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The Lie Behind Fear of Failure

The Lie Behind Fear of Failure

Failure is Not the Opposite of Success


Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s a part of success, according to author Ariana Huffington. How many of us truly understand this statement? It seems straightforward. It also seems like a very different message than society’s definition of success. 

I talk to many children and adolescents who come to me with symptoms of performance anxiety, which is the number one cause of anxiety in our youth. They have been led to believe that failure is “bad”. They tell me that their parents and teachers have all supported the idea that failing is “bad”. When I ask how they arrived at that conclusion, many of them noted that it is a universal message from home and school. They have been exposed to comments such as “If you can’t do this math, you’ll never amount to anything” or addressing the class by saying, “Well you all did poorly on this test and its clear none of you care which means you’ll all be stuck in this grade forever.” Sadly, some kids have even been told, “You’ll never amount to anything”. 


The lies our youth have been exposed to regarding failure are abusive and ignorant. As a licensed clinical psychologist, it is my ethical obligation, to tell the truth, that aligns with evidence-based research. My clients know this about me. They know if I say something to them it is always the truth. With regard to learning in school or life, the appropriate model involves attempting something new and failing at it. Failure provides us with the knowledge needed to refine the steps we need to take to improve so we can hit our target goal. The more you fail and refine, the closer you become to mastering a skill. 

Here is a great example that most grade 11 students encounter. They take physics for the first time ever having zero prior knowledge about the subject. The teacher decides to give a “pop quiz” on the first day of the class. Everyone panics! The next day the teacher provides feedback on their results which, of course, would be terrible since they have never been exposed to that subject content before. A failing score will paralyze some students for various reasons. Perhaps they haven’t experienced a failing grade before and do not know how this fits their successful identity. Sometimes a failed score comes with social consequences like “appearing stupid” in the eyes of their peers. Sadly, some kids will have to deal with punishment at home because they failed a quiz. This example demonstrates the mind trap most kids fall into when adults lie to them about failure.


Here is the truth. The students should fail the quiz as they haven’t taken physics before. Then be shown how to review and refine so they can attempt again. Instead, most students get shamed. Students should be shown that failures give us the information, experience, and wisdom needed to approach our goal of mastering the subject material. The most prized experience and knowledge a person can get will often come from failure. Failure offers us the opportunity to refine our approach to whatever we want to accomplish. 

Schools and parents need to stop communicating fear-mongering messages of failure to our students. It is a lie that can cause irreversible damage to some people. It is a harmful message that can motivate a person to take a detour in their life toward a path of least resistance that they never wanted to take. It can leave them feeling shameful and stupid. It is time to highlight the truth. Failure is not “bad”; it is an integral part of success.

If you’re wondering how you can shift your thinking about failure, download our free resource entitled, 10 Ways to Embrace Failure as the Pathway to Success. Discover how you can uncover the truth about failure.

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