What is fear of failure?

Fear of failure (atychiphobia) is a paralysing feeling which you experience in a situation where performance really counts or when there is great pressure to do well.

We all have this fear occasionally, but sometimes we can be so concerned with this emotion that it brings about the very failure that was feared. This fear can be so strong that it leads to putting off risks, putting off tasks, not using talents and to undermining success. For some of us the fear of failing becomes so overwhelming that it can prevent us from getting on with and enjoying our lives.

What causes fear of failure? (or, why high achievers fail…)

Every strength can become a weakness; every talent contains an opposite. The academic environment sets high standards and wants you to exploit all your capacities. In this environment you may sometimes fear you will not succeed; when that emotion becomes too big it can undermine your goal.

There are many triggers for this feeling; common are perfectionism (too high expectations from you or your environment), clinging on too long to old habits (which were successful in the past) or simply because you believe that failure was unthinkable (the unexpected and sudden notion paralyzes you).
Focusing on the bad things that could happen fuels the fear of failure. For example, if you worry about doing poorly you might have thoughts like, “What if I forget to use theory x”, or “what if my writing is not critical enough”? Too many thoughts like these leave no mental space for thinking positively about your thesis and create a vicious negative circle.

The more you focus on the bad things that could happen, the stronger the feeling of anxiety becomes. This makes you feel worse and, because your head is full of distracting thoughts and fears, it will influence your productivity in the very end.

What are the symptoms?

When you are in a stressful situation your heart beats faster and you breathe quicker, it is your body’s primitive response to a perceived attack, the fight-or-flight-reaction.

This is the physical response, other symptoms that show you are suffering from this fear:

  • In case you feel reluctant to venture into new aspects of your thesis (example: instead of writing you keep looking for more articles)
  • Refusal to get involved in difficult projects (example: you do all kind of tasks but postpone working on the thesis)
  • Self-sabotage (example: excessive delay of plans, because you have rescheduled meetings with your supervisor you find it hard to establish contact again)
  • Lack of self-confidence and very low self-esteem, you harbour negative feelings towards your own self like “I will not be able to do this”, etc.

How to manage the fear of failure?

We learn many positive things from making mistakes. Mistakes are not the equivalent of ‘failing’. Not immediately succeeding in what we want, can be seen as good in two ways: it teaches us valuable lessons (how to change things, so that we don’t repeat the same again) and it also makes us stronger by adding to our inner resources.

You can take several action steps to manage your fail of failure by navigating the toggles below.

Accept Your Fear

This is the most important thing you can do for yourself. Failure in life is inevitable. It’s not possible for you to be amazing at something immediately. It’s not possible for you to achieve everything you want to achieve immediately. It takes time. It takes work.


Since fear of failure immobilizes you, in order to overcome it, you need to take action. Do something! Action gives you the ability to change the circumstances that hold you back.

Keep At It

Ask any successful person and they’ll tell you they didn’t succeed after their first attempt. If you give up, failure is inevitable. But if you keep on trying, you’ll eventually get there. Whenever you feel yourself letting your fear of failure get the best of you, just ask yourself, “What would I attempt if I knew I couldn’t fail?”

Treat Failure as a Learning Opportunity

Being successful is all about learning what doesn’t work for you. Once you know what doesn’t work, you can improve on the circumstance and eventually find what does work.

Keep Believing

Believe in yourself! Know that you can do this. Know that you will do this.

Use relaxation techniques

Engage in deep breathing for 2-5 minutes. Close your eyes and concentrate on the air going in and out of your lungs. Take long, deep breaths, fill your lungs and abdomen, hold your breath, and then exhale slowly. The belly goes up and down, it goes up when inhaling and goes down when exhaling. Tense and relax different muscle groups. For example, if your shoulders are tense pull them back and hold them for a few seconds, then relax. This will help you to be aware of the relaxation of muscles and help you to relax more. Engage in guided imagery for a few minutes. Pick a scene that you find peaceful, beautiful, and natural. Think about what you see, what you hear, what you feel and what you smell while in this scene.

General tips

  • When we feel afraid that we will fail at something, there are a few things we could do to gain a different perspective.
  • Remember how you managed to get through the last ‘failure’ you experienced. Expect that you will sometimes fail.
  • When you do fail, embrace it. Turn the failure into a positive by figuring out where you went wrong, then applying what you learned to your next endeavour.
  • Consider whether you could lower your standards and still feel ‘OK’ about your result?
  • Think about exactly why you are afraid to fail. Is it more about failing yourself, or failing those around you – parents? friends? supervisor?
  • When you are fazed by the hugeness of a task, break it down into manageable pieces.

Get support

Seek help early! Sometimes simply talking through a problem can help you find a solution. Pick people whom you know will be sympathetic, will listen and encourage you. Student psychologists can offer short-term counselling and are specialised in fear of failure linked to student issues.

Available workshops at Maastricht University

The Student Services Centre has a wide range of training, workshops and lectures available that can help you with your studies. Take a look at their website for more information, for example on the Fear of failure training.