Recently, I was hanging out with a bunch of people I met through a mutual friend. They were all in their 30s, educated, well-mannered.
But one thing stood out to me:
They were racked with self-doubt. While I was excitedly chatting away about new opportunities and ventures, all I kept hearing were excuses as to why they would never be able to do those things.
I was really surprised, but it got me thinking about the subtle ways in which people display a fear of failure.
Here are 10 phrases to look out for:
1) “I’m not sure I’m good enough.”
It’s sad to hear someone say this phrase, but it’s a pretty telling sign of how they feel about themselves.
They don’t have self-confidence. They’re unsure of their abilities. And ultimately, they don’t feel they’re competent enough to get the job done.
When my friend saw a job opening perfectly suited to her skills, she said this. In response, I told her:
“Don’t base your value on your failures – you’re absolutely capable of nailing this job. You’ve got as good a chance as anyone else applying so don’t hold yourself back.”
Spoiler alert – she got the job.
2) “What if I mess up?”
“But what if you succeed?” This is how to respond to someone who’s afraid they’ll fail.
It’s natural to worry about making mistakes, but if someone is limiting their own opportunities it’s clear they have a fear of failure.
In this situation, you might want to share a few embarrassing failures on your part to remind them that it’s all a part of life.
And ultimately, if they do mess up, it’s a learning experience. Not something to beat themselves up over.
3) “I don’t want to embarrass myself.”
While I was with the group of people I mentioned in the introduction, I heard one of them say this phrase.
We were talking about how cool it’d be to do something creative; spoken word, stand-up comedy, or a flash mob.
When the young lady said that, I was taken aback. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be embarrassed just as much as the next person.
But I also believe in challenging myself. I tried to reassure her by saying:
“Just remember – even the most famous celebrity or well-known historian has made embarrassing mistakes. Just look at the politicians of today. It doesn’t stop them though, does it?”
4) “It’s just not worth the risk.”
Ah – when someone mentions this, you know they’ve got a fear of failure. Not to mention, a fear of taking risks.
They like to stay in their comfort zone where it’s warm, cozy, and safe.
They might not reach new heights in life, but hey, at least they’re not falling flat on their face.
The problem with this way of thinking, though, is without risk there’s no chance of success.
You could gently remind them of this by responding with:
“Often, the biggest rewards come from taking risks. What might you gain if things go right? Sometimes, the risk of regret from not trying is greater than the risk of trying and not succeeding.”
5) “I’ll probably just fail anyway.”
When someone writes themselves off before they’ve even tried, you know something’s up.
For whatever reason, they fear failure. They fear even trying. It’s almost like they’ve convinced themselves that they shouldn’t bother – they know already it’s not worth it.
This shows a complete lack of self-esteem and confidence.
In this situation, I’d say something along the lines of:
“Success is built on all those little failures. You owe it to yourself to at least give it a go, and even if it doesn’t work out, you can be proud that you tried.”
6) “I don’t have what it takes.”
This next phrase relates closely to the first one on the list; believing they lack the skills needed.
But as my mom always says:
“You don’t know what you have until you’re in the situation and you’ve got no other choice!”
I tend to remind people of this when they write themselves off. Because I’ve been there – doubting myself, feeling like a failure before I’ve even tried.
But thanks to her advice, I chased opportunities and accepted them when they came my way.
And each time, I find out more and more about what I DO have. It’s an eye-opening journey of self-discovery that we should encourage everyone to do for themselves.
7) “I should just stick to what I know.”
And never learn anything new?
There’s no doubt that if someone says this, they fear messing up. Again, they’re happy in their comfort zone.
But nothing great comes from the comfort zone. Life can never truly be experienced to the fullest if you stay in the same place forever.
If you hear someone say this, let them know that:
“Growth happens when you get out of your comfort zone. I’ll be here to support you, don’t worry.”
8) “I’m not ready yet.”
If someone keeps saying they’re not ready yet, take it as a major sign that they’re afraid of failure.
And believe me, they’ll make any excuse to put it off.
Take my brother springs to mind. Looking at him, he seems quite confident. But it’s been his dream for years to live abroad in Australia or New Zealand.
He has all the qualifications. Hits all the criteria. No kids or wife. Supportive parents and sister.
Yet for the last 4 years, he’s never been “ready”. Hopefully, whoever you’re dealing with is less stubborn than my brother, and when you tell them:
“You might never feel 100% ready for new challenges. Sometimes, you have to start before you feel ready because that’s how you get ready.”
I hope they listen!
9) “I can’t handle failing again.”
Ah, I sympathize with this phrase. I’ve used it (mainly when leaving toxic relationships in the past). I used it as an excuse to stay single.
But as a good friend told me:
“What if the next time isn’t a failure? What if it turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to you, and you passed up on it because of fear?”
That advice actually led me to meet my now husband, and I’m so glad I listened to her.
So if someone in your life is “done” with failing, it won’t hurt to let them know that each failure is just a stepping stone towards success.
If all the actors, writers, and musicians out there gave up after the first couple of hurdles, none of them would be where they are now.
10) “Things like this never work out for me.”
When someone uses this phrase, it shows they’ve been stung in the past.
Maybe they’ve tried and tried but it’s just never worked out for them. Now, they’re afraid to try again.
Empathy will be your friend in this case:
Let them talk. Let them know they’re not alone in feeling this way.
But ultimately, remind them that just because something didn’t work out in the past, they shouldn’t let that determine their future.
“I understand that in the past it didn’t work out, but you’ve grown as a person since then. Who’s to say it won’t work out this time around?”
This might give them the boost of hope they desperately needed.
So, we’ve now covered 10 phrases that people with a fear of failure often use. I hope the tips above help you respond appropriately, and remember – rebuilding confidence and self-esteem takes time.
They might not listen the first time, but if you continue supporting them, they may start believing they’re capable at some point, and trust me, it’ll be worth the wait to see that day.