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Achievemephobia- Why do we fear Success?

Have you ever experienced coming close to success? The thrill of almost getting to your goal that you psyched yourself up for, worked hard to achieve and just as you are getting near to the finish line your plans are derailed. Have you ever considered that the obstacles to getting to that goal were self-inflicted and are the result of self-sabotage? What??? Why on earth would you come so far, feel like you are almost there only to block yourself from actually reaching your desired goal?

Fear of failure is something we can logically understand, however fear of success means that we are actually undermining achieving something that is in our own best interests.


Lets explore what the anatomy of fear is all about in order to give us some insight into what fear of success is.


In sports psychology there is a common phenomenon that is discussed, and the term big match temperament (BMT) is often used to define whether a sports team or individual has what it takes to get them over the finish line. If you are a passionate South African cricket supporter this is an agonising experience as more often than not our team, the Proteas, choke at the first sign of success. I will never forget watching a world cup semi final in 1999 when we came so close to getting through to the final. The match was down to the wire. There was one more ball to go for us to come away with the win. Just one more run is all it would take(let me paint the picture that at this stage they had come back from near defeat in the most thrilling and yet unbelievable way) and all was lost in the most unthinkable way. It was as if the air was taken out of every South Africans’ sails in the blink of an eye!


If you are a tennis supporter a relatable situation is watching your favourite player serving for the match only to serve a double and go onto lose the match. This sense of defeat after playing so well and coming so close is heart breaking and one can only imagine hard to bounce back from. The next time they are in a similar situation the flashback causes an emotional surge that can cause a repeat of the same result and once in this negative cycle it is a psychological hurdle to avoid repeating the same performance time and time again.


We have all sat on the sidelines and witnessed in another some form of loss of self belief. As the observer it is crystal clear to us as when observing another individual, and yet when it comes to our own life experiences we cannot always see the picture so accurately.


Over this past shabbat I was reading Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt’’l’s, commentary on parshat shelach lecha. He brought up this fear of success in relation to the spies that were sent into Eretz Yisrael by Moshe. Of the 12 spies who went in to scout out the land only 2 came back with a favourable report and the other 10 gave an accurate account of what they saw, and yet spun their opinion to be a negative recommendation. What he goes onto discuss is a possible reason as to why they feared the success of actually going from wandering in the dessert to life in the holy land that had been promised to them and their forefathers. At this stage in Jewish history the Jewish nation had been enslaved by the Egyptians for 210 years and had been taken out from Egypt by Hashem amidst wonders and miracles that included the splitting of the red sea. Not only had they been privy to the understanding of how Hashem runs the world and had a clear picture of the reason for all the suffering they had endured, but they also went on to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai where they heard Hashem speaking and had a life changing experience. In this moment of receiving the Torah every person who had any illness was cured.

How do we then relate to these same people (who were the heads of each of the tribes of Israel), wise men who had witnessed all of this, and understand that they were scared to enter the holy land and feared succeeding in fulfilling their destiny. The commentary on the negative report is that they feared that they would need to take care of themselves and work the land, where as in the dessert every small need they had was taken care of from the water they drank, to the food they ate. Once they crossed over into the holy land this would all end and they were uncertain and lacked the self-belief that they would be able to handle this new situation.


We can now start to identify from these examples that part of the fear of success is in the shift that needs to occur between being in one state and reaching another. When we are used to being in a certain situation and we are in our comfort zone then it is not only the fear of success we have but the fear of shifting from one state to another.


There are many reasons that we may find ourselves in a similar position. We each have our unique tapestry that interweaves our own life’s experiences and that impacts our emotional and intellectual beliefs. For some people, setting their minds to achieving a goal and going onto do it, takes effort, but they tick off all the steps, succeed and move onto working towards the next achievement. These people are less fearful of stepping out of their comfort zones and even though they may experience the discomfort that is associated with this experience they push through this knowing that on the other side of the status quo is what they are working towards.


I would like to relate this now to what I witness in my own field of interest. I find when it comes to wellness goals and in particular weight loss goals there is a sense of self sabotage that tends to happen.


One of the themes I have noticed with clients is that the belief they have about themselves is tied up in the stories of where they feel the most comfortable (even if unhappy in this state). Dreaming of a goal is part of their story and who they are. If they were to actually fulfil that dream what story would they tell themselves then? What would their expectations be thereafter? Would their expectations of themselves be hard to live up to or perhaps would other peoples expectations change if they were no longer stuck in their usual cycle. Often the relationships we have with others and ourselves need to shift when we step out of the zone we are used to operating in. Have you ever noticed this before?


When you perhaps lose weight or get a promotion do you feel a resentment from others that is uncomfortable for you? Do you feel the need to stay stuck in failure or a lower level of success so that you don’t rock the boat? In a marriage when one partner loses weight and their confidence is boosted it can cause a threat to the other persons insecurities.


Besides the external impact that success may bring there is an internal discomfort that can be evoked at the thought of an achievement. It is possible to feel anxious about acquiring new responsibilities as the result of your success or perhaps worry over things being more complicated than you can handle. Perhaps you will get attention as a result of your new accomplishments and being in the spotlight is a concern.


Sometimes people who experience success fear that their achievements are undeserved or that they are not as good as other people in their field. People may fear that they won’t be able to live up to expectations or that other people will discover that they aren’t up for the challenge. This falls into the category of imposter syndrome and can come from a general insecurity regarding not only not being able to live up to expectations but a fear of failing themselves and doubting their own abilities.


As hard as it is to understand, when we try something and fail and we are able to return to the safety of what we know and we are used, there is a sense of relief that comes with this. In failing we have the consolation of returning to our comfort zone. We may be disappointed by the failure but where we find ourselves is familiar. Now what if we were to actually succeed? Then we may head into uncharted territory. Things are now different and there may be a lot of change as a result.


As human beings we are constantly being confronted by changes, and we naturally resist these situations. We are living in an ever-changing world of great uncertainty. It is normal to want to maintain the status quo and keep things the way we feel the most comfortable (even if they could be so much better). If the last 18 months has taught us anything it is that what we wake up to today may be a totally different world than the one we went to sleep in the night before. What we learn from this is that despite our natural inclinations to maintain the status quo, life is changing whether we like it or not. What it requires is for us to allow ourselves to get comfortable being in a state of flux and not resist it. The same way that physiologically we are always inhaling and then exhaling air, if we were to try and hold our breath and prevent this shift from one state to another, we would eventually be forced to take in a deep breath. It is unnatural to go against this physiological necessity.


Having an awareness of the psychology that may keep us stuck and blocking ourselves from reaching our goals is the starting point in our journey to creating the movement we need to propel us to our goals. It may cause us anxiety to have this knowledge, but once we can recognise that there is a pattern we then have the ability to do something about it. Life has a way of pushing us out of our comfort zones anyway, what if we were to take the brave step ourselves and give success a chance? A well thought out strategy and a mentor to guide us on the way gives us the ability to come closer to succeeding and if the steps in the process are done a little bit at a time the overwhelm reduces substantially.


I love the following analogy of how to boil a frog (yes its strange concept but bear with me). If a frog is in cold water and happy to swim around and all of a sudden the heat is turned up drastically it will jump straight out. However, if the same frog is in cool water and the temperature is slowly increased a few degrees at a time, the frog gets used to the change in temperature and doesn’t notice the small increments. That same frog will be more likely to stay in for a longer time and tolerate a higher temperature than if it was increased suddenly.

This is a recipe for our own success. Approach goals in bite size doses. Adjust to the slight changes a little at a time and before you know it you will be over the finish line! When we dream of something that is really in our best interests then succeeding and reaching that goal is a validation of what we have set out to do and our aspirations will be realised.


I challenge you all to step out of your comfort zone. This is like climbing a ladder. In order to reach the top you need to step up one rung at a time. There is no need to over-reach, and you can keep the remaining foot on the step below while you secure your footing on the rung above. Once you have the momentum then taking another step becomes that bit easier. With each step that you take you are in fact shifting from one state to another, from one area of comfort into a new state of being. Once you are in that new state you will again start to feel comfortable as you get used to the new normal. It is then that you realise that the next shift is necessary.


This edging forward and progressing towards a goal is like exercising a muscle. The more repetitions of the same exercise you do the stronger the muscle you build. This relates to all areas of your life whether it is health related or in stretching where you are in business and relationships.


What do you have to gain by edging out of what seems to be a safe and comfortable zone? Everything. Most of all by committing to this process you are accessing the possibility of becoming the best you that you can be.


For more information on how I work in helping you to achieving your unique goals contact me on justine@justinefriedman.com



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