Fear is a universal human experience. We all experience it, in different ways and to different degrees. But we have one thing in common: Everything boils down to our default reptilian mode of survival. Our fight, flight, and freeze instincts are always ready to protect us from harm and discomfort. 

(For more on the hierarchical organization of the human brain — and the bottom-up way it processes inputs — check out What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.)

Over the course of human history, what we’re afraid of has changed. Life endangerment is no longer our primary fear. After all, most of us don’t live near lions on the African savannahs or in the jungles of India with tigers. 

In our day-to-day lives, we have fears around acceptance, getting fired, not getting enough likes on Facebook, showing up late to an appointment — relatively trivial concerns that aren’t quite on par with those reptilian live-or-die level fears.

As a coach, I work with a lot of people dealing with fear. Just like cops see the worst of society, therapists see the most troubled, and doctors see the most sick, coaches see those that are most afraid of success. 

And there are a lot of people afraid of success — probably more than the average bear would think. 

The self-sabotage that we inflict on ourselves because of that fear can be very profound.

So why do we do it? We all want to be successful, even if we don’t plan to be billionaires! 

Fear of success can take on a variety of forms.

Often, we fear success because we worry that if we reach a certain level, people will try to attack us. 

Or worse, the imposter syndrome kicks in. What if it was luck, not skill, that got you where you are and you’re found out? That’s a higher pedestal to fall off. 

Some of us are afraid of who we’d become if we were successful. We think, “I don’t want to become that kind of person.” We resist achieving our full potential because we fear who we might become as part of the process. 

And perhaps most confusing and confounding of all is our tendency to develop these warped perceptions of what success even is. We misinterpret success as an end point. In our minds, the only definition of success is the absolute achievement: win the election, win the superbowl, get the C-suite job, etc. Any achievement short of that success endpoint is a failure. 

But success is not a singular event. It’s the collection of thousands of little wins along the way. It’s a messy, wonderful, exciting amalgamation of insights, learnings, and growth from each mistake and each success you make along the way. 

Some of us feel like if we make a mistake, we have to beat ourselves up harder than anyone else. But the opposite is true. You would be far more effective giving yourself grace! We don’t always recognize that we’re going to stumble, make mistakes, lose games, and lose patience — of course! We’re human.

If we can trade fear of success for the courage to try (and fail), we are on the road to true success and growth. 

Think of it this way: I’ve heard it said that success is getting up one more time than you fall down. I like that. What that doesn’t say is that success is the absence or avoidance of falling down — or making mistakes. Falling down isn’t failure, nor is it the absence of success. In fact, if success is the getting up part, you can’t have it without the falling down part.

And as I talked about in my last post, it’s not our failings that determine whether or not we’re successful. It’s how we respond to them and turn them into our learning that determines whether we’re successful.

So what will it be today? Fear of success? Or courage to try a new way?


Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash