Overcoming the Fear of Failure


This is a topic I see very often in clinical practice. Not only that, but it affects everyone at one point in their lives. When I am working on skills with my clients who are able to vocalize and express these fears, I see a pattern inherent to everyone who has ever encountered something new. In Applied Behavior Analytic research, sometimes we like to operationalize this phenomenon as “aversion”, or “presentation of an aversive novel stimulus”. Whatever we call it, it is the same thing. Engaging in something new and uncomfortable in a goal directed way is a challenge that we have to confront. Clinically, I prefer to have the individual guide their own process and become aware of their own specific aversions and behaviors. It makes the practice of confronting these stimuli as self-initiated, and self-guided as possible.

I prefer the word confront because it has a better ring to it than “desensitization”. When it comes to coming face to face with a stimulus or situation where we have to either perform or adapt, confront just seems to carry the operant theme more than the passive “desensitizing”. Failure is a scary and aversive thing.  We can define it as a condition where our operant behaviors are unsuccessful. Efforts which are not reinforced. It’s perfectly natural to want to avoid a contingency with no reinforcement. When we face something we are afraid of, or a new situation where we might not be sure we can succeed; we are facing that fear of failure. Maybe it is a fear of not being able to complete a required activity of success, or putting yourself out there socially and being received amiably. There is something universally human to that kind of hesitation. In ABA we call that an “escape-maintained” behavior, and when the behavior serves no real purpose to protect us, it tends to hold us back. When failure is that fear, then we tend not to even try.

In clinical practice, be it Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) or any other Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) the advice is all the same; it takes presentation (and sometimes repeated presentation) of that stimulus in a controlled situation until that aversive situation becomes neutral. This is called controlled exposure. That is where the real progress happens. When someone meets that situation, faces it, and can come through the other side fearing it less (or finding it less aversive), it is a step in the right direction. You may also hear the term “graduated exposure”, which denotes the concept of fading in stimuli or related stimuli in from least to most in order to acclimate in steps. A common example is if someone is scared of spiders or animals, they would be shown a picture first across the room, and gradually get closer to the picture before moving on to any examples of the real deal. Habituation is the term commonly used for becoming used to something, to the point where the stimulus becomes tolerable, if not neutral.

These same principles can be used when actively trying to overcome a fear of failure too. Generally, we come across things that are new to us. These can be either unconditioned stimuli (things we are “naturally” fearful of) and conditioned stimuli (things we have learned to be fearful of). Public speaking in front of large groups is an example of an unconditioned stimulus (for some, but it can be conditioned for others) while taking tests is a common example of a conditioned stimulus. Both present a challenge that we have to act on (engage in operant behavior) in order to be reinforced. Be it someone you are helping in clinical practice, or yourself, you can use these same foundational principles of graduated exposure. If the situation is not reinforcing in itself, keep in mind that you can always improvise your own reinforcement (reward) in order to make adapting easier. Using reinforcement alongside challenging situations can make them less aversive through a process called conditioning. The act of practicing this process on yourself is called self-management.


Consider these steps when trying to formulate your own graduated exposure:

  1. Find the situation which you feel is important to engage in or achieve (Target).
  2. Break it down into it’s smallest components (Task Analysis). 
  3. Pinpoint which part, exactly, is causing the most aversion or fear (Aversive Stimulus). 
  4. Document, to the best of your ability, the behaviors you engage in along the way (Data Recording/Self-Monitoring). Do these behaviors help, or do they hinder? 
  5. Practice engaging with a facsimile or similar situation where the stimulus or stakes are not so high (ie. If public speaking is the target try practicing a speech in front of 1 person first). 
  6. Reinforce (reward) any toleration or approximation of success! This is the most important step. 
  7. Gradually shape these practice simulations to simulate the “real” objective as closely as possible. 
  8. Do not rush it. Challenge yourself, but be mindful that this is a process, not a race.

Take it slow. Document everything you can. Learn. Improve. The process is where the fear of failure is overcome. Often it takes more than one contact with the situation to get accustomed. I’ve used this process on myself more times than I can count. As a person who has found large exams, public speaking to crowds, public competition, and even engagement in new and unfamiliar situations; the end-goal is all the same. It is something that is worth facing because the outcome is a socially important, or beneficial to us. The aversion, or fear, is not helpful or adaptive. Facing these situations and designing the process oneself is empowering.

Self-Management is one of the greatest strategies in ABA. If someone can find a way to manage their own behavior successfully then it is the ideal situation. Self-monitoring and self-management also have the unique bonus of being able to handle what Behaviorists call “covert behaviors” (thoughts, etc). Covert behaviors are things that are not visible to outside observers but are still able to be tracked and recorded by the person experiencing them. Accuracy and specificity is important here, and can vastly improve a personal insight into their own patterns of behavior. This doesn’t have to be a single person job either! Even though someone can monitor their own behavior, they can also bring trusted friends/family/cooperators into the process of reinforcement and help to keep them on track.

Independence, and knowledge about yourself, while overcoming a challenge.

What could be better?


Comments? Questions? Leave them below!



  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Wood, S. E., Wood, E. R., & Wood, E. R. (1996). The world of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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