Psychologist suggests that this fear can be caused from a number of different reasons

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As a fellow reporter and I posed the question “What is your worst fear?” to people on the street, we noticed a trend. Many people had the same fear that their life would amount to nothing and this would ultimately mean they had failed.

Sara Tomlinson, a young woman from Calgary, explains her biggest fear.

“My biggest fear is not being something that is important to society and making a change in the world — I’m just going to be nothing. I personally want to be a counselor, therapist, so I think for me, (the biggest fear is) not making a change in the world, not doing my best to help other people out and help them get over their problems.”

Avra Davidoff a registered psychologist with a masters in psychology and career counseling specialization. She tells an interesting story about why the fear of failure takes priority over other fears in our lives.

Davidoff explains that when a few people were asked what they felt was the riskier option, skydiving/bungee jumping or changing their career, most people answered that changing their career was the most risky option. This was because if something went wrong while skydiving or bungee jumping, the fault would lie on the equipment or someone else. If a person were to fail at a career change, then the person is at fault.

Davidoff suggests that the fear of failure can come from many different sources. It can come from overprotective parents or experiences where a person was not given the opportunity to make mistakes or not allowed to feel that mistakes are normal. It can come from being around overly critical people in the early part of your life – people that highlighted or emphasized the things you don’t do well as opposed to the things you did. It can also come from a traumatic event, experience or mistake and in turn, it became embarrassing, especially if other people noticed.

With social media becoming a huge part of our lives today, Davidoff says she thinks social media has enhanced this fear.

“I think it’s magnified by society, especially with social media. Things that someone does well or not well is quickly communicated and so we’re aware of those consequences of our behaviour.”

This would seem to be true. Ask anyone who has trended on Twitter or Facebook about how quickly they were judged for their positive or negative actions.

Fear of failure can become unhealthy

Davidoff says that the fear of failure can become unhealthy and this happens when we tie our self-worth to our success.editedAvraDavidoff pic1Avra Davidoff, a Registered Psychologist at the Calgary Career Counselling offices, says the fear of failure can become unhealthy when we tie our self-worth to our success.

Photo by Nicole Auger

When a person is unable to separate their
self-worth or self-esteem from an experience where they failed at something, it becomes unhealthy because the person sees their
self-worth as the outcome of that failed experience.

“I think something that I often talk about with clients in terms of career or career success or career failure is that you’re a whole person and career is part of you. Is it realistic that career has to satisfy everything about you? And yet we put that expectation on one part of us and you’re already setting yourself up for failure, so to speak. So if you’re trying to avoid failure, you’ve already done it by doing that.”

Peter Kaltmerchek who is in his early thirties explains his biggest fear.

“Not being successful is a big one for sure, investing so much time into stuff whether it’s work or hobbies or interests, then failing at them afterwards.”

Davidoff says that a part of what we think is successful can be explained in what we define as success.

“I think sometimes the other problem with the fear of failure is that we hold other people’s ideas of success as our compass, rather then taking the time to discern and reflect on what is our idea of success.”

Imposter phenomenon, social comparison and other factors

The imposter phenomenon can also be another factor in the fear of failure. This phenomenon as described by Davidoff, is typically found in high achievers. These people usually believe they’re faking their success because in whatever career they may be in, they may feel that they don’t really know what they’re doing or that people are going to figure out that they don’t know what they’re doing.

“It’s really common for students when they graduate or when they go into practicum and they feel like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, someone is really going to find out what I’m up to and what I’m all about and they’re going to call me on it.’”

This then can stretch into people thinking about social comparisons and judgments. 

Davidoff says if we realized how little time other people spend thinking about us, we would probably be surprised. Often we are thinking about questions such as,”how am I going to be perceived, and what is someone else going to think of me.” And the reality is, people don’t spend as much time thinking about us as we think they do.

Davidoff then discussed people who are going into retirement. She says she found that most of these people will say they had a “seemingly successful” life, seemingly because on the outside they looked successful but on the inside they did not feel successful.

“One thing that you’ll hear them say when they’re thinking about retirement is, ‘Now I get to do what I really love or what I really want,’ and I just think, wow, that’s sad. You think you have to wait until a certain point in your life to do that.”

When discussing the younger generation, Davidoff felt that younger people avoid failing and don’t realize that failure can actually be a good thing because you can take from your failures and learn what you can do better next time.

Justin Robinson, a young Calgarian, says he fearsvnot doing what he wants to do in life, not succeeding and having a good life.

“Having a struggle when I am older is a big fear of mine,” he says. 

Davidoff says that we need to understand that failure is not permanent unless you choose it to be. The fear of failing has a lot to do with how you react to things and what your perception is. Failure is inevitable, and failure and success are not mutually exclusive. You cannot have one without the other.

To contact the editors responsible for this story; Bre Brezinski at; Evan Manconi at

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