An Understanding of Atychiphobia (Fear of Failing)

Updated on May 22, 2019
Lorna Lamon profile image

Lorna is a qualified psychologist and writer with an interest in drawing awareness to and informing others of mental health issues.

Atychiphobia is classified as a specific phobia, characterised by the irrational, persistent and unwarranted fear of failure. Commonly linked to anxiety disorder and mood disorder, it is a mental condition which also causes a range of physical symptoms in response to the possibility of failure. This fear of failure usually stems from the person’s extreme lack of confidence in themselves and their abilities, with severity of the disorder ranging from mild to extreme. In its most severe form the person can become completely paralysed, making it impossible to carry out simple everyday tasks. Consequently, this extreme fear prevents the person ever achieving their true potential because, sadly, they are too afraid to try.

Causes

Atychiphobia has significantly increased during the last 15 years and varies from country to country. There isn’t a definitive cause for atychiphobia, however, it is most commonly related to a traumatic or embarrassing event or series of events in the past. Varying from person to person, these life experiences are thought to have caused a deep-rooted fear that failing is the worst thing you can do, and, similar to other phobias, are usually formed in childhood. Research has shown that parents who were too demanding created the negative belief that failure is not an option. It can also be the result of learned behaviour from a parent or sibling. Once the belief is formed, it keeps on growing like a tumour as the child becomes older, resulting in the person never reaching their full potential. To date, scientific evidence has shown that it may be caused by certain malfunctions in the brain; however, at present, this is only a theory and requires more research.

We have all experienced a fear of failing at some stage in our lives, and I can personally relate to the moment I received my exam results and found out I had failed my maths exam (never a strong point of mine), and how disappointed I was in myself. However, I repeated the exam and scraped through, ultimately getting over that feeling of failure. Even though it was a stressful time, I used the experience as positive feedback in how to cope and not worry needlessly about failing in the future. Unfortunately, for those people who suffer with atychiphobia, this feeling becomes a real fear which does not go away, entrenching them in a cycle which constantly revolves around a fear of failure. Many are motivated to avoid failing at all costs or never even trying because of the deep shame they feel if they do fail. Penetrating to the very core of their being, ego and self-esteem, shame is a psychologically toxic emotion whose damaging effects can last a lifetime.

Symptoms

The symptoms of atychiphobia are dependent on the severity of the condition, however, the more extreme the severity the more difficult it will be for the person to carry out daily tasks at home, school or work. Symptoms are often a combination of physical and emotional, usually triggered when the person is thinking about those situations where they might fail. Symptoms include:

Physical

  • Sweating
  • Digestive distress
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unusually fast heart rate
  • Muscle tension

Emotional

  • Feeling powerless over the fear
  • Feeling detached
  • Feelings of intense anxiety
  • Panic attack
  • The need to escape a situation which triggers the fear
  • Thinking you may faint

Self-Handicapping

Those people who have a severe form of atychiphobia often sabotage themselves. They are so afraid of failing that they subconsciously undermine their own efforts so that they no longer have to continue to try. Sadly, they would rather fail by not trying at all than to risk failure after putting in lots of effort. This unwillingness to try will hold the person back from realising their true potential and having a meaningful life.

Perfectionism

People who suffer with atychiphobia are often perfectionists with the need for everything in their lives to be orderly and perfect. As Type A personalities they are entirely focused on succeeding, and many struggle with the thought of failure. Atychiphobia may, in fact, be a result of this need in their lives for perfection.

Learned Helplessness

Atychiphobia takes away a person’s control over their own lives, with many believing that they simply are not capable of overcoming the phobia and living a meaningful life. Withdrawing and isolating themselves from any activities where failing is likely, or blaming things which are outside their control, is known as an internal and external locus of control. The person is afraid of the unpredictability of life and has developed this coping mechanism of helplessness to justify the fear.

Effects

It’s worth remembering that atychiphobia is a phobia and, like most sufferers who have phobias, they are a devastating aspect of their life which diminishes their quality of life. The effects of atychiphobia include:

  • Depression: Due to the negative effects of the condition, many sufferers will develop anxiety and depression. If left untreated, depression can lead to learned helplessness.
  • Substance abuse: In order to stop the constant thoughts playing over and over in their mind, many sufferers turn to alcohol and drug use to block out the intrusive thoughts. Sadly, many become addicted, often suffering with paranoia.
  • Suicide: Due to the severity of the condition and its debilitating effects, people who suffer with atychiphobia are more likely to commit suicide.
  • Isolation: Rather than attending those places they fear, some sufferers will socially isolate themselves, resulting in relationship, professional and educational issues.

Diagnosis

There are no proven tests to diagnosis if a person is suffering with atychiphobia; therefore, identifying the condition is made through a series of questions regarding the person’s history and clinical background. Symptoms of atychiphobia have to be present for at least six months, and questions will not only relate to self-recognition of the fear but will also address the person’s response to those situations that trigger fear, as well as the constant thoughts related to the anticipation of those situations which trigger fear.

Treatment

Therapy has the best outcome in the treatment of atychiphobia, and I feel it is important to find a therapist who specialises in this field or phobias in general. Assisting the person to overcome the fear of failure is not easy and is completely dependent on how determined and motivated the person is to make change. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has a high success rate in treating this condition.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

The extreme anxiety which accompanies atychiphobia imprisons the person in a vicious cycle of fear which is difficult to overcome. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is designed to enable the person to break this cycle by using the following counselling approach:

  • Relaxation and breathing control: By regularly practising relaxation through meditation and breath control, the stress caused to the body by chronic anxiety will gradually improve. Breathing slowly and deeply will also reduce symptoms of anxiety which can lead to panic attacks.
  • Cognitive therapy: The role that entrenched thinking patterns play in increasing the person’s level of anxiety is one which needs to be fully understood. Cognitive therapy will challenge the person to visit those thoughts which are having a negative influence in their life, and will assist them to change those negative thought patterns to positive thought patterns. This will not happen overnight and will take a lot of practice and perseverance, however, they will change.
  • Exposure: Gradual exposure to those situations or activities which the person formerly feared is an extremely important and necessary step. This technique can be quite confronting, therefore it is taken in small, manageable steps and only after the person has mastered anxiety management.

Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation

Yoga and mindfulness meditation are very useful tools in helping the person to understand the way the mind works, and yoga will create that much needed space where feelings of calmness can prevail.

Medication

Medication can be used to treat the anxiety associated with atychiphobia, however, this would only be in extreme cases as research has shown that medication only masks the symptoms, doing little to tackle the root cause of the condition.

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.

— Paulo Coelho

Self-Help Tips

The following tips can be used to reinforce those skills which the person will have already mastered during therapy, and will support and encourage them in their journey to recovery.

Break Complex Matters Down

Think about something you are passionate about and would never try because you think you would fail. Break this problem into manageable pieces; if one of those pieces fails then it is easier to see why, learn from it, and move on to the next piece. Ultimately, you will have started to take the first steps towards succeeding. In moving forward in this way, you will start to see failing as a positive experience and not one to be feared.

Growing Through Failure

Everyone fails at some point in their lives, and it is an inevitable part of life regardless of who you are. Try to embrace that fear through an understanding of what happened and how to correct it. Reinforce this knowledge on a daily basis and you will come to realise that the most important aspect of failing is the wisdom you will have gained, which ultimately gives you the strength to succeed.

The Power of Self-Belief

Belief in yourself can only be achieved through failure, and each failure will make you stronger and more resilient. This belief will allow you to view failure in a different light, resulting in your fear of failure becoming much smaller and has the added advantage of enabling you to take on even bigger challenges.

Surround Yourself with Positivity

This is so important and applies to not only people in your life, but also the environment you live in. If you surround yourself with people who only dwell on the negative side of life, then you will not be motivated to change and, in fact, they may even instil new fears in you. Find trusted others who can bolster your feelings of self-worth through empathy and reassurance. People who lift you up will create a safe environment for you to heal.

Changing Your Mind Set

Ultimately, it is not fear of failure itself that will hold you back, but rather the decisions you make because of that fear. Take charge of your life in a positive way by looking fear in the eye and realising that it has no place in your reality. As a result, you can begin to remove those fear-founded thoughts which will alleviate the negative feelings associated with them, resulting in the belief that those fears can be overcome. Having the ability to change your view on failure will reframe what it means to you in a positive way, enabling you to move forward and live life to the full.

Practice Meditation

Meditation is an excellent way to free the mind of all those thoughts which are causing anxiety and distress. It does take practice and commitment, however, the benefits you can reap from meditation are endless. As you become used to meditating you will recognise those thoughts which are keeping you back as just thoughts, and instead of becoming attached to them you will gradually be able to let them go. This awareness will enable you to move on with your life in a new and meaningful way.

Redefine Perfection for Progress

Many people who suffer with atychiphobia are perfectionists and unfortunately have unrealistic expectations of success and what it means to succeed. Try focusing on your progress where you will have many opportunities to learn, thereby reducing your ability to fail.

Final Thoughts

Being able to deal with and overcome that persistent fear of failure will be an ongoing work in progress. However, with perseverance, therapy and belief in yourself, it’s important to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Setting goals will help build confidence, which will enable you to evaluate all possible outcomes in a rational way, paving the way for change. As you take back control of your life, you will come to realise that the fear you gave power to no longer has any power over you.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Lorna Lamon

    Comments

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      • Lorna Lamon profile imageAUTHOR

        Lorna Lamon 

        7 weeks ago

        Hi Dora, Glad you enjoyed the article - having the ability to change your thought processes is crucial in overcoming fear.Thank you for visiting and commenting.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        7 weeks ago from The Caribbean

        Thanks for this detailed, information explanation of the cause, the effects and the suggested ways to handle fear. I find "the ability to change your view on failure" most helpful.

      • Lorna Lamon profile imageAUTHOR

        Lorna Lamon 

        7 weeks ago

        Hi Liz, This pressure to succeed is all too apparent in the world we live in today, and sadly this phobia can be the outcome. Very often it starts in childhood and of course exam pressure in school and other areas of their lives. I appreciate your comments.

      • Lorna Lamon profile imageAUTHOR

        Lorna Lamon 

        7 weeks ago

        Hi Pamela, Unfortunately I have seen an increase in this disorder due to the constant pressure to succeed. It is difficult to treat as it revolves around fear, however, it is possible to overcome this phobia and live a normal life.Thank you for commenting, I appreciate it.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        7 weeks ago from UK

        This is an informative and helpful article. The pressure to succeed is so intense that inevitably this phobia is increasing.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        7 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        This is a fascinating article, and I didn't even know there was a name for extreme fear of failure. It sounds awful. I know some parents put extreme pressure on their children to not only suceed, but to be perfect in every way. However, if the cause is unknown this must be only one aspect of this disorder. I always learn something by reading your articles. Thank you for sharing.

      • Lorna Lamon profile imageAUTHOR

        Lorna Lamon 

        7 weeks ago

        Hi Olusegun - Definitely thought provoking. Thanks for commenting.

      • OGUNDARE OLUSEGUN profile image

        OLUSEGUN 

        7 weeks ago from NIGERIA

        this is intriguing!

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