Lo♥︎ing Legal Life: Overcoming fear of failure

This week, systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC discuss the negative impact of fear of failure and how to overcome it.

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Nobody wants to fail.

Yet for many people, failing presents such a significant psychological and emotional threat that their desire to avoid failure surpasses their desire to succeed. So powerful is their fear of failure they unconsciously sabotage their chances of success in any number of ways.

Think about it: all of us at some time have faced a challenge where the fear of failing has had a negative impact on how we have performed. For many, this is an everyday experience.

Fear of failure is best described as that fear that stops you doing the things that can move you forward to realise your best self. Often it is established in childhood, by a process of harsh criticism, being shamed or humiliated, lack of praise or lack of acknowledgement.

Fear of failure and the legal profession
Typically one would not imagine that in a profession peopled by some of the highest achievers in the country, we would find those displaying a predilection to a fear of failure. However, the legal profession is just the place they would be drawn to.

How can that be? Because fear of failure is essentially a fear of shame, and shame gets to the root of our egos, our identity, our self esteem, our sense of personal worth. People who have a fear of failure are motivated to avoid failing so that they can avoid the feeling of shame. The legal profession allows such people to fly high on the wings of success, and to enjoy the prestige and high status that can mask shame.

The legal profession carries a constant risk of failure. Everyday your job demands that you keep failure at bay. Your inner critic drives you not to fail, so that you can prove to yourself just for another day that you are enough.

Every day the core feelings of shame are triggered in lost cases and clients.

Every day the basic emotions of disappointment, anger and frustration that accompany such experiences are ever-present because shame is driving the game.

As much as these emotions can be managed, the distress, anxiety and stress of the perceived failure touch the core sense of self-esteem and confidence. The damage caused to one’s emotional wellbeing by shame is potentially so toxic, it is imperative that those who have a fear of failure do all they can to overcome or alleviate it. Ultimately, of course, failure is beyond any one individual’s control.

Are you affected by fear of failure?
Here are some signs that you may be affected by a fear of failure.

Do you:

  • over prepare or check and re-check work over and over again?
  • tell people in advance that you don’t expect to succeed?
  • set goals that are unrealistic, whether too low or too high?
  • worry when your diary is quiet that you have no clients or insufficient work?
  • talk yourself down with negative statements or self-deprecating humour?
  • experience intense personal emotions when you lose a case or disappoint a client?
  • The good news is that fear of failure can be addressed. Once it is tackled, the difference in performance is marked.

Five tips for overcoming a fear of failure
Keep the self-saboteur in check at all times.
This will take practice, but once you are familiar with your inner critic you can choose to acknowledge it without giving it authority over you.

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James Pereira QC

Map potential outcomes. A highly effective tool is to create a tabletop map to explore and test the potential outcomes of your decisions from a number of different perspectives. This can help you redefine your notion of success and failure, and create a healthier relationship with different possible outcomes.

Take a good look at the worst possible scenario. This is your greatest fear. Write it down. Getting it out in this way and analysing it usually takes away much of its steam.

Have a back up plan. Having a plan B can be useful and you can diagnostically test it out. You may discover that plan B becomes plan A, or a bit of both. Many outcomes which are judged successful with hindsight are rarely the outcomes that were originally sought.

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Zita Tulyahikayo

Talk to a professional. We all need support that comes from having time with an experienced, independent practitioner, someone who can dispassionately and wholly be on our side, and give us objective, constructive feedback. That is how we improve. No one can genuinely see themselves objectively.

The right coach can provide the questioning, reflecting, supporting, encouraging, challenging insights needed to enable you to find a new view, new understanding and new ways of answering the ‘How questions’: ‘How do I free myself to find a better way to overcome limiting patterns such as the fear of failure?’

“Failure” can be positive
The wonderful thing about so-called failure is that you can choose how you see it. You can choose to see failure as the end of the world, as proof of just how inadequate you are. Or, you can choose to look at failure as the incredible learning experience that it often is. None of us would have learnt to walk without first falling over.


The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at zita@lifetherapywithzita.com and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.

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