Working with a Fear of Failure in Clients

Uncategorized Feb 25, 2020

Are you working with a client that has a fear of failure?

You're not alone. If it's one thing I've learned through coaching, it's that most people have a fear of failure in some shape or form. 

I also have personal experience of this – coaches, we are not immune!

For me, my fear of failure shows up as risk avoidance. I am incredibly good at avoiding risk, it’s one of my core strengths!!!!

Let me share a little more, so you can see how your client stories may look.

I've always found school easy. I studied and worked hard but I never really struggled with education. Good job really as I don’t think I’d have been very good at it!

I can remember being very calculating about my studies. I'd chose subjects that I knew I'd do well in, rather than the ones that I enjoyed the most. 

When it came to applying to University I only applied to ones that I knew I’d get the grades for, rather than striving for the Uni I wanted to go to the most and taking a risk. Then, once at Uni I applied the same logic and chose my course options based on which exams I knew I could pass well. My goal was to get a first, and so I chose a path that would lead me there. 

Fast forward the clock a number of years and this pattern continued. I applied for jobs that I was confident I could get, I set goals that I knew I could achieve. Effort was always required but not so much effort that I’d risk not achieving it.

So where is the line between a goal being achievable and it being too safe?

​Through coaching I have been able to recognise and address my fear of failure.  By working with my values I recognised that to get a sense of achievement I needed to take courage. I had to get comfortable with failure, because I wanted to set myself some big goals, that were risky.

I realise today that failure is all in the mind. It's what we take from our experience that counts. 

​When I sit and reflect on “What was it about failure that I didn’t like?” I think for me, failure wasn’t something I was used to. I didn’t really know what to do with it.

Throughout schooling I became regarded as a high achiever and I took this on as an identity. Failing didn’t fit with that identity. So through coaching I needed to disassociate failure with my identify and learn that I can still be a high achiever, even where I may make mistakes, or land short of my goals.

Failure is a “first attempt in learning” (FAIL) and it’s simply learning what else you need to do to make your goals a reality.

So, failure is just a perspective.

Here’s some things I’ve learnt through working with clients, that may help you in your coaching.

1) Help your clients Identify what they are afraid of

In coaching, when a fear of failure crops up, I'm always interested in what it is about failure that they actually fear.

For example, is it about letting people down? Who exactly?

Perhaps your client is scared of letting themselves down – what does this mean exactly? What would have to happen for them to let themselves down? How realistic is it that they will do that? Are they not letting themselves down anyway by letting fear get in the way?

Challenge the fear, your aim here is to enable the client to doubt their fear and beliefs about failure.

2) Enable a growth mindset

A growth mindset is a mindset that enables people to learn from experience and apply it.

In order to achieve anything, you need to be able to learn, adapt and grow.

Clients can often come to coaching with an unconscious expectation of things being easy, or possible first time. None of us should expect to be able to achieve success without any form of practice of perseverance.

Encourage your clients to take the learning from their mistakes. Help them to reflect back over previous experiences and see it again through their adult, present day eyes. There is always new insight and fresh perspective to be learned.

3) Break it down

Fear of failure often gets in the way when the goal is too big.

Imagine a mountain climber that has a goal to climb Mt Everest. Do you think they can achieve this goal without a training plan or any practice walks?

Any large goal needs to be broken down into a series of smaller manageable steps. And as a coach, you're going to be a great help to your client as they try to do this.

A vision is great, but a vision is of something in the future. Clients need to know what they'll be doing next week and the week after that contributes to making their vision a reality.

4) Get real

What’s real and what’s just in your clients head?

Let’s look at a really common fear of a client not taking on an opportunity because they’re afraid they might mess it up.

Help the client to see it from an outside perspective; What’s your track record? How likely are you to fundamentally mess it up? What would failure actually look like? How could you mitigate it?

Explore your clients self doubt and self talk. Help them to see that self doubt and self talk isn’t necessarily factual or real.

Exploring multiple perspectives helps your client to access more choices.

5) Get inspired by ‘other failures’

If failure is an ongoing challenge to your client, invite them to indulge in people's failures.

Failure is just an event or a circumstance, it is not a characteristic.

Invite your client to look up some people who in the traditional sense ‘failed’ before they made it to ‘success’. 

Encourage them to speak to friends, families and peers to get a broader perspective on failure and how other people experience it.

A good reframe to use here is that if you never fail then you aren’t aiming high enough. Challenge your client to set a goal which they are almost certain to fail because it is so far beyond where they are now. They are likely to land much closer to that goal then they think.

So there you have it, some thoughts, reflection and insights around working with a fear of failure.

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