Fear of Failure & Fear of Success | Goal Achievement Series – Part 2

The topics discussed today reflect the only obstacle standing in your way, and that is yourself. You might not be doing it on purpose just like you know exactly why cleaning your house is a priority… Not to mention you have 2 assignments due the next day. Perhaps it seems a bit harsh to point the finger at yourself, but if that is what it takes for a much-needed reality check, then baby, you’re gonna have to hurt a little. I’ve spoken about failure and fear of failure already. However I feel it is necessary to delve in deeper into that subject, since it seems to be the most crippling factor in the pursuit of goals.

If you are going to live life, even the best kind of life, you will face aversive situations at one time or another because that is just the price to pay. Even your dream job will include having bad days, difficult clientele and a huge amount of effort. This goes for anything in life. It’s not all good, it’s not all bad.

What Is Fear?

Fear is described as the emotional response to a perceived threat, often times the threat being a reflection of our (perceived) inefficacy to deal with the threat. Forget about all the biological and evolutionary aspect of fear; instead, let’s focus on the societal and human-created concept. We experience different kinds of fear, some types being age-specific (i.e. running away crying from the vacuum cleaner at 5 years old vs. finding a job when you graduate). A lot of times it comes from wanting or having to prove ourselves to others, keeping up a certain image or avoiding disappointing someone.

Fear of Failure

To experience fear is normal, as long as it does not prevent you from living and enjoying life. Yet why would anyone choose (often times subconsciously) to settle? Number one reason: to avoid shame and embarrassment. What tends to cause these? Failure. An uncertain future, diminished perception of self, having important others losing interest in you or disappointing important others are other aversive consequences of failure (see Conroy’s Performance Failure Appraisal Inventory online if interested). 

Rejection (failure being life’s way of rejecting you or your goals) coupled with shame and embarrassment (which causes us to be fearful) make for a crippling concoction. Add in past (negative) experiences, you can be sure that you will want to stay in your safe zone.

We all experience fear and failure at one time or another, but what differentiates a successful and thriving individual from the one that succumbs to their fear? Proactive versus reactive responses to threat.

reactive response to threat

  • Resulting Behaviour: Self-sabotage or lower people’s expectations of you or your skills (ex.:”Oh I hate reading, so I’ll probably end up failing this class”).

proactive response to fear

  • Resulting Behaviour: Actively handle the situation by choosing to involve yourself despite feeling fearful. Note that “perceived ability is moderate to high” doesn’t mean you already possess the full skill set to achieve your goal. Instead, it means that you perceive yourself as capable of improving and learning.

Fear of Success

Now that we’ve proven ourselves worthy of people’s time and attention, we want to secure our place at the top. But like they say, people on top have more to lose. And this can be scary.

fear of success

Fear of change

Looking closely at the different points mentioned above, we might as well conclude that the fear of success is rooted in the fear of change. (great, another thing we fear!) You might have pinned down a routine you like, perfect just the way it is. You find that knowing what to expect brings you bliss. But here comes your dream projects and goals. You already have a clear idea on where to start and what it takes to get to the finish line. Inspired, you are ready to put pen to paper and hustle.

But oh! You soon visualize what it would be like to actually be or do _[enter your goal]_. Then comes the overwhelming wave of emotions: you think about the endless to-do’s and the work you’d need to keep putting in after your achievements. Depending on what your dream is, you might be put under the spotlight and asked to do presentations and interviews in front of a whole bunch of people.

You’d probably have to be away from home, travel from time to time… Who’ll take care of your pet(s)?* What about family obligations? And leaving friends or a significant other behind? (You get the idea) Yikes! How about we just to stick to what it is like right now? 

When they think of success, people crave the idea of it, what stops them however, is thinking about the work, failures, risks and uncertainty. Anything standing between their current situation and the end result. Yet you need to realize that people who are doing what you want to do (and have what you want to have), aren’t sitting there and getting sent free packages by mail (and if they are they worked hard to get there). So embrace the changes! You’ll only be rewarded… You’ll figure it out one day at a time. I promise.

Imposter syndrome

We cannot talk about fear of success without mentioning the imposter syndrome. High-achieving individuals find it difficult to internalize their successes, thereby making luck the real hero. Meaning: they cannot take credit for their good fortune. Thus, they fear being unmasked as frauds. I think it’s because we don’t realize that anyone has the potential to be successful. Many believe that life is about sitting idly by as things just happen (reactive). Yet we can be CEOs and still have so much more to learn. So it’s understandable that on some level we never truly are experts, but as long as we are authentic and our work is our own, we are not imposters. 

Putting fear in perspective

As I’ve mentioned in countless of posts in the past, it’s all about perspective. All it takes is a little introspection and a willingness to learn about yourself. When you let this fear (consciously and subconsciously) immobilize you, the only person paying for your avoidance and self-sabotage is you. So “saving” yourself from failure, embarrassment, shame, and any potential threats is counterintuitive. In fact, you are making yourself unhappy and unfulfilled, and the last thing you are doing is saving yourself. 

Instead, use fear as an indication of a new challenge to achieve. The more you do something, the less fearful you’ll be… until something else comes along. But this is the beauty of life. How boring would it be if everything came easily…

*I’ve purposefully not mentioned kids because I do not believe I’m fit to talk for parents who have responsibilities of this magnitude. Although if you are a parent who has made changes in your life and would like to write a guest post, I’d be more than happy to work with you! (just use the contact form to get in touch)

adaptive vs maladaptive ways of dealing with fear           





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