Q: “Fear of Failure Holds Me Back. How Do I Let Go of Past Mistakes?”
“When you make choices that hold you back in any way, what you’re really doing is depriving the world of the uniqueness that is you. Risk is an inherent part of life – and you can’t live a full life where you’re not taking risks and sharing all you have to offer with others.”
Q: “I struggle with perfectionism procrastination. I delay starting on just about everything, especially when it reminds me of times I’ve tripped or have downright failed in the past. I procrastinate because I don’t want to experience that feeling of failure again. But procrastinating only guarantees that I’ll mess up and perpetuate the cycle! How can I learn to let go of past mistakes and get over my fear of failure?”
This cycle — fear of failure, procrastination, repeat — is true for so many people, especially those with ADHD. The perfectionist part of you wants to avoid experiencing shame, blame, and embarrassment. You’ll do everything you can – even procrastinate – to make sure you don’t experience those feelings, even if it only makes things worse down the line.
But here’s the thing (and I’ll say it no matter how corny it sounds): When you make choices that hold you back in any way, what you’re really doing is depriving the world of the uniqueness that is you. Risk is an inherent part of life – and you can’t live a full life where you’re not taking risks and sharing all you have to offer with others.
Perfectionism procrastination usually affects people in two ways. You either refrain from starting something because you’re not sure you can get right, or you begin, but can’t finish, because it’s just not exactly as you want it to be. Wanting to avoid failure based on past experiences is a natural, protective response.
We can all think of past failures that haunt us. The challenge is to look at those moments with some perspective and learn from them. (Hindsight is 20/20, after all.) What was going on at that moment for you? What was the environment like? What was happening in your greater life? All of these things influenced what happened then, and they may inform what you’ll do now. Failure, or stumbling, as I prefer to say, is part of living and learning. It’s an inevitable part of being human.
This is why a growth mindset is so important. It’s knowing that you can learn from uncomfortable moments and that, despite your fear of failure, you’re going to try again. It’s acknowledging that you’re nervous, but pushing through anyway, even with the smallest steps. A growth mindset will build your confidence and help you write a new narrative about yourself.
So the next time you find yourself procrastinating and worrying about failure, gently place your hand over your heart and direct a message of kindness and compassion to yourself. Say something like, “You know what? This is really scary. But I’m going to start – small.” Treat yourself with the kindness you would offer to an energetic, sweet toddler who is discovering the world with delight. Being able to feel afraid and do it anyway builds up your confidence and your capacity for resilience. These break the cycle of procrastination because you’re no longer afraid of making mistakes. You see errors as stepping stones to a better version of yourself.
Fear of Failure and Past Mistakes: Next Steps
- Free Download: Rate Your ADHD Coping Strategies
- Read: When Perfectionism Stems from ADHD – Challenging the Fallacy of “Not Good Enough”
- Read: You Are Worthy of Self-Compassion: How to Break the Habit of Internalized Criticism
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Perfectionism and ADHD: Making ‘Good Enough’ Work for You” [Video Replay & Podcast #385] with Sharon Saline, Psy.D., which was broadcast live on January 19, 2022.
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