Everyone fails. For many, fear of failure is paralyzing and holds them back from trying something new, taking a risk, or taking a step towards their goals.
Conquering this fear of failure, not letting it stand in your way, and learning how to turn failure into success have become mantras of sorts that almost all of us have heard at some point in our lives.
Fear of failure may actually be the small hurdle, though, ironically enough. Fear of success, the somewhat counter-intuitive concept that we are scared of achieving what we want to achieve, may be more subtle, harder to recognize, and more real than you think.
Here’s why you should understand it.
Success means change (even if it’s the change you always wanted)
If you try something and fail, you go back to what you knew. You may not be happy about it, but you go back to your comfort zone.
If you try something and succeed, you head into uncharted territory. Things are different. Things change.
You often hear about athletes, musicians, or performers who are catapulted from relative obscurity to the big time. Although that kind of success may have been their dream and aspiration, many say that they were just not ready for that level of success.
Many talk about not being ready for the financial and social pressures, the lack of privacy, and the lifestyle changes from when no one knew them compared with now being household names.
Public limelight aside, many of us experience the same kinds of fears about being prepared for what success is going to mean for us.
When I left my comfortable corporate Vice President job to start my own company, I experienced fear of failure and success. When I asked myself, “What if I fail?” I found that my answer was easy and almost re-assuring. I could just go back to big corporate America.
I had much more anxiety when I asked myself, “What if I actually pull this off?”
Why? Everything would be different, and I wouldn’t even really know the ways things would be different right away. It would be uncharted territory with limited visibility.
Would I become a different person as a result of being a successful entrepreneur? Would I like the person I became? Would there be more pressure? Was I really good enough to sustain the success?
It turns out that my concerns weren’t symptoms of my own neuroses but are actually common perceptions.
Success also often means a bigger impact on more people
It could be a bigger role where more people depend on you. It could be that more people care what you do and say, and that your opinions are further reaching.
It sounds great, but bigger impact can also actually make you feel vulnerable because you are now more in the spotlight to more people. It can be easy to be scared off by that and feel ill equipped to handle the scrutiny, the judgment and everything else that comes with that broader exposure.
It often prompts questions about whether you can live up to people’s new expectations of you or if you even want to have to do that.
We often self-sabotage without even knowing we are doing it
Often, if you give it everything you have and still fail, you get pats on the back and respect for having put it all out there. It’s the “you left it all out there on the field” concept.
What if you convinced yourself that you were putting it all out there and giving it everything you had even though you knew deep down that you weren’t? You’d still get the pats on the back and could walk away from it knowing “it just wasn’t meant to be.” Then you could go back to what you knew.
It may sound like dysfunctional psycho-babble behavior, but it’s quite common even for people who have achieved some degree of success. Some experts have identified this exact phenomena. One describes very common self-sabotaging behaviors:
“…the pesky excuses for why we didn’t get something done, telling ourselves mediocre is good enough or believing that the huge goal we set is just too big.”
The real challenge is that we don’t even realize we are doing it.
So what do you do about it?
There isn’t a magic solution, but simply knowing that you could be sabotaging yourself is half the battle. The next time you are confronted with a new thing and conquer your fear of failure, make sure you give some thought to your fear of success, too, so you can really move all of the barriers out of the way.