How to Overcome the Fear of Success

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Most of us are driven to be successful, whether in our careers, social lives, families, or other dimensions of human existence. This appears to be an innate drive that matures and changes throughout our lives. Erik Erickson described human development as a series of stages, each focused on achieving success in a different aspect of life. In order to achieve success, though, it is often necessary to first experience failure; hard-learned lessons are generally required.

In today's driven society, failure is often seen as unacceptable. We are encouraged to innovate but avoid "wasting" time or money. When we fail, we may be threatened or even punished by employers, spouses, and parents. This negative experience can lead to a fear of failure. A low level of fear can be inspiring, but a higher level of fear can become crippling to our progress.​

Is Hope for Success Related to Fear of Failure?

It has been hypothesized that those who have a strong desire for success may actually be suffering from a fear of failure. This hypothesis makes a lot of logical sense, as achieving success is by definition the opposite of failure. Several researchers have tested this hypothesis with mixed results.

Research seems to show that hope for success and fear of failure are not necessarily related. In fact, it appears that those who fear failure don't hope for success but rather seek to avoid risky situations or choices that may garner attention.

These people are often happy to travel the middle of the road, making conservative choices that will allow them to get by without making waves instead of taking the riskier paths that have a higher chance of failure.

Fear of Success and Control

Fear of success also appears to be related to the level of control that the sufferer feels in his or her own life. Those who feel that external forces are in control tend to be at a higher risk for fear of success. It could be that they do not feel that their success has been earned, or it could be that they fear outside forces may take away their success.

Some people seem to fear both success and failure simultaneously. This can be a very difficult situation to be in, as every choice that the person makes must be weighed against these fears. It is entirely possible for someone in this situation to become paralyzed with indecision, unable to make any choices at all.

Fear of Self-Promotion

The fear of self-promotion is often heavily intertwined with the fears of failure and success. Loosely defined as a type of social phobia, the fear of self-promotion can make it difficult or impossible to ask for a raise, seek a better job, or even land a first date. The fear of self-promotion is sometimes linked to imposter syndrome, a disorder hallmarked by feeling like a fraud, no matter how many accomplishments you make.

Treating Fear of Failure and Fear of Success

Both fears of failure and success tend to respond well to treatment. Cognitive-behavioral techniques may focus on automatic thoughts and dysfunctional beliefs that contribute to fears of success. Psychoanalytic therapies help a person better understand underlying experiences and conflicts that may contribute to these fears.

Both the fear of failure and success are complicated conditions that can prevent sufferers from achieving their full potential. With professional help, though, both conditions can be successfully overcome.

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By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.