Minderful Deep Dive: Introducing the Psychology of Failure

Roses are red, violets are are a mess, not everything is a story of success…

Unless you’re one of the more enlightened beings on this planet, chances are that you imagine the word failure in a particularly offensive red font (author’s note: an apology to our aphantasia-affected followers who rarely imagine anything).

Your parents have probably taught you that failure should be avoided at all costs. To ward it off, you should work hard, get lucky, work harder, never give up, rinse, and repeat.

No wonder that there’s an official phobia attached to the fear of failure. It’s true, we looked it up, and it’s called atychiphobia. In extreme cases, atychiphobia is a paralysing obstacle that prevents those affected from ever trying anything risky because the fear or ridicule is too great. Our society is beyond obsessed with success and Minderful isn’t impressed. So today, we wanted to compile a short introduction to the psychology of failure—an under-appreciated phenomenon in our lives.

Where does fear of failure come from?

We looked at a few resources about failure and stumbled upon this lovely article that can serve as a great starting point. Among a few enlightening nuggets of wisdom, they listed the reasons why some of us find it so hard to deal with failure. Some of them are predictable—like a tough result-driven upbringing or a past traumatic experience where the concept of failure played a part.

But there’s one that stuck out in particular. Good old perfectionism.

Fear of failure is often more connected to the fear of ridicule than the failed project itself. Perfectionism often poses as if coming from ourselves (me! I’m the perfectionist! I’m doing this because I have high standards!), but its roots are deeply embedded in the way people think about us and how we present ourselves. This link that can serve as a great starting point to combat perfectionism if you want to learn more.

Failure is the worst thing that can happen to a perfectionist because it quite simply proves that they’re not perfect. Ouch. So if you’re currently fighting against perfectionism, you’ll be pleased to know that you’re also fighting against fear of failure. Two for one. A great deal if you ask us.

No, but really, where does fear of failure ‘come from’?

Ah yes, enough with the armchair psychology from your favourite Medium blog. Let’s talk evolution.

Just like all mammals, humans have a built-in risk management system in their brains. It’s called the reticular activating system, and it’s there to alert us to any upcoming danger and make us react. You might also know it as the fight and flight response.

The flight’n’fight response takes up a lot of space in our heads—so much so that we can’t really think of anything else when we’re preoccupied with danger. This means that when we feel safe, we have more brain capacity to be loving, creative, and innovative. And when we take risks, we start to worry about danger and failure.

Historically, risk-averse behaviour rewarded our ancestors. That’s the kind of person who had the highest chance of surviving long enough to procreate. Our overall cautious nature is a consequence of that and in the absence of natural predators, things like fear of poverty have replaced lions and bears.

A study conducted on Wall Street found that a stock that tanks after an investor takes a risk on it hurts more than the equivalent joy of a stock taking off. This means that our brains make unpleasant experiences connected to failure more chemically painful so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes in the future.

This doesn’t mean you should drain your bank account and bet it all on risky pursuits, but it does mean that your brain is a bit of a conformist. So when you’re faced with a decision that could change things or keep them the same, it’s good to keep in mind that the brain much prefers routine and stability. But you don’t have to.

So what can we do about all of this?

If you’ve been reading our blog for a little while, then you already know that new research about how to handle our minds comes out all the time. The most recent useful articles we’ve been able to gather on the topic show that examining our past failures can actually reduce future stress, make us perform better, and help us avoid failure in the future. Common sense agrees that learning from our past failures makes us stronger, and so do many psychologists. We’ll even bet that the most common advice you give to your friends when they face failure is to learn and move on.

But why is it so hard to address failure within ourselves?

Studies about failure have shown that it’s a particularly difficult emotion to fight off. For instance, failure makes our goals seem less attainable and distorts our perception of our own abilities, knocks our confidence, is frequently transmitted from our parents, causes self-sabotage, and can affect you after just one experience with failure.

The brain, we repeat, is very risk-averse. Failed? Great, back to your cave.

Most articles about failure focus on motivation, which isn’t always the best thing when you’re wallowing in despair as a result of your latest messup. Incessant motivation can be intimidating and exhausting. Yes, someone’s failure is another person’s success. Yes, you only lose when you quit. But also, there’s a more straight-forward, science-backed way to deal with failure fallout.

The healthiest way to deal with failure psychologically is to focus on the manageable factors. Separate the parts of your failure that are within your control to the ones that aren’t. Make two columns on a piece of paper if you want to. Look at the ones that you control and find out what you could do to improve. Think about acquiring knowledge, planning, preparation, relationships, and more. The fear of failure can be minimised if you take control of the aspects of failure that can be influenced. And remember, simply defeating the fear of failure is a huge step towards success.

Now, some homework for those of you who want to get deeper into this topic:

This article with a lovely selection of books about failure:

A few brilliant tips from the British Psychological Society:

And BBC Worklife’s take on the matter:

We hope that we’ve made failure a little more (theoretically) accessible to you today. If you’re after some more advice, hop on over to our 1-Minute Mental Fitness podcast on Spotify and get tips from our community. Like Aidan’s advice on non-negotiable cold showers:

We’ll come back next week with some new new news about the mind. Till then…

Do more for your mind.