Some people with OCD struggle with an intense fear of failing. A persistent fear of failing might be a sign of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or a Specific Phobia known as atychiphobia.
What is the fear of failing in OCD?
|In OCD, the fear of failing often falls under the greater subtypes of Responsibility OCD and Perfectionism OCD and involves strong unwanted thoughts, urges, or images about failure, called obsessions, as well as behaviors done to relieve this distress, known as compulsions. |
A person diagnosed with OCD may experience the fear of failure in multiple areas of life, such as work, school, parenting, or relationships. When they experience obsessions about failure, the anxiety feels so great that they feel they have to do something immediately to feel better or to erase the possibility of failing. In reality, these actions do nothing to address one’s obsessions in the long term, actually leading to increased levels of distress over time.
Let’s consider an example of how the fear of failure may be present in OCD, and the sort of impact it can make:
Aidann is a 11-year-old in fifth grade who is struggling with OCD. He started to struggle with intrusive thoughts about contamination when he was 7, compulsively washing his hands and seeking reassurance from mom about his belongings being “clean.” Recently, however, he started to struggle at school. He has always been a straight A student, but his teacher has begun to notice increasingly time-consuming patterns of repetition and checking when Aidann completes work.
Aidann has a hard time turning anything in during class. He often will walk to the front of the room with his paper to put in the basket, but will instead return to his desk to check work over and over. He has even asked his teacher to return his assignment after she has collected it. At first, his teacher would allow Aidann to make corrections after turning his assignments in, thinking he was a diligent student, but started to become concerned when it happened nearly every day.
Aidann finds himself increasingly afraid of getting a bad grade. Even though Aidann’s parents have never pressured him very much about school, he fears they will be angry if he gets anything lower than an A. He has intrusive thoughts about making mistakes, kids in school teasing him for getting a bad grade, and being seen as lazy. He will spend hours on his homework at night, even if it is simple. He rereads and rechecks the answers he has written. Often he will erase so much that he will tear a hole in his paper from erasing. Aidann will lay in bed at night worrying about what the next day will hold at school. He loses sleep if there is a test the next day.
Aidann also will seek reassurance from his parents. He asks them over and over if they will be mad if he doesn’t get A’s. Will they still love him if he fails a test? His parents have always praised him for his good grades, but have recently become unsure of the best way to motivate him in a healthy manner. He has also stopped spending time with friends who don’t get good grades. He worries that he will “catch” their behavior. He does not engage in extracurricular activities that are meaningful to him because he worries he won’t have enough time to check his work. Outside of school, Aidann has found himself spending increasing amounts of time doing schoolwork or thinking about future assignments. At age 11, his fear of failing school is greatly affecting his quality of life.
Obsessions experienced by people with a fear of failing in OCD may deal with any number of themes in their lives, from their relationships to their career. Generally, if one feels highly responsible for a situation, person, or outcome, their fear of failing may be strongest.
Common obsessions experienced by people with fear of failing in OCD include:
- I’ll never be a good enough parent
- I’m not smart enough for this job
- I am not talented enough
- I won’t ever get it right
- I’ll never understand
- I’m going to disappoint everyone
- I’ll never achieve this goal
- I’m going to fail this class
- Imposter Syndrome: I don’t belong here
- I’ll never get the job. Why even apply?
People with a fear of failure may be triggered by situations where they are expected to perform. This could involve many situations at work, school or in the home. It could be related to relationships or expectations one sets for themself. Sometimes perfectionism in OCD is found along with this fear.
Triggers for people with OCD focused on a fear of failing include:
- Getting into a new romantic relationship
- Taking a challenging class at school
- Completing an assignment, task, or form
- Applying for a new job or a job promotion
- Receiving criticism
- Memories of previous failure or perceived failure
- Hearing about others’ failures
How can I tell if it’s a fear of failure in OCD, and not anxiety, cautiousness, stress or a specific phobia?
Sometimes it is hard to tell if one’s fear is a result of OCD or something else, such as a Specific Phobia. An OCD diagnosis is made based on specific criteria. One can ask themselves the following questions to get a better sense of whether they might be struggling with OCD:
- Are you experiencing repeated, unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges?
- How persistent are the thoughts and fears around the fear of failing? Are the thoughts about this fear distressing or disturbing?
- Are you trying to ignore the thoughts? Do you try to push the thoughts away?
- Do you engage in behaviors in an attempt to reduce those thoughts or fears or prevent your fear from happening (seeking reassurance, avoidance, checking, counting)?
- Do the thoughts and behaviors take up a significant amount of time?
- Does this worry or behavior interfere with other important areas of your life (i.e. family, social, work, academic)?
If the answer to some or all of these questions is yes, you may be experiencing OCD. Being assessed by a trained OCD specialist can confirm if you are struggling with OCD.
It may also be helpful to note some of the distinctions between Specific Phobia and OCD. If a person’s primary fear or anxiety is a situation or object (i.e. failing) as a result of obsessions, and if the person meets other diagnostic criteria for OCD, then the person is likely struggling with OCD. On the other hand, if a person is struggling with Specific Phobia, their feared situation is generally more specific, without persistent engagement in compulsions in order to find relief.
When people experiencing OCD with a focus on fears of failing experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may engage in compulsions, or behaviors done in an attempt to alleviate their distress or prevent a feared outcome from occurring. Unfortunately, the more a person with OCD engages in compulsions, the stronger the OCD cycle becomes, and the harder it is to live without relying on compulsions in the future.
Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with fear of failure in OCD include:
- Avoidance of situations where one may fail (not applying for a promotion, refusing to try a new skill)
- Downplaying one’s achievements to others to lower expectations
- Engaging in self sabotaging behaviors
- Distracting oneself from responsibilities
- Rechecking or rereading any document, communication, test, or resume to be sure there are no mistakes
- Seeking reassurance from loved ones or friends about personal worth or abilities
- Indecisiveness or unwillingness to make decisions
How to overcome the fear of failing in OCD
OCD with a focus on a fear of failing can be debilitating, but it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with an OCD specialist, people can break the cycle of OCD and find relief from their OCD symptoms.
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained ERP therapist is the gold standard of treatment for OCD, has been empirically validated by decades of clinical research, and has been found to be effective for most people. People who struggle with a fear of failing will work with their therapist to face their fears while resisting the urge to engage in compulsions. Typically, they will start with an exposure that is predicted to cause a low level of fear and work up to the harder exposures where more fear may be present.
Examples of possible exposures done to treat fear of failing in OCD include:
- Writing scripts about failing (failing a test, not getting a job/promotion, making a bad parenting decision) and reading them out loud
- Learning something new that presents a challenge
- Setting a timer for decision making
- Flipping a coin for big decisions
- Applying for job or promotion for which you are underqualified
- Purposefully failing a minor task in front of others
If you’re struggling with OCD and are interested in learning about ERP, you can schedule a free call with the NOCD Care Team to find out how treatment can help you. All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training and ongoing guidance from our clinical leadership team. Many of them have dealt with OCD themselves and understand how crucial ERP therapy is.