Monday, November 26, 2012

The Fear of Success and Why We Sabotage Ourselves

Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his...
Winston Churchill giving his 'V' sign (Wikipedia)
by Dr Masha Godkin

"They succeed because they think they can"- Virgil.

Have you ever felt like you were on the brink of success, like you were about to attain what you had worked so long and hard for? And then, before you know it, it was gone? What happened?

Is success all about timing and luck? Partially, it can be attributed to that. But what is our role in either manifesting it or destructing it?

Fear gets in the way. It's easier for many people to admit fear of failure than a fear of success. Nobody wants to be rejected, or feel like they have not achieved what they set out to.

But everybody says they want to be successful in life, right? A fear of it would then be counterintuitive, it would be irrational. Why would somebody be afraid of success?

We are creatures of habit. People are afraid of change. Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy developed General Systems Theory, which can explain many human behaviors, including the resistance to change.

He used the term "homeostasis" to describe a family system's "internal thermometer." When something in the family system shifted, members would do everything possible to get these back to the "status quo."

For instance, one family member getting sober means that all of the interactions between the members will have to change in some way. Success is defined differently for different people. In this situation, family members of the alcoholic, and perhaps the alcoholic him- or herself may define success as continued abstinence from alcohol.

However, on some level, the spouse of the alcoholic may feel like he or she will no longer be needed to be the care-taker and keep the family together if alcohol is no longer a problem for the family to deal with.

I have seen on numerous occasions clients who find ways to impede change from happening by maintaining the homeostasis. This may take the form of enabling (covering for the alcoholic at work, taking on all of the responsibilities in the house and so on). And it is not uncommon for relationships to fall apart after the alcoholic achieves sobriety.

The concept of homeostasis can be applied to individuals, as well as to a family as a whole. When any kind of reorganization is on the brink of occurring, there is a natural impulse to resist the change.

It's a biological reaction. It goes back to the fight or flight response. When there is a perception that there is some sort of threat in the environment, physically our bodies prepare to take action.

Adrenaline kicks in and heart beat increases, as well as respiration. But what is a perceived threat? Does it have to be something terrible and menacing that we must run from or fight it off in order to survive? Can success, on a subconscious level, be perceived as a threat?

When we fear success, we may be full of self-doubts. We may feel like an "imposter," who has not really deserved the success. A fear of failure and a fear of success can at times be intertwined. We may sense that on some basic level we are flawed, and that if we begin to get what we want, we will be incapable of sustaining it. We may believe that if success is reached, then there will be added responsibilities.

We may fear that we will not be able to handle the success, that we will not be able to live up to other people expectations, and more importantly, our own. Or, we may fear that if we "outshine" others, then they will ultimately reject us out of jealousy, and ultimately we will end up alone. We fear success because it is the unknown.

What if what we are striving for will not ultimately make us happy? "If I only got this job, then I would be happy ... if I could make more money, then everything in my life would be perfect, if I could just meet Mr. or Ms. Right, then I would feel complete." But what if we attained those goals, but yet don't feel satisfied?

We can be on the brink of achieving our goals, and then "relapse" into our own personal homeostasis. At this brink we revert to old ways of behaving which have held us back from success time and time again in the past. Fear of success is like a bad habit. It sabotages movement forward.

The sabotage can take various forms such as laziness, as a relapse after a period of sobriety, or it can be as simple as procrastination. For example, if you procrastinated and didn't prepare for an exam, and then did poorly on it, attributing the bad grade to a lack of studying is easier than a lack of general mental ability (if you had indeed studied, and then still did badly.)

What does success mean for you? What does it look like? Ask yourself what may you be afraid of if you succeed? Try to imagine what you think may happen? Does it have to look like that? Are there different scenarios of what can occur, different pictures you can paint for yourself that define success?

When you ask yourself what may happen if you reached your goals, it's possible that you may come to some realizations. Perhaps you may come to understand that you are sabotaging yourself because on a subconscious level you don't really want to achieve those goals. Maybe the cons outweigh the pros.

Perhaps those are goals that are outdated, or ones that others wanted for you. Or perhaps you will recognize that you truly would like to achieve those goals, but are afraid of failing along the way, afraid that on some level you are not good enough to get what you want.

Take some time to reflect. Make a list of your hopes and dreams. Visualize achieving them. Listen to your internal guide. If low self-esteem issues are getting in the way of your progress, do not be afraid to seek help.

A therapist can assist you in discovering the root causes of your sabotage, as well as to provide you with the tools and strategies to change the thoughts and behaviors that are holding you back from reaching your fullest potential. I'll leave you with one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes to sit with: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."

I welcome any and all thoughts you may have on the topic of the Fear of Success.

Dr. Masha Godkin, Psy.D, MFT is a professor of counseling psychology, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Ca. with an Online Therapy Practice, as well as a former child actor. One of her specialties is in addictive behavior and counseling those in the performing art professions. Visit to learn about the Online Therapy service options that are available.

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