Overcoming fear of failure 

Fear of failure, also known as performance anxiety or atychiphobia, is common in children and adults with ADHD. Most people with ADHD or high sensitivity know very well what fear of failure feels like. When we suffer from fear of failure, we are afraid of not doing things well (enough). Perfectionism and fear of failure often go hand in hand. It may cause us to avoid any activity that has the potential for an unsuccessful outcome. Because of this, we're scared to try new things, take risks or embrace growth.

Do you, as an adult with ADHD, suffer from performance anxiety or fear of failure? Then you're in the right place. Here, we share all our tips to overcome fear of failure.

What is fear of failure?

Fear of failure is a form of fear that arises when we have to perform. There are all kinds of areas in which we can experience performance anxiety. Stage fright, sexual performance anxiety, test-taking anxiety, interview anxiety and athletic performance anxiety are some examples. Some people feel fearful to fail in social interactions, job interviews or in relationships. Driving tests, school exams and work are also common areas where performance anxiety arises. This anxiety can be related to the ability to perform any task.

Fear of failure might be more common in people who suffer from ADHD, autism, giftedness or HSP. But don't worry, because we can overcome fear of failure and improve our self-esteem.

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What is the root of fear of failure in ADHD?

Performance anxiety in ADHD is mainly caused by negative thoughts about ourselves. Mostly, these thoughts are the result of negative or even traumatic experiences in the past. We might have failed in our studies, work, or we have struggled with our personal relationships. Or we completely blacked-out during presentations in the past, screwed up relationships, our finances or made a complete mess in our household.

But fear of failure in ADHD might also be caused by family history and learned behavior. When we grow up in an environment where people taught us that failure was unacceptable or that anything less than perfect was equal to failure, we might have adopted those beliefs.

The self-fulfilling prophecy

Fear of failure often becomes self-fulfilling. When we are so scared to fail our driving exam, we might show up late, not show up at all or show up very nervous. As a result, we fail the driving test, which enhances our fear of failure. Or, when we are fearful of being good enough in a relationship, we might behave in a way that is not healthy for the relationship. We are what we think. If we think we're not good enough, we might behave in ways that are not good indeed, just to confirm our own belief.

In people with ADHD, it's not uncommon that fear of failure lead to a broad range of psychological and emotional problems, such as shame, depression, panic attacks, low self-esteem and anxiety. It can also negatively affect how we interact with friends and family, and therefore negatively impact our relationships.

What story do you tell yourself?

Most people who suffer from fear of failure struggle with low self-esteem and tell themselves a negative story about who they are and what they are able to do.

“I'll screw it up again”, “I'll black out again during that presentation”, “I'm not smart enough for…” are examples of thoughts that children and adults with ADHD can have. If you're on the path to overcome fear of failure, it is important to learn to convert negative thoughts into helpful thoughts. We can learn to tell ourselves a different story.

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Overcoming fear of failure in ADHD, 10 tips

Solving and overcoming fear of failure with ADHD is not difficult, but we have to put time and effort in it. Changing a habit takes time, and overcoming fear of failure does too. We need to change the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are capable of. The following tips can help us overome fear of failure.

Tip 1: Telling ourselves we are allowed to make mistakes

Many people who suffer from fear of failure have the idea that they should not make mistakes. But we cannot learn without making mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. So see mistakes as a standard part of our learning and growing process. Making mistakes is not only allowed, it is essential. Do you have a fear of failure during a driving test or school exam? Ask yourself how bad it would be if you don't make it in one sitting. Do you have to give a presentation? How bad would it be if things didn't go as well as you'd hoped?

Embrace a new belief: making mistakes is essential in life. Mistakes are our best teacher.

Tip 2: Overcome fear of failure, let go of perfectionism

“Perfection is the enemy of progress” – Winston Churchill

“Don't let perfect be the enemy of good” – Voltaire

If we want to combat fear of failure, we have to let go of perfectionism. We don't have to be perfect. There is no such thing as perfect, and in many cases “good” is good enough. We do not always have to get an A, with a B, we also pass that exam. Also, remember the 20/80 rule (the Pareto principle). In many cases, we can get 80% of the result with only 20% of the effort. 

That presentation doesn't need to be perfect. We don't have to convince our colleagues, friends and partner that we are perfect, because they aren't perfect either.

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Imperfect is beautiful too

Tip 3: Prepare yourself

If we have an exam coming up, an important meeting, or something else that we're nervous about, it's worth it to prepare it well. We can practice the conversation with a friend, or with ourselves. By practicing, we have something to fall back on, and we don't have to improvise on the spot. 

Tip 4: Focus on what is going well

The strange thing about performance anxiety is that we always feel that we will fail, no matter the circumstances and no matter our preparation. Someone who suffers from fear of failure also feels this when doing something they're actually really good at.

There is therefore a good chance that this fear of failure, you are experiencing, is unjustified.

We're not always failing, and it's important to look at the things that we succeeded at. We can celebrate our successes, and focus on them. It might be worth it to keep a ‘success journal'. Whenever we feel fear of failure arising again, we can read this and see how much we have to offer. Doing things we know we can do, can also help here. This way, we build a track record of successes and this enhances our self-confidence.

Tip 5: Changing our beliefs

In our daily lives we are often guided by our beliefs. “I can't sing”, “I'm bad at physics”, “I'm not good enough”. That little voice in our head can be really mean. If it had been a friend who spoke to you like that, you would probably said goodbye to that person long ago. But this is you, saying those things to yourself.

Beliefs can be very strong. But… they are not ‘real'. They are just a belief. We cannot grasp a belief. It is something that we bring upon ourselves. That realization is quite annoying, but it also offers opportunities. We can change our beliefs. By applying tip 4 for example, we turn the conviction “I can't do anything” to “I can do quite a bit” and then to “I can actually do quite a lot” to “I am good enough”.

To become conscious about the limiting beliefs we have about ourselves, we can make a list of the mean things we say to ourselves. As a result, we will be able to recognize when those limiting beliefs show up, and we might start seeing that they are not really true. Then we can reverse these mean, negative things we say to ourselves into positive and helpful beliefs. Writing them down is extremely powerful. This is not an easy exercise, but it works well, if we take the time for it.

Tip 6: Meditation and breathing exercises, to master our fear of failure

There is no doubt that our brain and our body are strongly connected, this is scientifically proven. With physical exercises, we can influence the way we feel. But meditation might be an even more powerful tool. Fear of failure has direct consequences for the biological processes in your body. When the fear of failure strikes, we become short of breath, and we start to breathe faster. Our blood pressure rises, and the heart starts beating faster. Fear of failure evokes a flight-or-fight response. This releases substances that trigger a kind of panic reaction in our brain. In most cases, fight or flight is not the right response. Through breathing exercises, we calm our body and our mind.

Also, meditation helps us to observe our thoughts, rather than directly seeing them as truth and acting on them. All thoughts are welcome, but we don't necessarily have to do something with them. They are not necessarily true. Breathing exercises as well as other forms of meditation are effective when the fear of failure strikes, and if we do this regularly we will suffer less and less from performance anxiety.

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Tip 7: overcome your fear of failure by living a healthy life

Nutrition is extremely important when it comes to our mental health, is our experience. Especially for people with ADHD or who suffer from high sensitivity. Some food or drinks might make us nervous or even anxious, like coffee, processed sugar and spicy food. But other types of food also have an influence on ADHD-symptoms. Here, you'll find some of our favourite nutritious ADHD meals.

Sleep and exercise are also important when you, as an adult with ADHD, suffer from fear of failure. Because when we sleep well and exercise regularly, we feel more healthy, calm, rested and have enough energy to take good care of our body and our mind.

When we take good care of ourselves, we will start feeling better about ourselves. Our self-confidence will rise.

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Tip 8: Natural supplements that could help to alleviate fear of failure

Living a healthy lifestyle is essential to keep the body and mind calm, for most people with ADHD. Nutrition, meditation and healthy habits have a big influence on how we feel. But our anxiety and fear of failure doesn't suddenly disappear when we start eating better and adopting new habits. This takes time. Do you feel fearful and anxious on a regular basis? Then, a calming natural supplement like valerian, GABA, Passion flora, magnesium ashwagandha or L-theanine might help.

Some people take Valium to calm down, but there are natural alternatives available that are not addictive.

Tip 9: Be kind to yourself

Are you kind to yourself and do you treat yourself like you would treat your best friend or your child? Or are you having high expectations of yourself and are you telling yourself all the time that you are worthless? The fear of failure sometimes looks a bit like a bad, angry boss, who is yelling at you and telling you that you're doing it all wrong.

Fire that angry boss in your mind and replace him with an uplifting coach or friend. A good coach does not cover everything with the mantle of love, but helps you to see things clearly with kindness. Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend. Be kind to yourself, dare to be vulnerable. As Brené Brown says, “You're not perfect. You are full of struggles. But you are worthy of love and belonging.”

You can practice being kind to yourself in different ways. For example, take a lovely bath, book a message or treat yourself to something else you long for. But also tell yourself everything is fine when you made a mistake, and that you're still loved and good enough.

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Tip 10: Don't take life too seriously

A lot of people with ADHD, including myself, take life way too seriously. But why are we doing this? We can take life way more lightly. Live, laugh, play, sing, find things we can enjoy. Because the more we can enjoy the beautiful things in life, the more resilient we become. And the more resilient we are, the weaker the fear of failure can hold us in its grip.

And even if we fail… this is not the end of the world. Everyone fails sometimes. Life is trial and error. I always try to enjoy the process, which includes failure.

Overcome fear of failure? Success starts with the first step

Hopefully, our tips have inspired you to start combating your fear of failure, and to overcome it. Don't expect yourself now to immediately start work with everything you just read. I know, as an adult with ADHD, this might be what you want to do. But ask yourself what tip(s) resonated mostly with you? Take small steps, and be kind to yourself in the process. 🙂

We would love to hear from you, so if you'd wish to share your experience, please do so in the comments!

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