Atychiphobia [at-i-kuh-foh-bee-uh] (‘atyches’ meaning ‘unfortunate’) is the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure. As with many phobias, atychiphobia often leads to a constricted lifestyle, and is particularly devastating for its effects on a person’s willingness to attempt certain activities. A person afflicted with atychiphobia considers the possibility of failure so intense that they choose not to take the risk.

Oftentimes this person will subconsciously undermine their own efforts so that they no longer have to continue to try. Because effort is proportionate to the achievement of personal goals and fulfillment, this unwillingness to try, which arises from the perceived inequality between the possibilities of success and failure, holds the atychiphobic back from a life of meaning and the realization of potential.

By definition, the anxiety of any particular phobia is understood to be disproportionate to reality, and the victim is typically aware that the fear is irrational, making the problem a largely subconscious one. For this reason there are no simple treatments for atychiphobia, however there are several options available.

It is generally believed that phobias arise from a combination of heredity, genetics, brain chemistry, and life-experience. Demeaning parents or family members, traumatic and embarrassing events that arise from minor failure early in life, or when an individual experiences a significant failure and is ill-equipped to effectively cope with the resulting feelings, are all thought to produce the fear of failure in the long term. When a developing brain is raised in a home where approval or the feeling of being loved is linked to performance it becomes difficult to separate the two. Such a person comes to believe that such feelings must be earned, and that they can be withdrawn if failure occurs. In addition, some individuals who struggle with phobias have a genetic predisposition toward anxiety, compounding the problem. As a result of these factors, those with an irrational fear of failure often settle for mediocrity to avoid the risks inherent in distinguishing themselves.

Those with atychiphobia create a direct link between the possibility of failure and competition; and in an inherently competitive society, they find that it is best to avoid the problem altogether. The person more strongly motivated to avoid failure, rather than to achieve success, tends to be more unrealistic in aspiration. Because the modern society places so much emphasis on perfection in every aspect of life, a person with atychiphobia will often not risk trying until perfection is assured. They draw their value as an individual from their success relative to societal standards. This dynamic is most readily observed in the classroom setting, where students are forced to compete for a limited number of rewards, most often the scarcity of good grades.

A restricted supply of rewards pushes student aspirations for grades and other forms of recognition beyond the capabilities of many children, with the result that they are unable to keep pace with these inappropriate goals. Such circumstances tend to force a fateful decision for countless youngsters. The child may reason, unwittingly and without recognition of the consequences, that if he cannot be sure of succeeding, then at least he can try to protect a sense of dignity by avoiding failure. In essence the atychiphobe seeks to avoid at whatever cost the same experience he or she may have endured that triggered such a potent and irrational fear of failure.

Those suffering from atychiphobia may experience physiological symptoms typical of phobias such as: irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, nausea, overall feelings of dread, nervousness, stomach disorders, flushing of the face, perspiration, muscle tension, tremulousness, and faintness. These symptoms manifest when one is confronted with the possibility of failure, such as when they are asked to perform a task at which they believe they cannot be 100% successful. The individual may suffer from a breakdown, and if left unchecked, these symptoms will continue to worsen. A drop in self-confidence and loss of motivation are likely to occur, which can lead to depression.

As a result, it is common to avoid situations where this confrontation may occur. However, it is this avoidance that impairs the sufferer’s freedom as opportunities are lost in all aspects of life such as career and family. In addition, the inability to overcome this anxiety is in itself a form of failure. Achievement-oriented individuals learn… to strive for excellence, maintain optimistic expectations, and to not be readily discouraged by failure. Conversely, individuals who consistently fear failure… set goals that are too high or too low and become easily discouraged by obstacles.

Overcoming the fear of failure is entirely dependent on a person’s willingness and motivation to change. As with many psychological problems, especially those relating to the subconscious, there is no complete cure. However the debilitating effects of atychiphobia may be overcome by changes to an individual’s thought process, increasing the ability to cope in the event of fearful situations. The most common forms of treatment for atychiphobia are through self-help and other motivational techniques. Atychiphobia can also often be treated with SSRIs (Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitor). Medication alone is not encouraged however, as this is perceived to simply mask the problem. Rather most physicians recommend a combination of behavioral/cognitive and medicinal therapies.

Counseling is also a popular option in dealing with atychiphobia. A trusted counselor can help a patient come to better terms with their fear and develop new coping methods to deal with stressful situations. In coming to understand the triggers associated with atychiphobia, patients learn to develop healthier belief systems about failure and subsequently are able to effectively manage anxiety. Various forms of self-help programs and methods can also be effective in overcoming atychiphobia. One such method, systematic desensitization, involves gradually confronting situations or circumstances that are increasingly similar to the feared ones. More effective however is exposure therapy, where the phobic is repeatedly exposed to that which they fear until the fear itself gradually fades.

In the case of atychiphobia, breaking down larger tasks into smaller more manageable pieces is a first step. Practice of the activity a person is afraid of failing can also mitigate the effects of anxiety. In general, the gradual acceptance of failure as part of a learning process necessary for success can bring the desired results. An understanding or appreciation for the failure experience is vital to an individual, and as long as an individual’s goal is in developing a more accurate sense of well-being and self-esteem rather than appearance, he or she will eventually be able to overcome the fear of failure.


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