Overcoming fear of success.
May 5, 2007 11:09 PM   Subscribe

Overcoming fear of success.

I deeply want to be successful, yet I seem to fear success almost as much as I fear failure. Towards that end I often find myself doing things that are somewhat self sabataging. For instance, if a job pays well or requires a lot of responsiblity, I'm usually too scared or intimidated to apply for it. I only feel that I'm "worth" the jobs that offer less status and pay.

Another example of my fear of success is a nonprofit idea I had recently. I have gotten feedback from several very knowledgable people who said that it is an excellent idea and that I should put together a business plan and consider applying for some grants. However, I'm terrified to do so! In my family, I was always seen as the immature, unsuccessful one. How could I possibly start my own business?? Even if I did not go very far, I could treat the business plan as a learning opportunity--something to include in my portfolio to show other companies the ideas I have and the type of work I could do. But of course, this would lead to expectations that I would have to meet...and nothing terrifies me more. So my idea is sitting by the wayside.

I also struggle with difficulty defining my goals. I have many, many interests, and consequently find myself expending energy in multiple career directions. Since I never seem to focus on any one thing I pursue multiple endeavors without being particularly successful at any of them. I really believe that if I had better focus and more confidence I could achieve a lot more.

Does anyone have suggestions for overcoming a deeply ingrained fear of success?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
The best way to overcome a fear of something is to "stare it straight in the face". People will fail at things. Starting your own business is very risky. To get over your fear of success, put your self in a situation where you HAVE to deal with it. Then you will probably say to yourself "that wasn't so bad".

This of course assumes that you aren't clinically fearful, that what you feel is in the same degree as most other people. If not, then therapists offer the best solutions.
posted by philomathoholic at 11:24 PM on May 5, 2007

What you are forgetting is that failure is the compliment of success. The key to success is to be unafraid of what outcome an action may have. Could it be that you are more afraid of FAILURE than anything else?

People I know who fit the description of who YOU want to be have the following traits:
a) They are masters of their will
b) They consider failures to be learning experiences
c) They don't care what others think about their perceived recklessness
d) They are always on to the next thing anyway, and don't dwell on the past
e) They are totally passionate about what they do, even when it might be misguided

Maybe this exercise will help, maybe not. Next time you see an attractive person go up to them and tell them something like "I just wanted to let you know that, damn, you're the hottest person I've seen all week." Some will think that you are a creep, some will ignore you and maybe 1 of 10 will laugh and find it to be charming. Do this enough and you won't be so afraid anymore. As philomathoholic says, it's all about exposure.
posted by |n$eCur3 at 12:33 AM on May 6, 2007 [5 favorites]

It appears to me that (at least in the examples you've mentioned), it is failure and not success that you fear.

Not applying for a job is, to me, a sign that you are worried about not getting it, or not being good enough to perform it if you get hired, etc. Your second example also leads to possibilities for failure -- what if your grant proposals aren't good enough, what if you can't met expectations?

In my limited experience, the way to overcome this fear is to consider all the things that could happen, and decide that none of them individually are that bad. In general, trying and not having things work out perfectly (or even well) is no worse than not trying at all. If you consider all potential problems at once, the will seem scary and overwhelming. If, however, you consider them one at a time, each becomes much less of an issue.
posted by bsdfish at 1:55 AM on May 6, 2007

I also struggle with difficulty defining my goals.

I completely sympathize with this. Here's an interesting book about managing multiple interests. Maybe you don't have to whittle your interests down as much as you think you do - and maybe the belief that you've got to put all your energy into one huge goal is part of what's fueling your fear. (What if you pick the wrong one?! etc etc.)

On your specific example: if you decided to dedicate one four-hour period (or whatever) to just scratching the surface of the nonprofit business plan - with no further commitment required, just that one four-hour block... would you really create such expectations among others that you couldn't abandon the project there and then? I bet you wouldn't. Rinse and repeat. Rome was built in four-hour blocks. If you see what I mean.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:12 AM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem. It is not a fear of failure as those before me are saying, rather a totally different problem. It is the fear of moving on, the fear of changing the status-quo. Failure may not be something easily chanced, but really, how scary is looking that in the face? If you fail to achieve more than you are now you are guaranteed to continue living the same existence you are now anyway. That can't be particularly scary.

I didn't graduate from high school. I just couldn't contemplate living a lifestyle outside of my crappy bare-minimum-but-still-get-to-goof off ways. My friends started going to college and I saw that things changed around me regardless of whether or not I wanted to push them forward, and I think that propelled me to get my GED, take the SAT, and get into a college.

Fast forward four years and I just fucked up college graduation. I did enough to scrape by up until this point, but looking at getting a real job and real priorities rather than the fantasyland that most students live in, I guess it's kinda scary. I failed two classes, have to take three this summer to make up for it. I can't say I'm over my bullshit, but I'm assuming I will take care of what I need to. In any given instance, it wasn't something I figured out that compelled me to achieve what was necessary/expected/beneficial, but everything around me that was leaving me behind and causing me to feel like I needed to play catch-up.

If I really think about it, I am probably the last person who needs to give you any advice at all. While I might have the same problem as you, I definitely haven't conquered it. Perhaps all I can offer is the comfort that not having achieved whatever it is that is your potential, which people constantly tell me I am falling short of myself, is not a life crippling situation.

I am an introvert by nature and probably overthink everything that I do. I always figured I would make an excellent protagonist for a book the way I almost obnoxiously think through every situation in front of me were it not for my utterly boring life. Whether you are or not, and I am assuming that you are if you are asking a question that seems to nit-pick over past events that cannot be helped anyway, you should understand that your life will not only go on, but also that while you could have done something, ANYTHING, better than you did before, you most assuredly could think that about any situation. Had you become rich? Maybe you should have become richer. Had you become famous? Maybe you should have been moreso. Had you been president? Maybe you should be presidenting better.

Bottom line? Instead of trying to nitpick your life and "succeed" where your hindsight, 20-20 and all, thinks you have failed, try to enjoy whatever it is you have accomplished before and set your sights forward on accomplishing new things.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 5:34 AM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think that trying to "be successful" can cause problems for you. Instead, you need to try to "have a satisfying career," and success will follow naturally from that.

If your goal is to "be successful," you are basing your goal on other people's opinions. (Success is almost always defined by reference to the opinions of other people---or at least, your perception of what is regarded as a success by other people.) If you, from the very beginning, are striving to be successful, you're going to be failing at every step of the way, because success is usually the end result of a long series of first tries, failures, misfires, ill-conceived attempts, and ambiguous experiences. If you're measuring yourself by "success," you'll feel like a failure.

However, if your goal is to "have a satisfying career," you can succeed at that from the very beginning. Let's say you start your nonprofit. It may end up failing, but success wasn't your benchmark anyway --- your benchmark was satisfaction. Perhaps you learned a lot from the failure, and it was a satisfying career experience for you, which you take to your next job, and you learn a lot more there. In the process, one experience builds upon the last one, and you're having a satisfying career. Your benchmarks should be things like, "Have I done my best? Did I learn as much as I could? Am I working in an area that interests me?"

There's a philosophical dimension to my suggestion that the goal of being successful is flawed. None of us completely control whether we are successful or not. Success has a large element of arbitrariness, based on the social conditions that make success possible. You should not base your own satisfaction with yourself, upon something that is essentially random. (There are probably lots of people who, if the historical circumstance had been right, might have made wonderful U.S. presidents, but life didn't work out that way, so instead they work comparatively mundane jobs to the best of their abilities.) Kant's moral philosophy hinges upon the distinction between heteronomy and autonomy --- heteronomy being "direction by others" and autonomy being "direction by self." He saw heteronomy as being a flawed, less-than-fully-human way of life, and autonomy through fulfillment of duty as the highest thing a person could strive for. To focus on doing the best you can, and letting go of the preoccupation with success, is consistent with Kant's focus on autonomy. (Although, to be fair, Kant might object to a striving for "satisfaction," unless satisfaction is defined by doing one's duty.)

I think your chance of being successful is dramatically increased if your goal is to work a satisfying career --- because success will grow organically when you are challenging yourself and working hard for the right reason, i.e., for your own satisfaction, without single-minded focus on "success" per se.

I remember, vaguely, reading something saying that Freud was asked what constitutes a healthy person, and he said someone who can love and work. I've always thought that was a profound statement, because if you've got those two things covered, all the elements of a good life seem to fall into place. Try to find the work that satisfies you, stick to it, and you're likely to count yourself as successful when you're looking back on your life.
posted by jayder at 9:03 AM on May 6, 2007 [4 favorites]

Maybe a completely different perspective here - in my case, it was more a case of low self esteem, combined with not completely developed social skills, which led me to think along the lines of 'why do people think I'm such a great guy?' and 'I don't think I'm worth what they're paying me'.
No easy answers here I'm afraid, just a period of understanding what's really going on and then fixing it. In my case, it took me a while before I understood that it was the social dynamics that were holding me back, and once I figured that out, and how to hold my own in a social situation that I could turn my thinking around.
I know how terribly unhappy that particular situation can be and I can only encourage you to try different things - take a creative writing class or an improv class or a dancing class and see if you can get your brain to go 'hey, I'm good at this'. That's when I started to change.

Good luck.
posted by Arthur Dent at 9:45 AM on May 6, 2007

Goose, why would you have a fear of changing the status quo if you weren't worried that the change would make you worse off than you are now (if not economically, than emotionally)? What you are describing is still a fear of failure to some degree.

The only reason I've seen for true fear of success is actually a fear of public visibility - if you're successful, that inevitably puts different demands on your social relationships, which IS scary to some people. Anything besides that is just a fear of failure in disguise, as many have said upthread.
posted by chundo at 1:03 PM on May 6, 2007

I suggest keeping a diary. It's the metaphysical equivalent of staring in a mirror, and I think it might help you.

Also, consider inevitability. If you're intelligent, and capable, then you'll succeed, no matter what (and in spite of yourself). Bubbles always rise to the top of the glass.

Be confident in your abilities. Avoid taking yourself too seriously. Try to enjoy it. Just get on with it.
posted by humblepigeon at 1:05 PM on May 6, 2007

Really good suggestions here so far. I would add a few things to the mix. They may be re-wording of some ideas above, but here you go:

Establish a sense of destiny. You are here on earth for a reason. Your gifts are meant to be shared with humanity. If you don't pursue your gifts, the world will be a lesser place. Who are you to deny us of what you could offer? As a mentor told me recently: Don't die with your song still in you.

Get a mentor. Find someone who is doing what you want to do. Be honest about your goals and ask if you can help in exchange for learning. Like an internship. Or just see if you can meet with them from time to time and get some advice. Many people will be honored. If you can't find someone personally, do some research. Read books and Google info about successful people you admire. Seeing how others have succeeded will help you as well.

Say "How can I?" Any time you find yourself saying "I can't" replace it with "How can I?" "I can't" immediately closes you to any possible solution. And if you are afraid of success, you will use "I can't" as an excuse to not try.

Believe that opportunities exist and you will see them. Once you train yourself to see the world as your oyster, you will see opportunities that tie into what you want to do every time you look around. It's just like when you decide to buy a certain model of car. All of a sudden, you see that kind of car everywhere you go, because you recognize it when you see it! Tune in to opportunities, expect them, and you will recognize them when you see them.

There is nothing mystical or metaphysical about any of this, but it can feel like magic! You deserve as much success as you are willing to work for.

No one else on earth is any more worthy of success than you!
posted by The Deej at 1:26 PM on May 6, 2007 [5 favorites]

I want to add another thought. |n$eCur3's list of traits of successful people is valuable, and other such lists are often found in literature about success. These are good traits to have, and good to strive for.

However, like you, I often fear success, and it can be easy for me to look at those traits and just say "that's not me!" and give up.

Many successful people are born with such traits. But many more develop those traits as they pursue their goals, because they have to.

The best way to develop traits of success and leadership is to be in situations that require them.

|n$eCur3's advice about approaching people out of your comfort zone is exactly right. Whether it's that exact situation, or another "stretching" exercise, doing those kinds of things will cause you to develop the necessary traits.

Good luck! I hope we all hear a story in the near future about someone who is has achieved their goals, and he/she will say "It all started when I got some direction from MetFilter." :)
posted by The Deej at 1:39 PM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Michael Jordan once said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
posted by sharkfu at 4:38 PM on May 6, 2007

Good God I was doing a google search on this and lo and behold, it was askmefi that had the answers.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has always helped me with fears. I suggest Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:16 PM on May 20, 2007

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