A Coaching Power Tool Created by Shripad Ranade
(Leadership Coach, INDIA)
Fear of failure and fear of success are related concepts but the distinction between them is important. Juxtaposing them against each other as a coaching power tool creates the opportunity for us to examine how these fears shape our beliefs and behaviours. Often, a person may believe that it is a fear of failure that is stopping them from trying or achieving something in their professional or personal life. However, exploration may lead to the discovery that it is actually a fear of success, which is far less understood and acknowledged, compared to the fear of failure. I have often come across executives who claim that the reason they are not taking risky or new steps to advance their career, or succeed at a project, is because they cannot afford to fail. However, through self-exploration, they discover that they are paralysed because they are secretly fearful that success would change their lives in ways that may not be able or willing to handle. This shift of perspective leads to personal development and ultimately to success and happiness.
In her book “A Return to Love”, the author Marianne Williamson beautifully encapsulates the central concept of this power tool:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
From childhood, most of us pick up cues that success is important and we also notice that failure has the potential to cause us a lot of hurts. As we grow up, we make choices about how much risk we are prepared to take to achieve success. Whenever there is a high risk of failure, and its consequences loom in front of us, we actively or subconsciously guard against them and give up the possibility of success. When asked about what is stopping us from working towards a goal or achieving it, we may recognise that we are avoiding the risk of failing.
Often, this fear is strongest when we have our greatest opportunities. It manifests as “I am not good enough” or “I will look foolish when I fail”, and constitute what can be called an “inner critic”. Most of the time, we are unaware of the influence of this inner critic. This inner critic develops from early life experiences. If we were criticized or corrected a lot, we feel confident that we will fail, and if we were praised falsely, we do not trust our abilities. Or, we may believe that since we cannot achieve perfection, we might as well not try. We tend to parent ourselves the way we were parented.
Most people who have a fear of success are not aware of it. They may claim that there are specific obstacles in their path which are stopping them from achieving success, but when they explore these obstacles, they might discover that they are sabotaging themselves and the obstacles are either surmountable or do not really exist. It is interesting to examine why a person may fear to get something that they claim to desire.
A remarkable academic study in 1976 found the underlying factors that emerge from various studies regarding both the fear of success and failure. It was found that these fears are interrelated to some extent. It was also found that they may vary between genders, be heightened with neurotic insecurity, and change with the perceived value of success. Tellingly, it was found that psychological well-being and psychosomatic illnesses can be traced to these fears. The study found that when we fear success, we are worried that we might experience the following behaviours from others because of our success – jealousy, exploitation, criticism, sabotage, rejection, burdensome responsibility and pressure. The fear of success also includes concerns over how we would feel and behave, in the light of experiencing such behaviours from others.
Another perspective on why we resist success is by the author Don Miguel Ruiz. Ruiz says that we make statements or “agreements” all the time about who we are, how to behave, what is possible, what is impossible. Some of these “agreements” that we do with ourselves come from fear and diminish our self-worth. He describes that such self-limiting agreements create needless suffering. The researcher Dr Brené Brown speaks about foreboding joy:
joy is probably the most difficult emotion to really feel. In a culture of deep scarcity, of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough, joy can feel like a setup and we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
As mentioned earlier, criticism by others is one of the principal concerns that constitute fear of success. This is exacerbated with the presence of the impostor phenomenon (sometimes called impostor syndrome) and impostor cycle. This cycle begins with receiving a task from a boss or teacher, which immediately creates anxiety and self-doubt, and the initial response is hence either over-preparation or procrastination. If the response has been over-preparation, the successful outcome will be seen as a result of unusually hard work. If it was procrastination, it will be followed by frantic effort to complete the job, then some relief, but any positive feedback will be discounted, and the outcome will be viewed as a stroke of luck. Such success, through hard work or luck, is not interpreted as a matter of truth, personal ability. As the cycle continues, increased success leads to the intensification of feeling like a fraud. The person is haunted by the fear that at any point they can be ‘exposed’ as incompetent or unintelligent. It becomes very difficult for the person to accept that their success is legitimate or honourable.
Jemele Hill was born in the USA to parents who were on welfare and addicted to drugs. She received grants to go to college and became a successful sports journalist with her own show on ESPN. Jemele says that we imagine failure more often than we imagine success; and along with imagining success, we think of the expectations, stakes and accountability that success brings. Only if we can make peace with these changes, we will embrace success.
When we are struggling to work towards and achieve a goal, but paralysed by fear of success, we may not recognise it as such. We may instead say that it is the fear of failing that is stopping us from acting or changing. It is socially more difficult to admit to being fearful of the effects of success, and hence many people would not be in a position to recognise or admit these fears even privately to themselves. However, it appears we can train ourselves to recognise the warning signs of having the fear of failure or the fear of success. Research suggests that the fear of failure is about our standards, and makes us feel anxious and worthless, and we have trouble concentrating. However, fear of success is about how others will view us, and more likely to make us wake up early in the morning, reduce our appetite, and give us a feeling that it is difficult to go on.
These fears are similar in the sense that they hold back a person from taking action or making changes that help them achieve one of their goals. However, they are very different in terms of how they form, how they act, and how they can be dealt with through personal development. We saw earlier that concerns about other people’s behaviour characterise the fear of success. The same study found that the fear of failure is about not living up to one’s own standards, and about self-consciousness, unassertiveness, insecurity, and feelings of anxiety that end up debilitating the person.
This is an important distinction. It means that while a person dealing with the fear of failure needs to explore largely their own expectations, the person dealing with the fear of success has to explore their beliefs about how others will react and what effect it will have on them. The approach that a person has to take to tackle these two fears is thus very different and hence it is important to recognise what the person is actually dealing with.
Professional coaching is a partnership between the coach and the client, in the service of higher workplace effectiveness or personal happiness for the client. The client takes the support of the coach to set specific goals for their professional and personal life and to come up with a plan to achieve these goals. It is very important to explore the emotions and beliefs of the client that may come in the way of successfully achieving these goals. When the coaching conversation uncovers that the client is concerned about the risk involved in working towards a goal and the negative consequences of failure, it helps to explore how the goal is meaningful and important and worth the risks. This may also lead to the exploration of what will change if success is ultimately achieved and at this stage, the client can be supported to discover whether any of the likely effects of success are proving to be deterrents rather than motivators.
Alternatively, the client may not start with a claim that there is a fear of failure and may directly recognise that they have a fear of success. In either case exploration of these apprehensions will remove obstacles that prevent the client from committing to actions and changes that are necessary for success.
Drawing on cognitive behavioural theory, we can see that fear of failure, as well as fear of success, are actually a combination of emotion (fear) and belief (what constitutes success or failure). Hence exploration can lead to more self-awareness and a different way of looking at these fears, viz. I have beliefs about success and failure, and those beliefs cause me to feel fear. Usually, the emotion (fear) is palpable, but the beliefs that are causing the emotion are unconscious. This is why we the client is unsure about whether it is success or failure or both that is creating fear .
Therefore, it helps to ask questions to reframe the client’s perspective from victim to victor . These provide the client with a space to consider what would happen if they were to succeed, rather than what would happen if they were to fail. Such questions may also support the client to discover whether they have an underlying fear of success that is masquerading as fear of failure.
- What does success mean to you?
- What is the source of your definition of success?
- What do you know about the likelihood of your success?
- What do you think is the role of luck in life?
- What do you really want?
- How will this success benefit you?
- How will it benefit others around you?
- How would your life be if you succeed?
- What will change for you when you succeed?
- What will it mean if certain people reject you after you succeed?
Several years back, I was contacted by a recruiter for a new job that could lead to a vastly improved career trajectory for me. However, I procrastinated and endangered my preparation, reducing the probability of my getting the job. At the time, I told myself that my diffidence stemmed from the fear that I would fail at the interview which would be humiliating. I also kept telling my friends that I was comfortable in my current job and did not need a disruption. On reflection, I realise that I had sensed that the new job would dramatically change my income, work content, workplace location, and lifestyle – each of these, while positive on the surface, would require significant adjustment. I would also have to develop working relationships with a completely new set of colleagues and associates. I recognise that it was the fear of what success would bring, rather than the fear that I would fail, that was holding me back. Fortunately, positive reinforcement of my abilities and chances by my friends, and a warm approach by the interviewer dispelled my anxiety over whether I belonged to the new workplace, and I aced the interview!
Fear of failure is frequently cited by people as the reason for not taking action or making changes that are necessary for achieving the goals that they have set for themselves. Exploration of this fear either on one’s own or with a coach might lead to the discovery that rather than the fear of failing at the attempt, the person is apprehensive of how their life will change if they achieve success. This dramatic shift in perspective then enables the real fear to be explored and addressed.
 M. Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, Harper Collins, 1992.
 L. Firestone, “How to overcome the fear of failure,” [Online]. Available: https://www.psychalive.org/how-to-overcome-the-fear-of-failure/. [Accessed July 2019].
 M. L. P. S. N. D. Susan Sadd, “Objective Measurement of Fear of Success and Fear of Failure: A Factor Analytic Approach,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 405-416, June 1978.
 D. M. Ruiz, The Four Agreements, Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997.
 D. B. Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Avery, 2012.
 D. P. R. Clance and D. S. A. Imes, “THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON IN HIGH ACHIEVING WOMEN: DYNAMICS AND THERAPEUTIC INTERVENTION,” PSYCHOTHERAPY: THEORY, RESEARCH AND PRACTICE, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 241-247, Fall 1978.
 D. Russell, “Fear of success or fear of failure?,” [Online]. [Accessed July 2019].
 K. Talynn, “Victim vs Victor Power Tool,” 2019.