Have you ever had New Year’s resolutions? Although they’re stapled in nearly everyone’s holiday routines, for some reason, we seem to have a hard time getting around to doing all the new things we promise to try.
One of the reasons why our resolutions often fail is that we tend to be overly optimistic in our holiday-induced haze. The other reason is more common and far less poetic: there’s an inherent risk of failure in trying something new and if there is one thing humans are afraid of, it’s failure. While the purpose of this fear is to protect us, it can also stop us from achieving our full potential.
In this article, I’ll take a closer look at the nature of the fear of trying or starting something new and how to overcome it.
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
Why trying new things is scary
There are multiple reasons that could lead to a fear of starting something new. If you are afraid of starting something new, it’s good to first find out why. Here are some potential reasons.
1. We fear what we don’t know
One of the reasons why new things are scary is that they’re new and unfamiliar.
The fear of trying something new is often called neophobia, especially if the fear is irrational or persistent.
The important thing to remember about any kind of fear and anxiety is that they serve a purpose – to protect us from potential danger and keep us alive. So to an extent, it’s normal or even beneficial to be afraid of the new and the unfamiliar.
Most people have experienced some form of neophobia, usually in relation to food. Some people can be very hesitant to try new foods, and that’s completely okay. However, if your fear of new tastes causes you to go hungry, you have a problem. Usually though, neophobia tends to be mild and it doesn’t bother people too much.
2. Failure is an option
The other reason is that new things have an inherent risk of failure, and for most people, there is nothing scarier.
Fear of failure, also known as atychiphobia, is fairly common. I’m willing to bet that you have experienced it, too. Whether it’s not joining the workout group you’ve been thinking of or applying for a new job, most of us have been held back by the fear of failure at some point in our lives.
The fear of failure is so common because failure is the most readily available option. Success requires a lot of work and effort, and sometimes, no matter how hard you work, you’ll still fail. It takes quite a lot of mental strength and resilience to keep working towards your goal despite failures and setbacks.
This isn’t to say that there’s no point in trying. I think that humans are quite admirable because we keep trying despite the odds not always being in our favor. We are resilient beings, and more often than not, we get back up again when life knocks us down.
3. We fear shame
Some psychologists have argued that fear of failure isn’t about the failure itself at all. Rather, we are afraid of the shame and embarrassment that come with failure.
This idea was first proposed by psychologist John Atkinson in 1957 and has since been proven by numerous studies. In their 2005 study, Holly McGregor and Andrew Elliot found that people who experience higher fear of failure also report greater shame upon a perceived failure experience, and showed that shame and fear of failure are definitely related.
The authors write:
“Shame is a painful emotion, and thus, it is not surprising that individuals high in fear of failure orient to and seek to avoid failure in achievement situations.”
Although disappointment, anger, and other negative emotions are also difficult to handle, shame really does tend to be more painful than others. Think of a situation where you felt ashamed or embarrassed. It’s probably not your fondest memory.
Another important factor influencing the fear of failure is perfectionism: the higher the expectations for oneself, the higher the fear of failure. A 2009 study found that among athletes, the fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment plays a central role in the relationship between perfectionism and fear of failure.
In conclusion, trying new things is scary because above else, humans fear the unknown and shame.
How to overcome the fear of starting something new
The good thing about fear is that you can overcome it. The bad news is that in order to overcome it, the only way to overcome it is to go straight through it. You can’t avoid fear and hope that it’ll magically get better. But with some conscious effort and work, you can learn to love taking on new challenges instead of fearing them.
1. Start small
The key to conquering any kind of fear is to start small and gradually work your way up to the really scary stuff. If you’re afraid of public speaking, getting in front of an auditorium of thousands is a bad idea. Performing to a smaller crowd is essential to collecting positive experiences and little successes, which help you move on.
Think of overcoming your fear as a staircase – take it one step at a time. If you try to jump several steps ahead, your chances of losing balance and falling increase.
2. Accept the fear
It’s okay to be afraid of trying new things. Whether you’re afraid of failure or of being embarrassed, what matters is that you try to conquer your fear.
People often think that they shouldn’t be afraid in the first place. However, if you’re already scared, thinking that you shouldn’t be scared usually only makes the fear stronger. Accept that you’re afraid and focus your efforts on building up your courage, instead of beating yourself up for having a completely natural reaction.
3. Focus on what you can control
When we’re scared, we often come up with “what if” type of scenarios. If you’re nervous about trying something new because you keep imagining everything that can go wrong, take a moment to figure out what you can control about the situation.
For example, if you’re nervous about joining the gym, you can bring a friend with you or brush up on gym etiquette online. These things are completely under your control. Things that aren’t under your control: how many people are in the gym, do all of the machines work, is there enough room in the locker room. Worrying about these things isn’t useful, and you should focus your effort on the stuff that you can control.
4. Manage your expectations
People are impatient. We want results and we want them now. However, it’s important to realize that getting good at something takes time. Sometimes, growing to like something can also take time.
Instead of throwing in the towel if you don’t achieve perfection immediately, allow yourself to get used to your new hobby or job. It can sometimes be love at first sight, but sometimes you need more time to adapt, and that’s okay.
Expecting quick results is also probably contributing to your fear, so take a good look at your mindset and expectations, and adjust them accordingly.
Trying something new is scary because there’s an inherent risk of failure in stepping out of your comfort zone. However, you need to get out of the comfort zone to develop as a human being, so learning to conquer your fears can only be good for you. The approaching new year is the perfect time to overcome your fear, so why not give something new a shot?
Did you overcome your fear of starting something new recently? Do you want to share your own experience? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below!
Maili TirelSchool psychologist
School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“