Be self-aware: The fear of success can exceed our dread of failure

By Dr David Cliff, Managing Director of Gedanken.
In my work as a business coach and mentor, I underplay the fact that I also happen to be a therapist, as the knowledge often freaks people out. I suspect they are somehow afraid of being “analysed”.

However, all forms of awareness – whether personal or business – requires a degree of analysis and the only thing we have to be afraid of is missing the opportunity for greater self-understanding.

In this respect I examine the notion of ‘success’ not as a definition of business prowess, but as a personal phenomenon contributing to self-image, ego and feelings of fulfilment.

In reality, success is a strange and ill-defined term. We talk about it like we know what it means. In truth, it is a ‘meta’ tag of a whole range of subjective meanings measuring whether or not what we do ensures internal satisfaction, social acceptance and a sense that life is meaningful.

Success creates a range of both opportunities and threats but our resulting behaviour does not simply develop in isolation. Instead, it reflects our needs.

As a consequence, when we try to do something different, it carries a risk of failure. At a primal level, if we fail to secure a food supply, starvation is the attendant fear.

Primitive human kind knew this all too well, creating an impetus for using our intelligence to secure food. In the modern world, failure often engenders social fears including rejection and labelling.

For many, fear of failure does not only involve external factors, but also internal forces linked to self-image, self-worth, capabilities and learned processes which hamper performance.

It’s a fierce mix, so much so that fear of failure can stop people even trying. For many, the belief of their failure is greater than the likelihood of certainty and therefore it’s better not to try.

Motivation to avoid loss is often greater than that to create gain. To a certain extent, this separates the entrepreneur from those seeking employment and who are more risk avoidant.

An examination of the fear of failure is a valid coaching and personal development objective and legitimately sits between traditional coaching practice and personal development/psychotherapeutic approaches.

But there is more to self-limitation. Ego structures are pretty fixed entities so if we wish to change them, we find our internal defence mechanisms faithfully protect our internal structures, even if some are not working for us.

It’s at this point that the fear of success emerges. Fear of a lifestyle incompatible with self-image.

Success often means that how we feel about ourselves – the ‘elephants’ in our personal ‘room’ – are challenged completely. We need to change into not just someone who is striving but someone who owns their success and is prepared to change their identity to further define it.

This type of thinking is typified by the difference between survivalist approaches to life and those approaches embracing prosperity as primary drivers. The latter thinking pattern requires a massive mind-set shift unless one is born to it. Being born to it creates a whole range of other issues for another article on another day!

Common to both fear of success and fear of failure is the phenomenon of self-sabotage where consciously or unconsciously, we block our progress and remove the impetus to try.

This can take the form of limiting beliefs, often accompanied with self-talk reinforcing the ‘half full’ nature of the world. It involves a litany of excuses and projections of failure onto others that account for why we simply should not try.

We then fail to commit to endeavours in a ‘full-on’ way. At this point there is little need for a balanced understanding of the risks of ‘throwing one’s hat in the ring’, and a realisation of the value of learning gained from whatever the outcomes are. In short, we stop growing and start retreating.

Self-Sabotage can lead to constant circular thinking resulting in anxiety and depression and calls into question one’s self-image and the metamorphosis one must start to take to step into greater success.

I have a simple mantra, whether the glass is half full or half empty, I want a bigger measure.

It might not be about wealth, fame, acceptance or status, it may simply be about real experiences which add to who we are. Vast potential exists within us all, but many of us need to better understand those inner processes which keep compromising the success we overtly strive for.