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Why do we fear failure so much?

A health coaching client of mine was so afraid of getting it wrong, they didn’t even try to start until we tried something new…

Cognitive dissonance theory, developed by psychologist Leon Festinger, is a psychological concept that explores the discomfort individuals experience when they hold conflicting beliefs or attitudes.This theory can play a significant role as a motivational force for change. It’s the reason why your patients can want to get fitter but also spend their evenings sat on the sofa. Or want to eat more healthily but also enjoy a takeaway…. 3 nights a week.

Recognition of Inconsistency:

Health coaching often involves helping individuals recognise inconsistencies between their current health behaviours and their desired health goals. Patients may hold conflicting beliefs, such as understanding the importance of a healthy lifestyle but engaging in unhealthy habits. The coach’s role is to highlight these inconsistencies and create awareness of the cognitive dissonance. “Hey, did you notice you want X, but you’re still doing Y…?”

We had already done some work on outdated beliefs but still she could not get started…

Discomfort and Tension:

Once individuals become aware of the inconsistency, they experience cognitive dissonance, which generates discomfort and tension. This discomfort arises from the perceived imbalance between their current behaviours and their health objectives. It’s this discomfort which acts as a powerful motivator for change, as we humans are naturally inclined to seek comfort, familiarity and stability in our lives.

“So how does what you’re doing now help you towards your goal?”

So all her health anxiety was pushing her into her panic zone, which wasn’t helpful to grow.

Motivation for Change:

Once you’ve got them a teensy bit uncomfortable, the coach can guide clients in exploring alternative, healthier behaviours that align with their health goals. In doing so, you’re exploring a pathway out of the current discomfort and into a place where things start to make a little more sense.

“What could you do that would take you one step closer to your goal?”

We focused on short-term small wins, something that was achievable quickly and gave her some momentum to move forward at her own pace.

Setting Realistic Goals:

Health coaches can work with clients to set realistic and achievable health goals that address the identified inconsistencies. By breaking down larger objectives into smaller, manageable steps, patients can experience a sense of accomplishment and gradually reduce cognitive dissonance. This approach helps in sustaining motivation over time and fostering long-term behaviour change.

We focused on giving her brain evidence that she could move forward safely, and that she was achieving.

Support and Guidance:

Cognitive dissonance can be emotionally challenging, and your patients may naturally be resistant.

“What support do you need here? Who can offer you that support?”

She started to recognise in her body the signs of resistance, and has reframed that feeling into progress!

Reinforcement of Positive Behaviours:

Then, it’s all about reinforcing the positives with the evidence that they’re progressing and making positive changes. Acknowledging and celebrating achievements not only builds their relationship with you, but builds their confidence in their abilities.

“You’ve shown really resilience in pursuing this- look at where you were last week to where you are now!”

We also begin to celebrate her failures, because failure is the first attempt in learning. This means we were able to focus on her efforts instead of her achievements which motivated her to keep trying and figuring it out.


It might sound strange to suggest how making your clients uncomfortable can actually be a powerful part of the process. You can capitalise on the discomfort generated by cognitive dissonance, guiding your patients toward resolving inconsistencies and fostering a more positive mindset and lifestyle.

Will you use cognitive dissonance theory when your patients begin to lag in their health goals?

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