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What is the Difference Between Fear of Failure and Fear of Success?

Why would any person “want” to sabotage their potential successes? Sounds like a far-fetched notion, right? From my own personal narrative and the accounts of those who visit me in my counseling practice, I can assure you that the fear of success is just as real as one’s fear of failure. Many of us are driven by the fear of failure, and we give little credence to the fear of success. Intrigued? Read on and join in the experiential meditation.

When I introduced this topic at a She-Suite this past fall, several participants had major realizations and a few ah-hah moments. Fear is the force behind issues of depression, self-doubt, anger, and so forth, therefore, it is a worthy topic to explore here. Because the question about fear of success had been generated by the members of The Startup Ladies, I imagined that some women had experienced some misgivings about their successes.

Excitement of success feels uncomfortably close to the feeling of arousal one may experience when subjected to a traumatic event or multiple events. (This feeling of arousal can be linked to sexuality in certain cases where trauma has been experienced in that realm, but that is not always the case.) People who have experienced trauma may associate the excitement of success with the same physiological reactions as trauma. They avoid subjecting themselves to excitement-inducing circumstances which cause them to be almost phobic about success. My counseling clients’ past experience feeds their current fear of success. For them, the feeling excited about a potential or real success fuels fear instead of jubilance and a sense of accomplishment.

There is another layer to the fear of success. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that the road to success involves risks such as "getting one's hopes up" which threatens to lead to disappointment. And many of us---especially if we've been subject to verbal abuse---have been told we were losers our whole lives in one way or another. We have internalized that feedback and feel that we don't deserve success. Even those of us who were not abused or otherwise traumatized often associate success with uncomfortable things such as competition and its evil twin, envy. In order to have a healthy relationship with success (and it's flip-side, failure), the first step is to learn to differentiate between feelings of excitement and a "trauma reaction."

Here is an easy exercise:

  1. Recall an event where you were successful or excited when you were younger, and notice what you are feeling and sensing in your memory. Stay with the sensation of for 5 minutes.

  2. Recall an event where you were successful and excited recently in your life, and notice what you are feeling and sensing. Stay with this sensation of for 5 minutes.

  3. Now tap into the sensation of a memory of an overwhelming situation. I suggest not starting with a truly traumatic event, at least not without a therapist's support. Start with something only moderately disturbing to you.

  4. Now, go back to visualizing your success story. Do you notice a difference?

Fear and excitement have bodily responses. Our nervous system kicks into high gear. One client stated:

"I was looking up how the body responds to fear, and it said that when we sense fear the brain transmits signals and our nervous system kicks in causing our breathing to quicken, our heart race to increase... we become sweaty, and we run on instinct. When we get excited or enthusiastic, doesn't our nervous system work the same way?"

I assured her that, yes, the physical reactions to stress and to excitement are very similar. So, when we experience a traumatic event—such as a car accident, a beating by our parents, or a school bullying incident—our body associates the fear we experience with the same physiological feelings we get while excited. Once we have been through enough trauma, we start to avoid (if we are old enough and able) those types of situations that trigger memories of fear. For this reason, trauma victims can tend to avoid excitement, and that can lead them to avoid success. I often work with trauma victims to understand their fears and associations and help them embrace and follow the path to success and healthy recovery.

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