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Fears of Failure and Success

Surviving Success-Related Phobias

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Updated April 09, 2014

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 a full-blown phobia, crippling 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.

The research seems to show that hope for success and fear of failure are not necessarily related. In fact, it appears that many who fear failure do not necessarily hope for success. Rather, they 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 Fear of Failure

Interestingly, fear of failure does appear to be connected to the fear of success. Research has shown that both conditions share many of the same symptoms. Both are marked by anxiety symptoms in certain situations, such as tests and job interviews. Both conditions can be crippling, leading the sufferer to take few risks and make only safe, conservative choices.

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 to 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 fear of failure and fear of success tend to respond well to treatment. Cognitive-behavioral techniques are often used to help the person learn new ways of thinking about her choices. Psychoanalytic therapies help a person better understand underlying conflicts that may contribute to these fears. If the fear is motivated by a feeling of not being in control of his own life, then exercises may be prescribed in which the client is encouraged to make decisions independently.

Both 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.

Sources:

Midgley, Nina, Abrams, Marsha S. "Fear of success and locus of control in young women."Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 1974. 42:5. p. 737. June 28, 2008.

Reitman, E. E., Williams, C. D. "Relationships between hope of success and fear of failure, anxiety, and need for achievement." The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 1961. 62:2. pp. 465-467. June 28, 2008.

Sadd, Susan, Lenauer, Michael, Shaver, Phillip, Dunivant, Noel "Objective measurement of fear of success and fear of failure: A factor analytic approach." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 1978. 46:3. pp. 405-416. June 28, 2008.

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