your resources for future success, cut yourself some slack. Replace negative self-talk with can-do next time messaging to improve the odds.

Note about failure for parents

If you’re a parent, your perception of failure is likely the message you transmit to your kids.  And, if you or someone you know also tends toward the helicopter parent end of the parenting spectrum, take note.  Keeping your kids from experiencing failure or over-emphasizing consistent success (as quantified by grades or trophies), keeps kids from building resilience.  It also perpetuates an overly negative perception of failure that could limit their success. Kids who are afraid to fail are afraid to try or challenge themselves.  Kids who are afraid to try are limiting their potential. Not to mention that kids who are afraid to fail are more likely to cheat to “get the grade” and not earn the grade...a hollow victory on paper that doesn’t build their inner reserves of self-worth and capacity when they face future challenges.  In developing your own challenge mindset, you have the chance to help your children develop theirs as well.

Success at work and in life requires a flexible, multi-pronged approach.  Whether re-training your brain for challenge and eliminating a fear of failure, or selecting more tangible tools that improve your chance for success.  A step towards success is using the iStratus DayPlanner for iPhone.  This powerful, multi-function app helps you balance multiple complex calendars with ease, securely store, encrypt, and access sensitive documents and passwords on-the-go, generate PDFs and more.  Visit to find out more about how the DayPlanner can put you on the path to success.

Ann Brennan