Fear of Success

October 10, 2007 — Leave a comment

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We’ve all heard about the “ecstasy of success” and the “agony of defeat.” But, what about the agony of success? Do you ever side-step success because you believe you’re not worthy of it?

Or, do you ever feel guilty for conquering what you set out to achieve, or worry that others will reject you for being recognized for your accomplishments? According to social psychologists, the fear of success can actually be more detrimental than the fear of failure.

Unlike fear of failure, fear of success can be far more debilitating and insidious because it is unconscious – we operate on automatic pilot, day after day, without consciously examining our fears. It’s not necessarily fearing success that’s the problem, it’s often fearing the side-effects of success that are most troubling. Success requires change, and change has both positive and negative consequences. While it’s beneficial to focus on the bright side of a goal, we need to take an in-depth survey of the dark side and accept that those aspects come with the territory, as well.

Fears that have never been thoroughly evaluated have a tendency to grow deeper and stronger roots due to behavioral conditioning – when I avoid my fears I reinforce my avoidance behavior. In other words, when I avoid working on a goal because of a hidden fear of success, I reinforce my procrastination habit, which makes it harder and harder for me to take action. The more I avoid the more I procrastinate, and the more I procrastinate the harder it is to feel motivated because I feel so overwhelmed.

There is one key question that we should ask ourselves along this road to recovery from fear of success:

“What Will Happen if I Succeed?”
Goal-achievement is seldom all roses. There are often unexpected side-effects that you may not consciously be aware of yet are preventing you from taking committed action. Never mind what you hope will happen or what you fear might happen, but realistically consider what will likely happen. You achieve your goal. Then what? What else will be different? What will I need to accept? What will I need to relinquish? Set about 30-minutes of uninterrupted time aside to just think about how your life will really change once you achieve your goal.Let’s take losing weight, for example. Some possible side-effects are: people will notice and make comments, they will ask me for diet advice, I will need to give up certain beloved foods in order to maintain my weight, I will need to buy new clothes, I may attract unwanted social encounters, my overweight friends might become jealous, my family will resist my new lifestyle changes and protest, etc.

These are very realistic outcomes. For instance, if some one loses a lot of weight they will need new clothes. But what if you don’t have enough money for new clothes?

Resolve Each “Side-Effect” of Success

If we don’t figure this out ahead of time it can be enough to subconsciously sabotage our efforts. But once we examine all the possible side-effects of success and figure out a way to deal with them in advance, you send a confirmation to yourself that this is no longer an issue to fear because you now have a practical resolution. For example, you’ll trade housekeeping or babysitting for alteration services with your seamstress next-door neighbor. The beauty of taking out a magnifying glass is that fear has a tendency to shrink under direct examination.Consciously Choose & Change Dreams
Sometimes through this process you will say, “Never mindââ?¬Â¦it’s just not worth it.” That is a noble answer if the goal isn’t in line with your values. It’s hard to create success unless your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions are attuned to it. Sometimes you hit bottom when you reach the top of a lofty goal. If in your cost-benefit analysis you decide it’s not worth it to achieve or maintain that goal after all, have the courage to say, “No, thank you” and allow someone else the opportunity to be PTA President or CEO. That’s NOT fear of success – it’s about being rational and adaptive. If you don’t want to scale the corporate ladder, good for you, as long as you know what you’re ding and why you’re doing it. Conscious choice is the Holy Grail of therapy.

That’s a fine-line, because “I can’t” can come too early in the game, before we’ve even examined the consequences, because we say “I can’t” out of habit.

I’d love to see us replace “I can’t” with “How Can I?” In addition, if we go for a position, or a role, someone needs to get it, right, so “Why Not Me?” Someone needs to fit the void, “why not me?”

“How Can I? Why Not Me?”
Fear of success can be changed into a willingness to succeed. Write out your fear on paper, figure a resolution to any item that needs one, destroy the paper, and play out the movie of your successful future in your imagination – you’ll be well on your way to achieving what is your heart’s desire! You will only achieve the level of success that you can imagine.

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Dr. Liz Hale

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