Trying something new is scary. There’s a lot that can go right, but there’s also a lot that can go wrong. Knowing this, you might try to prepare before trying something new, psyche yourself up, or ask for advice. But if the fear of failure prevents you from trying anything new, or holds you back from living your life, you might not just be uncomfortable with new experiences. You may be experiencing atychiphobia.
Yes, atychiphobia is a real thing. If you have the fear of failure, you do not have to live life without taking risks or trying new things. You can receive treatment for atychiphobia and live a productive, successful life.
What Is Atychiphobia?
Atychiphobia is the fear of failure. Although this is an experience that many people can relate to, it is not considered a diagnosis in and of itself. Someone with atychiphobia may be diagnosed with having a “specific phobia.” Treatment is available for atychiphobia.
Where Does the Word “Atychiphobia” Come From?
We can break up the word “atychiphobia” into three different parts: a-, tychi-, and -phobia. All of these parts can be traced back to Greek. “Tychi” comes from the Greek word “tuchè,” which means “fortune.” The “a” prefix negates what comes after it. Fortune becomes misfortune. Finally, “phobia” comes from the Greek word phóbos, which translates to “fear.”
How Common Is Atychiphobia?
The fear of failure is certainly relatable. Westerners grow up in a culture where failure is perceived as a bad thing and perfection is a worthy goal. But atychiphobia, which is much more crippling than generalized anxiety or distaste surrounding failure, is less common.
Psychologists and healthcare professionals don’t have exact numbers on how many people around the world experience atychiphobia. It does have its own specific diagnosis that can be tracked. We do know that 19 million Americans experience specific phobias, but this is a large umbrella that covers many fears. Phasmophobia (the fear of ghosts), globophobia (the fear of balloons), and trypophobia (the fear of holes packed closely together) are all considered specific phobias. (Even irrational phobias are considered specific phobias.)
It is also hard to pull data on atychiphobia because understanding when the fear of failure crosses the line to becoming a phobia is unknown. People may be ashamed to talk about the anxiety they feel when thinking about failure. They may not seek help due to their fear of failure. For that reason, atychiphobia may be more common than you think. And if you believe you have a fear of failure, consider getting treatment.
Symptoms of Atychiphobia
Being afraid of something is different than receiving a diagnosis for a specific phobia. The idea of failure may make you uncomfortable, but that is not atychiphobia. Atychiphobia is a more debilitating, intense fear of failure that holds someone back from living a productive life.
When faced with the idea of failure, a person with atychiphobia may experience a physical reaction:
- Panic attack
- Difficulty breathing, shallow breathing, or hyperventilation
- Dizziness, nausea, or vomiting
- Chest or stomach pains
- Unusually fast heart rate
- Sweating or hot flashes
The emotional response to the idea of failure may also be intense. A person may feel completely out of control or powerless. The thought of failure may prevent them from moving, literally. They feel an overwhelming desire to leave the situation or self-sabotage their efforts.
These reactions may seem extreme. We are faced with the potential to fail every day, but rarely does this send a person into a panic attack. This doesn’t mean that a person with atychiphobia is being “dramatic.” The fear they are experiencing is real. It’s important for them to recieve a proper diagnosis from a medical professional and undergo treatment.
If left untreated, a fear of failure can prevent a person from getting a job, recieving an education, starting a family, or reaching other critical milestones in their life.
How Is Atychiphobia Diagnosed?
The criteria for a “specific phobia” are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (DSM-5). Even if a fear is totally irrational or “out there,” it still counts as a phobia if it meets these requirements:
- Marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation
- The phobic object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety.
- The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger posed by the specific object or situation and to the sociocultural context.
- The phobic object or situation is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for 6 months or more.
- The disturbance is not better explained by the symptoms of another mental disorder, including fear, anxiety, and avoidance of situations associated with panic-like symptoms or other incapacitating symptoms (as in agoraphobia); objects or situations related to obsessions (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder); reminders of traumatic events (as in posttraumatic stress disorder); separation from home or attachment figures (as in separation anxiety disorder); or social situations (as in social anxiety disorder).
To receive a diagnosis for the fear of failure or any other specific phobia, you will need to reach out to a professional mental health practitioner.
Causes of Atychiphobia
Traumatic or Impactful Events
The fear of failure may be tied back to events or experiences that taught a person that failure is to be feared. These specific moments may be a traumatic event that you can pinpoint in time. Maybe you stuttered as you read aloud in class and were bullied afterward. Maybe a parent physically punished you after you failed a test.
Or, maybe the moments that led to atychiphobia were much smaller and more numerous. It’s not hard to imagine that, in a school system filled with pass/fail grading systems or rewarding perfect scores, you may come to fear failure.
Although the likelihood to develop phobias may be passed down, experts are more likely to attribute atychiphobia to the observation of someone with atychiphobia. Maybe you had a parent or a caregiver who feared failure themselves. They made certain choices out of a fear of failure. Children learn through observation. If a child is constantly observing someone who fears failure, they will learn to fear failure, too.
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a fascinating experiment with dogs that shows just how the events in our lives can cause us to fear failure or shut down in the face of it. The dogs were taught “learned helplessness.” In one part of the experiment, the dogs were given a shock collar that they were not able to turn off themselves. The shocks were out of their control. Later in the experiment, the dogs were placed in a room with a line across the middle. The dogs still wore shock collars, but all they had to do was cross the line to turn the shock collar off. But they were not likely to do so, because they had learned that success or failure was outside of their control. Out of the fear of failure, the dogs stayed put.
This is a powerful experiment, and it applies to humans, too. If we are taught that success or failure is completely outside of our control, we are less likely to potentially face failure. We may not try to achieve anything at all, believing that the outcome cannot be predicted with hard work, skills, or determination.
How to Treat Atychiphobia
Understanding atychiphobia is a great step toward overcoming atychiphobia or discomfort with failure. Failure is inevitable, and that’s not a bad thing! To familiarize yourself with failure, it may be useful to have vulnerable conversations or consume information that has to do with failure.
- Read about famous and accomplished people who have experienced failure. (Hint: all of them have! Specifically, Michael Jordan, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, and Ariana Huffington have fascinating stories about facing failure.)
- Talk to a parent, teacher, mentor, or community leader about failure. What advice can they give? If these sources tend to make you feel more anxious about failure, seek out additional sources.
- Write in a journal. Can you remember times that you have failed in the past? What was the reaction of friends, family, or teachers? Do you think those experiences have impacted your feelings about failure now?
- Create affirmations for yourself to repeat when you think about failure or face a new task. “Every task is a chance to grow and learn,” “I am enough,” or “I am not defined by my mistakes” are great places to start.
- Read about growth mindset. This concept argues that no one has a fixed set of skills or abilities. Trying something new, even if you do not succeed the first time, is an opportunity for growth!
As an individual, you have the power to assess your relationship with failure and take small steps toward overcoming your fears. But there is no shame in reaching out to a mental health professional. There are many approaches to treating atychiphobia and other specific phobias. One of the most common is talk therapy.
Not all talk therapists approach treatment in the same way. Some may use a psychotherapy approach, while others may use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Therapists may even recommend exposure therapy, exposing you bit by bit to failure so you can see that failure is not the scary experience your mind is telling you it is.
In cases of severe anxiety surrounding failure, a mental health professional may prescribe medication. This is not necessary in all cases. Be sure to have a consultation with your potential therapist before you begin treatment to explore your options and talk about your therapist’s personal approach to atychiphobia.
- Athazagoraphobia: fear of being forgotten
- Atelophobia: fear of imperfection
- Dystychiphobia: fear of accidents
- Pistanthrophobia: fear of trusting other people
- Ataxophobia: fear of disorder