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Fear of Failure vs. Fear of Success

Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK


Very often people do not achieve their goals as a result of being debilitated by the fear of failing.  They are scared of taking risks or scared of putting themselves on the line by committing to a worthy goal because just maybe they will let themselves, and others, down if they don’t achieve it.

However, one form of pressure that is rarely spoken about that I believe is one of the most counter intuitive and difficult to come to grips with, and that affects many of the most gifted individuals is not the fear of failure, but the fear of success. These people often are very high achievers that end up being very successful up to a point, but fall short or even stop competing. Success to them brings discomfort, pain, and becomes simply not worth it. People around them usually say what a pity because that person seemed to have it all. How do you address the fear of success and why do these individuals not enjoy success or desire more?”

Although fear of success is much rarer, it can sometimes be mistaken as a fear of failure.

What is the difference between fear of failure and fear of success?

Fear of failure is much more common than fear of success. Fear of failure is a mindset that causes individuals to perform tentatively or defensively. It is the fear of working hard and not attaining that which you desire.

Fear of failure causes individuals to focus on the negatives, such as not to make mistakes, not to disappoint a coach, friend, co-worker, parent, etc…, or not to feel embarrassed. The interesting part about the fear of failure is that it is sprouts from an intense desire to win, achieve, or perform well. The greater the emotional energy individuals put into a particular endeavour (eg. Sport, work, etc…), the greater the potential for fear of failure to set in.

Fear of failure is characterized by high expectations, a strong desire to success (and not fail), anxiety or tension, worrying too much about results or outcomes, social approval issues or worrying to much about what others think, and performing with a serious, controlled mindset.

Overall, the fear of failure prevents you from taking risks and being truly free and successful.  No matter what your endeavour; be it sport, business, work, or other, being able to take risks is essential because the person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, and is nothing.  Sorry if these harsh but it’s the truth.

A great example of someone who takes risks despite drastic consequences in the event of failure is Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin.  Apart from being a fearless entrepreneur, he also leads his life to the fullest, engaging in wild activities such as hot air ballooning across the Atlantic and skydiving, just to name a few.

During his famous hot air balloon trip across the Atlantic Ocean several years back, Branson found himself, during several occasions, at a crossroad where a decision had to be made on whether or not to continue his journey.  His uncompromising determination and fearlessness brought forth his resourcefulness and creativity when faced with life threatening problems allowing him to continue his journey to its fullest.  Eventually, his balloon crash landed in the Atlantic not too far from his destination and thankfully he was ok.

The moral of the story is that even though he didn’t achieve what he had fully set out to do (due to crashing) he didn’t allow the possibility of failing to enter his mind.  Sure he had his doubts now and then but he knew that because he committed to achieving this goal, it would be done.  After all, it’s all about the journey…not the goal!

Fear of Success

On the other hand, individuals who stifle their performance with fear of success are mostly concerned with the “problems” that come with success. Have you heard the saying, “it’s lonely at the top?” Case in point: Tiger Woods. Yes, he is the best golfer on the planet and makes boatloads of money, but can you imagine what precautions Tiger has to take just to go out to dinner in public? An individual who displays fear of success engages in self-sabotage so they will not have to cope with these issues that come with success.

The consequences of self-sabotage are lack of motivation, making mental errors, blowing a big lead in an event, or giving up altogether. This leads to a snowball effect in which the individual may lose confidence and focus.

Fear of success is the fear of the problems associated with being successful, recognized, and honored. For example, one of the specific fears athletes maintain is that other people will have greater expectations for their performance. Another common fear is that they will lose friends and make enemies if they are too successful. Often it is hard for individuals to enjoy success because they feel “burdened” by achievement in many ways including how they may have to change their lives.

Fear of success is characterized by a lack of desire to achieve personal goals, self-sabotaging behavior such as not showing up for practice, exercise sessions, important meetings, and feeling guilty or undeserving when achieving success. Fear of success, like fear of failure also can be rooted in an over concern for what others think. For example, individuals with fear of success worry about what friends may feel about them (envy, jealousy, hatred) when they reach to the top of their sport, business, or corporate ladder, and worry if friendships will be in jeopardy.

So, how does one cope with fear of success?

The first step is to identify the root cause of the fear.  Are you afraid of higher expectations? Are you afraid of not feeling satisfied? Are you afraid of making enemies and losing friends at the top?

Ask yourself this question: “What is the worse thing that could happen to me if I am successful?”

Once you identify the root of the fear underlying the fear of success, now you can approach it head on and work through it. It’s also helpful to understand the type of self-sabotage an individual might engage – lack of motivation, lack of commitment, making excuses, giving up the moment success is close, or self-destructive thought patterns.

Ask the question: “In what ways do I self-destruct my own performance and success?”

Like fear of failure, fear of success often boils down to developing healthier beliefs about yourself (and the endeavour in which you’re striving for success) by refuting, rebutting, or changing the beliefs that underlie the fears associated with fear of failure.

Be confident in yourself and go for it!  You deserve to achieve anything you want in life even if you don’t think so.


© 2006 Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK


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