Atychiphobia (from the Ancient Greek ‘tuchè’, meaning ‘luck’ or ‘chance’, and the negating prefix ‘a-‘, together meaning ‘misfortune’), or fear of failure as we know it, seems a universal phenomenon. I’m sure, however, that you too have come across people who seem fearless and ready to jump in, in spite of the – in your eyes – obvious risk of failure. In fact, psychological theories such as the ‘need achievement theory’ suggest that people vary in the extent to which they go looking for success, and in the extent to which they will avoid failure at all costs.
According to psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh from the University of Western Sydney, Australia, this means that people generally fit into one of three categories: those who are success-oriented (optimistic, proactive and filled with renewed vigor in the face of a setback), those who are failure-avoidant (very motivated to succeed, but also anxious and very much negatively affected by a setback), and those who are failure-accepting (those who have given up on trying to avoid failure altogether, unmotivated and lacking resilience).But what makes us fall into one of those categories at any one point in our lives?
Psychologists’ work with people who experience atychiphobia suggests that a number of types of early life experience may contribute to the development of fear of failure, rendering them so-called risk factors.
Firstly, it seems that childhood experiences may play a large role in whether or not you’ll be fearful of failure in later life. Overprotective parents might have their kid’s best interest at heart, but can also ultimately prevent a child from feeling confident in its own abilities, leading to a fear of doing anything without support from others at a later point in life. Alternatively, perfectionist parents who scold their child for a less-than-perfect result on their first attempt at something will can lead to the child developing a similar lack of self-confidence, feeling that nothing they do is good enough.
Then there’s factors pertaining to the way you function and process. For instance, people may be perfectionists themselves (which may in some cases be related to upbringing), demanding only the best from themselves, and thus setting themselves up for a self-imposed humiliation when failure eventually befalls them. Another risk-factor is at play when people over-personalize failure, seeing it as a defining feature of themselves, rather than looking at aspects of the attempt that are likely to have played a large role in the outcome, and are in all probability easy to address.
Whatever our history, we need to remember that whenever we see confident people around us succeeding at whatever they do, true confidence does not lie in knowing that success is certain, but in knowing that we’ll be able to handle failure when it happens.
Martin, A., & Marsh, H. (2003). Fear of failure: Friend or foe? Australian Psychologist, 38(1), 31-38. doi:10.1080/00050060310001706997