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    Understanding the Fear of Success

    By Tom Moon, MFT–

    (Editor’s Note: Tom Moon is on hiatus. This is one of his more popular past columns.)

    Anyone can understand why people might be afraid of failure, but is it really possible that some people are actually afraid of success? One of the most difficult aspects of human nature to understand is the strange and widespread tendency of so many to sabotage themselves, to shoot themselves in the foot, to undermine their strivings for success and happiness, as if they have some kind of allergy to success.

    One way to understand this powerful and perplexing issue is to imagine that we have a kind of internal emotional thermostat that sets a range for how much suffering and pain, at one end, we’re willing to tolerate; and at the other, how much happiness and fulfillment we can allow ourselves to experience. Most of us do, in fact, have something like this in our makeup. Our personal “misery index” has to drop below a certain line before the “heat” comes on and we take action to change things.

    People’s settings vary. What typically determines the setting is the emotional atmosphere of our family lives when we were children. If our families were characterized by abuse and disappointment, we probably learned to treat such experiences as natural, and as adults our “common sense” tells us that life is just “like that.” On the other hand, to the degree that the family atmosphere was characterized by mutual respect, safety and affection, we learned to take it for granted that these conditions are our birthright.

    The thermostat image isn’t just a metaphor, because it can actually help to explain why and when people take action on their own behalf. When listening to the stories of recovering addicts and alcoholics, for instance, I’m struck by the fact that, for some, “hitting bottom” meant being hung over one too many Monday mornings, while for others it meant losing everything and living on the streets.

    There is a similar range of tolerance for domestic abuse. Some people get hit once by a partner and immediately take action to see that it never happens again, while others (who may have been subjected to abuse as children or witnessed one parent abusing another) put up with violence year after year, assuming that it’s just the price that they have to pay for “love.”

    What’s really interesting, and harder to understand, is that, for many people, this inner thermostat also has an upper setting, a point where the “heat” goes off and they deliberately, if unconsciously, cool down their efforts to improve their lives. This setting, too, is determined by the emotional atmosphere of childhood.

    A man who had long dreamed of getting a post-graduate degree was accepted to a prestigious graduate school. Suddenly he found himself feeling anxious and depressed, uncertain of his goals, and making all kinds of excuses for why he shouldn’t go. Why? Neither of us parents had finished high school, and were so threatened by his education that they had constantly ridiculed him for being “stuck up” and for using big words that they couldn’t understand.

    Despite his longing for higher education, he had a deeply rooted feeling that he really didn’t deserve it. The unconscious, irrational belief that governed his behavior was that if he pursued his educational goals, he would harm and humiliate his parents. This belief affected him deeply, despite the fact that both of his parents had been dead for many years.

    Fear of success is like that. The root belief is always some version of the idea that exercising our own strengths must be at someone else’s expense. The effect is that when we get close to achieving an important goal—a relationship that works, career success, more education, etc.—we suddenly find ourselves feeling anxious, depressed, and uncertain. We may feel “out on a limb,” or experience a nameless dread that we can’t explain to ourselves. People who feel these things are strongly, if unconsciously, tempted to give it all back by sabotaging themselves and getting their happiness level back down to a more familiar and tolerable level.

    The problem of fear of success is anything but uncommon. It’s so widespread that it has spawned a multi-billion-dollar success industry offering workshops, motivational tapes, lectures, affirmations, and so on, all pushing essentially the same message: that having a happy and productive life isn’t inherently harmful to others, that it is, in fact, your birthright, and your responsibility to yourself.
    It’s a simple message—who would argue with it? Yet it’s sad how many, in their heart of hearts, can’t quite bring themselves to believe it. But that’s the task facing anyone struggling to overcome the habit of self-sabotage—to learn to believe it, and in so doing, to “reset” the thermostat to allow us to tolerate success and fulfillment without internal conflict.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website

    Published on December 5, 2019