Understanding the Fear of Failure: How Veterinarians Can Overcome Negative Thinking

Fear has been described as an eradicator of potential.

A fear of failing can affect even the brightest and most capable veterinarian. Let's take a closer look at what causes fear of failure and what you can do to overcome it.

Recognizing What Causes Fear of Failure

If you're a veterinarian who's afraid of failing, it could be due to:

  • Past events. These can often be adverse surgical events, missed diagnoses, or incorrect drug dosages that caused problems.
  • Overall pressure. There's a lot of pressure on you as a veterinarian; the life and well-being of your clients' pets is in your hands. Failure in this regard can lead to larger consequences.
  • Maladaptive perfectionism. This is setting the bar of success so high that you can never reach it, creating unattainable expectations that forbid failing of any kind.
  • An overly critical upbringing. If your parents were particularly critical about every mistake you made, no matter how small, you may hold onto a fear of failure in adulthood.
  • Paralyzing self-doubt. If you don't think you're enough, or that reaching for your goals — such as opening your own practice — are futile efforts, you may have been taught to expect you will fail.

Nobody wants to fail, but when the fear of failing inhibits your ability to do your job and reach your potential, then fear is taking over.

Overcoming Fear of Failure

If you find that the fear of failing is getting in the way of your work, here are some tips to get you on the right path:

  • Talk it out. Shame grows in the dark, so find someone you trust who you can talk to about your fears or past failings.
  • Challenge yourself and your beliefs. Rather than believing you will fail, consider what other outcomes are possible based on your current skill set.
  • Be mindful of your abilities. Words are powerful perception shapers, and what you say can impact what you believe. Instead of saying, "I'm afraid of failing, so I won't try X" say, "I will try X; however, I may need help."
  • Practice visualization. Many veterinarians find success with visualization. If you're afraid of surgery, for example, you can visualize the surgery beforehand — all the steps, how you are feeling calm and confident, what you will do if there is a complication, etc.
  • Research to fill any gaps. If part of your fear of failing is lack of knowledge, consider doing some research and taking a few courses. Practice can build confidence.
  • Think through the situation. If you're afraid of trying something big, like applying for a promotion or a leadership position or opening a practice, but you find yourself procrastinating because you don't want to fail, run through the different scenarios. Ask yourself, "What will happen if I do this? What will happen if I don't do this?"
  • Desensitize yourself. Do the thing that you're afraid of over and over again until it loses its charge and control over you. The more often you tackle it, the easier it becomes.

Another way to overcome a fear of failing is to seek out training for skills that will help to increase your aptitude and confidence. All in all, it's important to remember to have compassion for yourself and practice self-care.

Finding Support and Realizing Value

If you feel that your fear is getting in the way of functioning normally or is causing you to lose sleep, it's important to talk to and work with a licensed professional. They can provide tools like cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and medications that can help reduce the anxiety enough to facilitate behavioral change. This can greatly help someone who is suffering from a debilitating fear of failing.

You have so much to give to the world and to the profession. By working with your fear instead of fighting it, realizing that you're not alone, and taking the necessary steps to move forward, you can overcome your fears and realize your full potential.

Sarah Wooten
DVM, CVJ

A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well known influencer in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has over 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications. Dr. Wooten has spoken in the veterinary education space since 2015, and speaks on leadership, client communication, and personal development. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. She is also a co-creator of the wildly popular card game ‘Vets Against Insanity’. When it is time to play, she can be found skiing in Colorado or diving with sharks in the Caribbean. Go big...or go home. To learn more, visit drsarahwooten.com.


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