Studying, writing your thesis and fear of failure

Performance is often seen as an important measure of success; an interesting job, studying, a social life, and on top of that comes the pressure from others to succeed in all these things. There is little room for failure and, as a result, you may experience pressure-related complications such as a writer’s block, general frustration, fear, uncertainty, thesis stress, postponing and avoiding writing your thesis (procrastination), or motivation problems.


Many students suffer from fear of failure (also known as atychiphobia), which limits them in several ways. It often means that students take longer to complete their studies, do not meet their deadline or even make the choice to (temporarily) quit their studies. Some students with fear of failure also suffer from other mental health issues such as eating disorders, depression, panic disorder (panic attack), addiction, burnout, or a functional limitation such as autism or dyslexia.




Performance anxiety tips



Do you feel a lot of tension? Do you sleep badly at night? Do you experience an increased heart beat during exams or at the thought of writing a thesis? These signals often indicate that you suffer from fear of failure, uncertainty, perfectionism and/or thesis stress. Fear of failure is the fear of not achieving a certain goal. This is not something that only exists in your head, you experience physical symptoms as well; your body releases adrenaline (a stress hormone), because your body experiences the situation as threatening. This is of course very useful in case of a real threat or acute danger, but not when you have to write your thesis!

While studying and writing a thesis, you may experience fear of anxiety and as a result, you may miss your deadlines, perform less well, postpone your thesis and you may feel less motivated.



What is performance anxiety?

Fear of failure is the fear of not achieving something, because you are unsure about the outcome of an exam / assignment / thesis. You are convinced that you will not succeed, you may not even start or you experience a lot of tension and stress when you start.
Fear of failure can often be traced back to (unconscious) thoughts that can also cause physical symptoms.



Where does this fear of failure come from?



Fear of failure is mostly learned behavior: you have had negative experiences with certain situations in the past (such as not passing an exam. Then you link these negative experiences to studying or writing a thesis and you develop more and more fear.




Tips when you experience performance anxiety




1. Set small & clear learning goals. It is easier to complete small tasks (such as writing a part of your literature review) instead of bigger tasks (such as completing your thesis). Do not focus completely  on the final goal (completing your thesis), but focus on intermediate learning objectives. For example, you can set as a learning goal to further develop yourself in conducting quantitative research, so you will start reading and writing some paragraphs. It is important that you allow yourself to make mistakes, because they are part of the learning process.
By focusing on a learning objective, you can write more efficiently, and research shows that you gain more confidence and even enjoy the task (writing a thesis for example).

2. Avoid and transform negative thoughts. Students with fear of failure repeatedly mention that they are unable to start (writer’s block) or that they think a lot about the negative consequences of not passing the thesis or an exam. Sometimes you don’t even realize that your thoughts are quite negative, but you might unconsciously have certain core beliefs such as “I am not good enough”. Try to overcome these negative thoughts and start creating positive thoughts! Maybe you did not pass a course, but you have also learned from it and you are able to prepare yourself for the exam.

3. Give yourself permission to fail. Today, society is mainly focused on success, so it can feel like there is little room for failure. When setting high standards for yourself and leaving little room for failure, it is much more difficult to be successful. Try to accept that you failed this time, did not meet your deadline and try it again. It is ok to have a re-exam or to take a bit longer to finish your thesis. By accepting this, you will experience less pressure and often perform better.

4. Don’t compare yourself to others. Students often compare themselves to others, such as fellow students, but this often creates a lot of pressure, uncertainty and stress. Of course, there are always fellow students who have already completed something and seem to always meet their deadlines, but comparing yourself to them only creates a lot of pressure.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, try to ask fellow students / friends to support you and give feedback on essays / your thesis. Many students find this very helpful.

5. Reward yourself and start exercising. You can reduce stress by exercising and start doing fun things and activities. Choose a nice sport that you like or take a walk outside. Reward yourself for every little achievement (for example by going to the cinema, shopping etc.).


6. Relax. Many students with a fear of failure are very perfectionistic, and they often forget to relax. Block several parts of the day for absolutely nothing, so that you can start relaxing. Take a bath, listen to positive and relaxing music, take a power nap, start breathing exercises, play with your pet, walk, draw, read a nice book or go for a run. In these moments, try to relax, and to not think or worry about anything. It is very important to exercise and relax regularly, it just takes some time to learn to relax and reprogram your brain!

Do you find it difficult to relax? You can also consider a mindfulness course or install a mindfulness app.


7. Start writing a draft. Many students with fear of failure directly want to write a perfect essay (or thesis), but it often helps enormously to just start writing a draft. In this draft you just write everything down that comes to mind. With that done, you can just start rewriting.

8. Make a preliminary table of contents. Write down what you already know under each heading / paragraph and start writing. By doing this, you are already making a start and you can expand and refine from there. It often helps a lot if you just start and write some paragraphs.

9. Keep trying! Whoever keeps trying never fails! Did you know Michael Jordan was kicked off the basketball team in high school because his coach felt he had no talent? Imagine that he had given up his dream because of this … but luckily he didn’t. He accepted his failure, continued to believe in himself and eventually became a successful basketball player. Thomas Edison already said it: “I have not failed. I’ve only found ten thousand ways that don’t work. ”


10. Seek help and structure your day. A professional thesis coach can help you plan well, provide concrete advice, but can above all ensure that you feel more confident. We have a team of specialized supervisors who can guide you in this, both during your studies and during your thesis.

Warning: fear of failure as a symptom
In some cases, fear of failure is a symptom of deeper, underlying psychological problems, which can also lead to serious health problems. If you suspect that you or someone near you may have additional (psychological) problems, do not take any risks and get professional help.


Mirjam de Winter is the owner of Topscriptie (2011) and graduated cum laude in clinical psychology. Mirjam guides students with fear of failure together with other professionals. She has a passion for guiding students with fear of failure and has specialized in this, using the RET method, combined with the 4G method, didactic techniques and (scientific) methods derived from neuropsychology.

Do you suffer from fear of failure or perfectionism and would you like to successfully complete your studies and / or thesis? Please contact us.

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