When I was 8 years old, I stood in front of the mirror and decided that I would be a better person if my legs were smaller. All through junior-high and high school, my motives were directed at losing weight and changing my shape to increase my worth as a human being. Now, after lots of hard work I understand that I am not a bad person because I have cellulite on my butt. However, I am still working to change the shape of my body.
It has only taken me 11 years to notice, but I have found a pattern: As soon as I see that I am making progress, I sabotage myself. Whether it’s a couple of pounds off the scale or a bit more definition in the mirror, as soon as I see the results that I have been so desperately looking for, I sabotage myself. About a year ago, I realized why.
I am afraid of success.
Yes, I know this sounds crazy, but it turns out that fear of success, or FOS for short, is a completely valid, measureable psychological pattern of thinking.
What do I do with my life when I don’t think about my body and the way it looks 24/7? What do I do when I have nothing to work towards? These questions, although subconsciously running amuck about 95% of the time, are the very things that are keeping me from being successful, and I bet they are hindering your progress too.
Sigmund Freud, on the topic of fear of success, explained his observations: “It is not at all unusual for the ego to tolerate a wish as harmless so long as it exists in phantasy alone and seems remote from fulfillment, whereas the ego will defend itself hotly against such a wish as soon as it approaches fulfillment and threatens to become a reality.”
Many theories, proposed by behavioral and psychoanalytic psychologists alike, have been validated and are common points of therapy in psychologists. Perhaps the more important question, however, is not why or how a fear of success occurs, but how to combat it.
In this article, it was found that people with high levels of FOS deny their ability to succeed and sabotage their progress when they become close to achieving their goals. Does this sound familiar to you at all? Take an objective look at yourself and your progress over the last year, think of all of the times you got so close to your goal, and think about where you are now. Are you past it or just short of it?
So, how do we get over this fear, even though it may be something that is just under the surface of our daily awareness? My research on the “treatment” of fear of success, sadly, has not been as fruitful as the research on its validation and proof of existence. However, that does not mean that there is no hope in getting over your fears!
This study found that subjects with low FOS who successfully completed a puzzle task experienced more intrinsic motivation for the task, attributed their success to their own actions and abilities, and were more likely to stay in the condition that they found themselves when they succeeded. What does this mean for you? It’s simple: low FOS leads to more internal motivation and feelings of competency.
Although it has not been examined, it is possible that this relationship goes both ways! If you find something that you enjoy and believe you can do, perhaps your fear of success in that task will diminish.
Another study found that those with an external locus of control (the belief that their success is determined by factors outside of their control) diminished the motivation to succeed. This may not be a fear of success, but it is a success aversion that can be just as detrimental to your progress.
Perhaps you’re afraid that once you lose weight, you will not be able to affiliate yourself with your previous group of friends. Maybe you’re worried that if you win your next powerlifting competition, you will not be able to keep your titles at the following meet. Whatever it is, and wherever it comes from, fear of success can have a profound impact on your performance.
Here are my suggestions for combating and overcoming your fears:
Set multiple goals for yourself that vary in their time to achieve and degree of difficulty. If you are afraid you will have nothing to work for after you reach your goal, working towards two goals, like one short term one and one long term one, may help you overcome this fear.
Associate yourself with people of all levels of success. Having friends who are going through the same thing that you are, whether you’re trying to lose 100 pounds or gain 10, is always helpful. But make sure to keep a couple of success stories on your friends list. Someone who has gone through what you are going to and come out on top will not only be able to help you along the way, but will help you feel less isolated when you do succeed.
Don’t obsess. I truly believe this is where I went wrong. Do not place too much weight on the success of your goals. Losing weight or getting more fit is important, and will impact your life for the better, but it should not be the most important thing in your life: you will still have bills to pay, appointments to make, and work to do.
And finally, believe in yourself. If you do not think that you will be able to succeed, or if you believe that your goal is unachievable, no matter how desirable it is, you will not achieve it. Believe in your abilities and have faith in the process, it is possible and it is in your control!