The Real Reasons INTPs Fear Failure - And How to Stop

Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on July 12, 2016
Category: INTP

Have you ever missed a fantastic opportunity because you were not sure how it might turn out? Or made an irrational decision because you were too scared to step out of your comfort zone?

If so, you're not alone. INTPs have a reputation for being apprehensive about, well, everything. Despite how illogical it may appear, you carry a haunting sense of impending failure like a mom carries her newborn baby - cautiously and possessively, with the sense that you're not sure how to handle it, but at the same time never wanting to let it go. This debilitating condition holds you back and steals your chances of getting what you want out of life.

Where does this paralyzing emotion come from? It's safe to say that you were not born with a fear of failure. But you were born with a distinct set of personality traits that combine to stop you in your tracks. Here are the real reasons why INTP personality types  fear failure, and what you can do to break the chains.

#1: You're a perfectionist

If you're not competent, then what else are you? As an INTP, your self-esteem is attached to your competency. You are highly self-critical and will overdo simple issues until you are absolutely sure that something is right. And not only right, but right the first time out of the gate. Because if something isn't right, you know that you will feel stupid, slow, and powerless.

In his book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children , Po Bronson says that the biggest parenting mistake is praising kids for their competency, something he calls "the inverse power of praise." The result is a person who is paralyzed from taking on any project that has a remote chance of failure, since their self-worth is slavishly dependent on their ability to appear smart and successful.

We're not suggesting that parents are the cause of your perfectionism. That could be down to genetics, childhood events or a host of other factors. But whatever the cause, the result of perfectionism is the same. It means that you gravitate toward the "easy wins" - the things you can do well without challenge. If you sail away from the safe harbor, you will essentially need to start at the beginning. Any work you do in the early days could be second rate at best. And when you are so concerned with being smart, second rate can feel like a personal violation.

Reframe: Stop measuring yourself by your successes and start rewarding yourself for trying something new. Start with something small - an art class, archery, yoga - it doesn't matter what it is as long as you've never done it before. As a beginner, you're bound to fail the first few times you try. This is a great way to train yourself to handle mistakes and enjoy the fun of discovering new things about yourself.

#2: You're a commitment-phobe

Like all Perceivers, INTPs remain open to new information until they run out of time to make a decision. Until then, you continually reexamine the evidence, worrying that you've missed some critical piece of data. In the absence of external pressure, you are prone to going round in dizzying circles, lost in a world of indecision where your ideas never truly crystallize.

Procrastination is linked to perfectionism, in the sense that it's not about getting things right. It's really the avoidance of shame. You are motivated to appear competent, so you subject your thoughts to endless scrutiny; to go for closure before there's an absolute guarantee of success triggers the fear center of your brain. If your ideas are especially risky, then there's a good chance that they will never see the light of day.

Reframe: There are two types of failure in this world: actions and inactions. You can fail by crashing out of college, or you can fail by never applying to college at all. Most people predict that it's the actions that will trip them up. But when people reflect on their life, it's failing to grasp opportunities that form the biggest regrets.

Research from the University of Illinois and Northwestern in Chicago suggests that while "action regrets" are initially very painful, the pain of lost opportunities lasts far longer than the short-term anguish of getting something wrong. Which means that every time you put something off, there's a good chance you'll be left wondering "what if?" in 10, 20 or 50 years' time. For INTPs the message is clear: find ways to take action. Even if it's a bad choice, at least you'll be able to say, "I tried."

#3: You're pretty zen

Being zen is a nice trait since it protects you from stress and everything that goes with it, such as heart disease, depression and strokes. But there's a fine line between "zen" and "apathetic ambivalence." The latter happens when you become so content inside your calm, contained and unhurried bubble that you lose all motivation to push yourself and achieve your goals.

INTPs are prone to apathy since you are more interested in what's going on inside your head than in the real world. In fact, you may find that you flick between apathetic and obsessed at the flick of a switch, depending on whether something has captured your interest.

Apathy becomes a problem when nothing is capturing your interest, either because you don't have any goals or you are working towards the wrong goals. Both of these things happen when you get cozy in your comfort zone and refuse to try the difficult things that might just make your heart sing.

Reframe: When apathy bites, it's important to not lose track of your goals. Rather, break your dreams down into smaller chunks and put up some deadlines. Mentors can be valuable people to have at this point since they can both encourage you and hold you accountable for getting started.

By breaking down dreams, there's less to fear each step along the way since each chunk is achievable. Soon you will have invested so much of your time and energy into a goal you feel you need to finish in order to break even. You'll carry on even when the going gets tough and you might otherwise be looking for excuses.

The bottom line is, if you want to win, you have to be ready to fail. It teaches you things that nothing else can teach you, namely that you can't keep seeking perfection at the expense of a life. That regret comes from not doing the things you want to do, and the more opportunities you let go, the less satisfied you will be.

We'll leave you with an excellent quote from one of the world's greatest athletes:

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." - Michael Jordan

Molly Owens

Molly Owens is the founder and CEO of Truity. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and holds a master's degree in counseling psychology. She began working with personality assessments in 2006, and in 2012 founded Truity with the goal of making robust, scientifically validated assessments more accessible and user-friendly.

Molly is an ENTP and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys elaborate cooking projects, murder mysteries, and exploring with her husband and son.

More from this author...
About the Clinical Reviewer

Steven Melendy, PsyD., is a Clinical Psychologist who received his doctorate from The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He specializes in using evidence-based approaches in his work with individuals and groups. Steve has worked with diverse populations and in variety of a settings, from community clinics to SF General Hospital. He believes strongly in the importance of self-care, good friendships, and humor whenever possible.


benitolewis (not verified) says...

This sums up things in my INTP world so well! I am not gifted with building skills but am interested in small home improvement projects as well as homesteading. The fear of something not working out will often lead to projects thought up but never started. When asked questions about a project I do start I am immediately returned to re-thinking and reconsidering EVERY aspect of that project due to the new information or perspective.

Guest (not verified) says...

So true. Nailed me.

Jenxian (not verified) says...

Wow. #2 and #3 really hit home. You have statements in there that are spot-on and I apparently needed to read this today. The apathy is running high lately, as is the fear of looking stupid. I use the apathy to mask the insecurity and its a BAD combination.
Thanks for reminding me to get out of my own head-space.

DanWC (not verified) says...

This describes my current situation to a T. Though the suggested breaking down things to smaller/achievable/less-scary chunks has never worked for me. And the biggest obstacle I am dealing with right now is that I FINALLY took action on one of the long put-off things that would make my heart sing, only to fail rather spectacularly--makes it that much harder to motivate/trust to try again. Not so sure the research cited which talks about regret and the pain of trying short-term pain; going on close to two years now and still working though it.

anjesen says...

Thank you! You keep painting a very good portrait of me. Your solutions are very hard to follow but absolutely logical and clear.

I would reason add #4: I'm addicted to beginnings. I love to start new projects, so much that I fill my time with projects and every time my schedule tells me that I need to continue one of them in order to finish at least one simple thing in life, I always find myself wanting to start (and actually doing it) another project instead of continuing with one of the old ones. What would be the "Reframe" part to overcome this one?

Yankee The Rebel (not verified) says...

So true... I too am addicted to beginnings. Starting something new and hypothetically promising gives me a high that's better than any drug could offer. It's only when those beginnings move into a period of monotony that I lose all interest and motivation. 

Tasha (not verified) says...

Yes, please. The letter one #4 - What the reframe would be ..?
I always though it's my indecisive 'air' Libra sign combined with a romantic (read perfectionist) young girl nature, but apparently I'm just an INTP

Nahtanojsti (not verified) says...

This article hit the bullseye on the target especially the apathy and procrastination. I really needed this article. Thank you Molly

INTPondering (not verified) says...

I just want to offer a slightly different perspective. I don't know if this is true of all INTPs or just me, but when I've pushed myself to get out of my comfort zone and take on projects without overthinking them, I've regretted it afterwards. Jumping into things without doing my research has cost me big time (versus cost of doing nothing: nothing), and when I've pushed myself to take on challenging stuff because I told myself the rewards would be "worth it," I found they really *weren't* worth the stress and hassle. In my experience, the self doesn't escape the INTP's analysis, and therefore, many INTPs understand their own strengths and limitations pretty well. So my advice is not to push yourself into something you already have doubts about but to play to your strengths. Do what you actually enjoy and find a way to make that into a career. If you don't have a long attention span, make sure your work is based around small, short-term jobs. If you like generating ideas but don't like the follow-through, get a start-up going and bring others on board to implement. I think INTPs are people who genuinely need to like what they do in order to be happy in life, and trying to fit yourself into some other type's idea of happiness (earn big money! lean in with the office crew! stop thinking and just do it!) is bound to backfire.

Ashen (not verified) says...

Happy to see I am not the only one who thinks that way! I'm always so surprized when people see the whole "move out of your comfort zone" idea as "say goodbye to your comfort, and replace it with something unbearable". To me the only way it is worth the efforts and risks is when I am to end up in a slightly less comfortable zone, not some living hell. 

Luna (not verified) says...

Good analysis, although I disagree with some of it. First of all, it wasn't praise by my parents that snowballed my fear of failure out of control, it was the exact opposite, the complete lack of acceptance of anything but perfection. Where they failed was in not knowing or caring to sooth me when things didn't go so well, was in not telling me that most people get by just fine by being mediocre, especially if they're pretty certain of themselves. I truly think that not praising your INTP kid for the things s/he's good at is terrible, because s/he'll assume from the start to be a failure. I thrive on positive reinforcement, not having it is what means I've failed, if no one tells me they like my work than what's the point of doing it? What's important is that they'll also accept that I can fail too, I'm just human, but I never had, still don't have that from my parents. I also disagree with point 4, getting things started is easy, it's finishing them that's very, very hard. 

chris5 (not verified) says...

Luna, I had the same problem as well in my childhood. I was scolded for not making the marks my parents and other family members expected of me. Whenever I needed help, I was too scared to ask because one, they didn't know and two, I felt that no matter what I did, it never was good enough. This is not me saying it is their fault. I just wanted to be recognized for my hard work. Even as I went on to the military and graduated college, no one was there to help me celebrate my achievements. And the time I was working in public service, no recognition as well or feedback. Just whenever something went wrong or people needed something fixed is when I was noticed.

I really want to start a business, but then, I worry that despite "getting out of my comfort zone" that my efforts may go unnoticed and I end up failing to get going.

Justin Digney (not verified) says...

Wow, I liked the article right up to the advice.

Somehow I feel you missed the mark, you set the scene very well for the problEm,  but let me show you what you said.  Your an INTP, but just be more like an INTJ.  

and to try and make your point with a quote from Michael Jordan?  really?  you start out by saying INTP are failure adverse and you finish with a totally different press laity tye who uses failure as inspiration.  A few well put together paragraphs isn't going to achieve that.

As for your advice on mentors, I agree that would be fantastic, have you got any actual advice for an INTP to identify and solicit a Mentor?  In my 40 years experience INTP's are rarely mentored.  why?  Ti is similar to Fi = authenticity.  They research until they KNOW the right answere.   they research until they ARE the right answer.  

How does one mentor this - where is the stop and ask for directions?  when directions are offered, they are scrutinised priorities and may or may not form the building blocks for the foundating.  Where is the room for mentor?  INTP are known for 'radical honesty'.  Most worth (read succesful) mentors are pretty good shooting the messanger.


Indeed let me point out, many successful people are successful because they manipulate and take advantage of the flaws in the "system", this is not the MO of INTP.  The INTP MO is to understand (everything) and remove all the flaws and discontinuities  This is counter cultral.  Indeed from my own very turmolurois experience INTP strive for Logic, which in and of itself is fair, equitable and humble.  these are not the ambitions of society, who seek justice in name only, allowing in perfection to exist within the system to create the space for themself to benifit from the flaws.

Now moving on past the challenge of identifying and soliciting the support of a mentor,  Let's look at you our advice to DO more and end the cycle of analysis poralisis.  

I like using a very simple analogy (particularly when people like to blame anger users for their lack of emotionall regulation), is your advice for someone who is scared of heights to just suck it up and climb more towers?  why not? yor advice for someone you have portrayed and fearful of failure is to run out and fail more.


It is true some personality types prefer to learn through action.  you have ordered no advice to an INTP how their prefered learning style of - learn by understanding can be used to learn from the data made available through action.  what data do I collect? how do I use it? INPT particularly scrutinise data for clean pure data, failure for an INTP is a "VERY" Broad term.  Think anything short of perfection is a failure.   clearly you have already stated perfection as a term related to INTP, so you "understand" that any percieved imperfection is a failure.  you are a psychologist you may understand percieved "failure" is hand and hand with a negative emotional state.  If you don't experience a negative emotional state it is unlikley that you have percieved failure.   Indeed in psychological terms they are likley indistinguishable. 

INTP spend a huge amount of effort and energy removing (like all rational NT), emotional data from decisions to focus on the logic. INTP has just failed, they are emotional (by definition) therefore the data collected is tainted with emotion and huge amounts of processing work is required to speprate the emotional content from the data. (if that is even possible).


In short your advice comes across as very poor, and ignores your own understanding of INTP.  


Advice on how an INTP can make a less than perfect decision, by perhaps setting a framework as an experiment (which I believe another similar type is an expert if doing) may help.  but again the INTP is more likley to need to set up the "perfect" experiment isolating a single variable, and to do so requires all the understanding that is required to make a perfect decision in the first place, again teaching what is "perfect enoigh" to gain "clean" data at the end.


Note all of this ignores the reality INTP are bored very easily and an extended "learning" process through trial and itteration can = will end up on the procrastination list.  

on reflection, I am asking for a lot.  but if it was easy to get an INTP to be more action orientated and still be an INTP world peace and world hunger wuld have been solved a long time ago because INTP's can solve that shit tomorrow. Probably just as easy to solve greed and inequality (traits not often displayed by INTP).

Nach (not verified) says...

Like a true INTP, you completely missed the point.

The idea of "getting out of your comfort zone" is PRECISELY to explore things that you have dismissed/ignored for a long time. It is not about finding a better way to do what you already doing; it is about discovering things that you CAN'T do yet and know are beyond your CURRENT reach.

Knowing how to do 10 push-ups is fine, but ater a while, you will stop doing them regularly (i.e "I'm good at this and bored" syndrome) and your arms will lose muscle mass. Totally inefficient way to stay fit, IMHO. Instead, how about you try some lifting? Or swimming? Or dancing? That will force you to work on other areas of your body.

I'm using the example of fitness because 99% of the INTPs I have met in my life were flabby/fat/overwight/slobby because they drill themselves with the belief that looking after their health is beyond their human reach. So much for an intelligent mind when you can't even stop your self-defeating thoughts.

In othe words, stop making excuses and rationalising your short-comings as a shortcut way to denying their existence. Your flabby body is not going to melt into a six-pack just because you do so.

All the best.

INTP (not verified) says...

Thank you for reminding me of the times in my life when I made progress. I have framed them as experiments, and yes, initially the data wasn't perfect, but finding ways to improve that, made the process extremely satisfying, and I believe this has motivated me to push past apathy. I've done this thrice in the last decade.

Once with improving my mental health, by gathering research on the best coping strategies, incorporating them in my daily routine and keeping records in a spreadsheet for my compliance and the correlation with my wellbeing (based on a mood questionnaire, I used one for Bipolar disorder from CrestBD foundation). I suspect that keeping records is what worked, because progress is not linear and memory tends to naturally cling to negative experiences (so it's a way to shed light on small successes one can easily refer to in times of struggle).
Second time, I've done this with dating. After reading the book called 'Wired for Dating', I've enlisted strategies suggested, and made detailed plans and workflows for how I'm going to implement them on dates. I had very little prior dating experience, so the goal was mere improvement in: my ability to find people with qualities I'm looking for (and who is likely to appreciate me, NF and NTs), how grounded I am on dates and paying attention to the other person during the date and making the interaction pleasant for both of us. Again, with very little prior dating experience, I didn't feel the enormous pressure to get things right from the start, and I think that's why I saw a massive improvement in all metric when meeting new people in this ridiculously stressful setting. 

Thirdly, after being called a failure by my PE teachers throughout school, I picked up running as a easy sport I can do daily to improve my long term health outcomes, using Michael Mosley's method (the BBC Horizon documentary). Started interval running with 4 mins a day, which seemed easy enough to commit to every day. 3 months later I was running 10k and felt like a boss, fantasising about my PE teacher eating shit (quite rightfully so). Again, I paid attention to how I feel with the challenge level and upped it every other day, adding 10s here and there, or extra one min interval and I run on the same route so I knew if I've gone farther than before within the same time. Less pressure was the key to progress in this area, because I managed to enjoy running at every stage (4 mins I could go through at first cause the pain was short term, turned into 30 mins I actually enjoyed as a part of the longer run later). If I had started with longer running sessions, I would have absolutely hated it and abandoned it in less than a week.

So maybe for INTPs it's important to set up the process of goal attainment in a way to make the middle of the process (past the exciting beginnings) enjoyable and not too stressful, make it as if it's a discovery of some sort. We suck at knowing how we feel, so we'll NEED to learn what is it, that makes this fun for us if we want to achieve anything. If you turn it into an experiment, maybe you're less likely to abandon this ship. 

I've been stuck in a rut lately and I completely forgot about it, because at the time these successes happened, I either only had a boyfriend who is no longer with me, or I didn't have any friends I could tell all about it, and who would celebrate my successes with me :( Memory is treacheros, you see. 

I'm sure INTPs will have had experiences like that, gathering dust, they don't pay attention to when they're apathetic. Those events are very imprortant because they remind us that we can get what we set our mind to, but we might need to approach our goals against the expert advice, and perhaps make sure we remembering ourselves about our successes.

From now on, I'm going to keep a record of things that were hard to start that I persevered in (for this to motivate me when I doubt myself or start becoming apathetic), try to approach my next goal in this exact fashion and see what's behind the next door I guess?

I hope it helps, dude. 

Nige (not verified) says...

Like Justin I don't buy this advice.  It's fine for surface level, day-to-day tasks, but it otherwise ignores the essence and virtues of being an INTP.  I also don't identify with the alleged root causes of perfectionism and INTP problems; I've never been subject to over-stated praise, and have always found it trite and vapid.  The lack of praise, or negative appraisal of my past work have impacted my motivation greatly, however I'm in no doubt that the negativity I recieved was usually as a result of more rigid thinkers - dominant Si, and Se/Te users - who don't like to venture far from the trodden path.  

Commitment and zen arguments, again, really speak negatively of the INTP nature whose ability to rationalise and make efficient (truly efficient, unlike I*TJ claims of efficiency) generally mean the INTP had simplified the required work output so greatly that they often don't require the time others need to complete the task. This,  it seems, rubs the other types up the wrong way when they percieve 'INTP laziness'. 


I'm not saying there is no merit to your arguements but the foundation of your understanding of INTPs is very skewed.  This is certainly a problem that all types have when understanding each other ... E.g. I find INFPs overly sensitive, and IN/STJs unimaginitive, but This is clearly an oversimplification and not seeing others at their best/understanding their intentions, which is what I feel has happened here, and what happens with INTPs a great deal due to being an uncommon type, and the most converse of the more populous types.

Thijs (not verified) says...

I'm looking for something but I can't put my finger on it.

I am 19 years old and only now try to understand the INTP personality. I have dyslexia and am not good in talking. I've always been the 'quiet kid'. This leads me to a position in my head that i don't fit in. I always want to know how people think and find the most normal things like concerts absurd and weird. I don't know how to be social (even tho I have a realy social life). I do have a lot of friends because I act the way they want me to act. The only place where I act the way I want to act is at home. My dad is INTP and my two little brothers are INTP's aswell. I have never felt the way I want to be in public because in my soul I feel like a child. The only thing I want is to understand.

Now to my second part, When I start a project I always find myself lost in thought. When i'm focused again I have the feeling that I'm bored, that leads me to do another project and so forward. I started soccer when I was 6 till the age of 18 but in the back of my head I always wanted to quit. After playing soccer for a big part of my life I started drawing but got bored after doing it for a couple of weeks then started animation, same story. After animation I started doing fitness, I'm trying to push myself, but still have the feeling that I need to quit. 

A some what longer hobby of mine is underground music in holland like SMIB and not that famouse rappers. The funny thing is that because they are being themselfs in the music, I started being in my own world when listening to there music. 

The thing I want: 
I have the feeling that i want something but it isnt on this planet. I feel alone but yet again I have a lot of friends. I want a hobby but I am to distracted in my head to have one or more for a longer periode of time. When in social situations I pretended to be someone I'm not for so long that I don't know how to be myself anymore. I never know what to say to people, I don't know how to follow my feelings


Middle Age INTP (not verified) says...

As an INTP it's really hard to even know what I want... I live in a really nice house, am married & have 3 great kids & most people would see me as very successful.  However, I'm going nuts on the inside - I can't stand all the small talk and mindless chatter in this world. I really do prefer solitude - not for the reason of being alone, but just so that I don't have to be part of the energy-draining chatter.

It isn't any easier to finish things now than when I was younger - I simply get distracted & am unable to re-start whatever it was I was working on. Everything is very interesting until I figure out how it works. Once I see how something is going to work, I generally don't want any part of it anymore & it becomes extremely difficult to really see anything through.

Problem-solving and thinking through and/or discussing theoretical possibilities are energy-generating for me & are probably some of the greatest strengths that INTPs can offer the world. We can accurately & efficiently sort through data and/or situations and apply logic and creativity to solve complex and difficult problems. If you are a young INTP reading this, I encourage you to seek work that generates energy - you will hate detail-oriented work. You are a big-picture thinker & need to focus on strategy, analysis & problem-solving. (Ideas)

Of course, we are afraid of failure. There may not be a specific cause that we can point to regarding this trait. I think it is likely just part of our nature. However, I don't think fear of failure is our greatest stumbling block. I think our greatest challenge is distraction. Even when we focus on a task that needs to get done, there is always something else brewing on the back burner that could take over as a distraction as soon as what we are working on becomes less interesting.

The basic things that will help an INTP (or any type) are blatantly obvious: 1) Get the proper amount of sleep - go to bed early enough to wake up on your own without an alarm. If you are tired it's twice as hard to stay on task or to motivate yourself. 2) Get sufficient exercise. Exercise helps with everything, 3) Ensure you eat a nutritious diet. Eating a poor diet can lead to mental sluggishness.

My INTP-specific suggestions are: 1) focus on what generates energy & stay away from situations, work & people that drain you, 2) read books - this generates energy, 3) limit video game playing - this false-world creates too big of a distraction & too much can really drag you down and make it difficult to maintain your badly-needed focus.

Share your thoughts


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