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The link between perfectionism and fear of failure

The link between perfectionism and fear of failure

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • Stress management & well-being

Students often aim for “perfection” in their work; and while this sounds like it should be celebrated, this may come at a heavy cost with approximately 77% of students suffering with fear of failure.

This isn’t a surprising result, as aiming for something that is largely unattainable is bound to come with a lot of pressure and little reward. So, what is the mechanism linking perfectionism and fear of failure, and how can we help students get out of this cycle?

Read on to find out more about:

  • The link between perfectionism and fear of failure
  • What research suggests
  • 4 tips to help students to overcome their perfectionism and fear of failure

The link between perfectionism and fear of failure

The relationship between failure and perfectionism is bidirectional.

Failure can exacerbate perfectionistic tendencies – if students believe the failure to be their own fault, they may raise the standards they have for themselves to an unrealistic level. Research also suggests that students who experience academic failure often report heightened levels of “socially prescribed perfectionism”, indicating that external expectations play a significant role in this dynamic.

Conversely, perfectionism can be a precursor to failure. The pressure to perform flawlessly can lead to significant anxiety. Because of the link between emotions and cognitive load, this can reduce their working memory capacity and impair their cognitive function – key components of academic success. A recent study highlights that perfectionistic students are more likely to experience academic disengagement and lower levels of persistence when faced with challenging tasks, increasing their likelihood of failure.

So, what causes perfectionism and fear of failure?

Recent research has provided clearer insights into perfectionism, fear of failure, the factors that influence them, and the impact these have on students and their ability to learn.

Research investigated the different types of perfectionism and fear of failure among students. The results found that perfectionism that is defined by one’s own unrealistic expectations indeed predicted a fear of failure, for example about disappointing others. It was also found that those who believe that it is important for others to strive for perfection were less likely to believe that failure diminishes one’s self value. However, when one’s own expectations and the expectations of others were joint together, this was indicative of increased fear of shame and embarrassment.

Further research conducted on perfectionism and the link to fear of failure in education found that there were two forms of perfectionism: “healthy” and “unhealthy” and highlights how teachers are aware of how perfectionism can negatively impact a student’s mental health. It was found that perfectionism led to feelings of anxiety, self-criticism and persistent feelings of dissatisfaction. The teachers also noted how fear of failure caused by perfectionism affected the students’ learning, as their risk taking skills and critical thinking skills were inhibited.

This research contributes to a more comprehensive view of perfectionism’s role in shaping students’ mental health and academic performance. It highlights the importance of acknowledging the different factors outside the classroom that influence students’ education. By doing so, you can aim to foster an educational environment that accommodates the complexities of student perfectionism. But what can you do to help students with this?

Setbacks and mistakes are part of the learning process. Our practical strategies will help your students fail better.

4 ways to help students balance perfectionism with fear of failure

Understanding the link between perfectionism and failure is crucial, but it’s equally important to know how to intervene. Here are a few strategies…

  1. Question their fears – Work with students to set achievable, incremental goals and understand why students are feeling the way they are. Reassuring students that if they put the work in, they will succeed will most likely put them at ease.
  2. Strive for excellence, not perfection – Understanding the difference between excellence and perfection will allow students to adopt positive learning approach, with a more adaptive way of learning regarding their goals and efforts. Understanding excellence is preferable than perfection encourages students to be realistic and align it to their well-being.
  3. No-shame policy– Helping students understand that there’s no shame in not getting something right or struggling with something. Promoting an open environment where failure isn’t looked down upon would reduce fear for failure.
  4. Promote stress management techniques – Research suggests that equipping students with effective stress management techniques leads to a positive impact on the students ability to cope with stress, providing long-term positive effects. To learn about some effective methods of stress management, have a read of our blog on 6 ways to reduce stress.

For further insights into helping your students manage perfectionism and fear of failure, book our ‘Managing Perfectionism and Setback’ workshop to find effective strategies to help them fail better.

Final thoughts

Understanding the intricate link between perfectionism and fear of failure is essential to foster a supportive and empowering learning environment. By being equipped with this knowledge, you can identify and address the signs of perfectionism and fear of failure in your students. Implementing strategies such as setting achievable goals, encouraging a productive mindset, and providing consistent reassurance can make a profound difference in easing students’ anxieties and promoting a healthy approach to learning and personal development.

By fostering an atmosphere of understanding and support, you not only enhance their educational experience but also contribute positively to their life skills and resilience.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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