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Quadripolar modelPerhaps everyone is familiar with the fear of failure: a paralyzing sensation of a probable setback preventing a person from accomplishments, broadening one’s zone of comfort, trying out something new, self-expression, and so on. Indeed, the fear of failure can greatly affect a person’s life, so even a gifted and skilled man or woman who could have reached success due to his or her talents prefers to stay passive to avoid potential failures. However, this is not the only obstacle one can face; there is also another fear, which for many people might seem paradoxical, but which, nevertheless, is an effective and sometimes unbearable barricade on one’s way to accomplishments: the fear of success.

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At first glance, it might seem absurd; the fear of success is something a person in the modern success-oriented society can hardly confess to other people. Still, it remains a great problem for thousands of people all over the world. A talented writer having written several brilliant novels, hesitating to send them to a publishing house; an office worker who could greatly improve the productivity of his/her department, afraid to step up and submit his/her propositions on reorganization; a scientist bearing a revolutionary theory contradicting deep-seated conceptions, but does not expose them; a person having found a dream job, but afraid to send his or her CV. These are just some examples of the fear of success.

But what causes this fear? Why would someone be so afraid of reaching their dreams so badly that it would prevent them from even trying to do it? Psychologists suggest several possible reasons for this.

Susanne Babbel, a psychologist specializing in trauma and the post traumatic stress disorder, believes that the fear of success might have something in common with the fear of excitement and arousal, including sexual sensations. People who suffered from traumatic experiences in the past, or are struggling with PTSD currently, might confuse the excitement of success with the excitement or arousal experienced during traumatic events (since excitement is not necessarily a “positive” feeling—it can occur not only while anticipating for something pleasant to happen, but also in situations of danger). For example, if excitement or arousal was experienced in relation to sexual trauma, the excitement of being close to achieving success might, in certain cases, be confused with the sensations connected to the trauma, and thus become undesired and feared; although, this is not always the case. In other words, people who have undergone traumatic events can associate the feeling of success with the feeling of trauma, and in order to avoid exposing themselves to danger, they prefer to abstain themselves from accomplishing their goals, or achieving success otherwise (Psychology Today).

Success has a more complicated nature than failure, and is connected to great uncertainty. Failure is more “familiar,” so to say; success, on the other hand, may involve enormous potential changes in one’s lifestyle, behavior, connections, and so on. Therefore, for some people, it feels safer to stay within known territory—in the situations they have got used to; success implies becoming exposed to criticism, evaluation, envy, new demands, social pressure, expectations, public scrutiny, and so on. A person subconsciously anticipating all this may not feel prepared for this kind of challenge, so in order to feel safer, such a person prefers to not strive for success, but rather to stay where they are (99U).

Another reason underlying the fear of success might seem insignificant at first glance, but it is still a serious problem for many people, especially in religious communities. This is the fear of appearing nonspiritual, materialistic, and egoistic. Many people, not necessarily religious, live with the conviction that there is something wrong about wanting to be successful and rich; “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This Biblical quote, as well as its numerous variations (such as “rich people are dishonest/greedy/bad”), often being misinterpreted, serves as one of the main stop signs for many people. Success is often linked with money, and money in public consciousness is something that directly opposes spirituality, inner peace, self-development. Such expressions as “to sell-out,” “to be shallow,” “to be selfish,” “to be overly ambitious” and many others point to an opposition between being a spiritual person and being rich—as if one excludes another. Oppressed by public opinion along with one’s own convictions, a person might sometimes even consciously avoid situations where they could prove themselves, stand out somehow, just in order to appear more spiritual, more altruistic, than if they would in case of achieving success (Lifehack).

It is also important to remember about the fear of disappointment—the fear of success often goes hand-by-hand with it. Many people live under the impression that striving for success assumes having high expectations and hopes; in case if success cannot be achieved for some reason, the fear of having one’s hopes and dreams crumble may be a strong obstacle, so success becomes connected to potential disappointment; avoiding the latter, a person also avoids the former. Besides, people tend to feel they are simply not good enough for success, due to abusive feedback from their environment received in childhood (for instance, children calling each other “losers” in schools, or parents envying someone else’s success and justifying their own misfortunes with the constructions such as “honest people cannot have it”). Success, in this case, becomes something a person feels he/she does not deserve, or should not have (Psychology Today).

The fear of success is a complicated phenomena, involving a number of smaller fears, misconceptions, and wrong convictions. A fear of success might be connected to some traumatic events that occurred to a person in the past; it can be also caused by the fear of great changes in one’s life accompanied by success. A person might think that “good people cannot be successful,” that they do not deserve success, or that being successful somehow turns them into selfish, shallow beings. All these convictions can be got rid of, so a person fearing success should not be ashamed of their feelings, and should probably visit his or her local psychotherapist for consultations, as it is an effective way of dealing with harmful and/or dysfunctional beliefs.

Works Cited

  • Babbel, Susanne. “Fear of Success.” Psychology Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2017. .
  • “Are You (Subconsciously) Afraid of Success?” 99U. N.p., 09 Mar. 2016. Web. 09 Feb. 2017. .
  • “What to Do if You Have a Fear of Success.” Lifehack. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2017. .
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