Fear of Success: When It Feels Too Dangerous to Stand Out

fear of success
‘Fear of success’ can occur in at least two ways.  Some people truly desire success but fear failing.  Others find the prospect of not failing more scary than failing.  That may not make a lot of sense at first blush.  If we dig a little deeper, a logical – but more complex – explanation emerges.  This post is about a client named Jerry that illustrates why someone might fear succeeding more than failing.
In short, achieving success did not comply with Jerry’s mother’s lifelong attitude towards him.  He avoided success not from a fear of failure but from a fear of losing love if he succeeded.  Fearing success for these reasons allows us to understand just how our experiences in early relationships shape our feelings about ourselves and our life’s possibilities – or lack thereof – into adulthood.

The case of Jerry: Fear of Success as a Survival Tactic

Jerry was a client who came to therapy in his late twenties. He complained of a gnawing sense of emptiness and lack of meaning in his life. His sense of being unfulfilled was at odds with the ‘objective’ assets he possessed. He had a good career, stable group of friends, and hobbies he seemed to enjoy. As we worked together, I grew to understand how Jerry’s subjective experience of himself was far from how he seemed.
Jerry had to undercut his efforts in whatever he did.  He felt forbidden to feel good about himself. If he demonstrated his prowess somehow, he would have to concoct reasons for why his success was not really a success, or why it would not last. This sequence of doing well followed by reasons he could not do well again had a tenacious grip. This equal and opposite emotional reaction to his success was intense and whithering. He would hold himself back from doing things in the world that revealed his strengths for fear of what his counter-reaction would have to be. In therapy we discussed his need to constrict his sense of power while sparring in his martial arts class. Despite being appropriately aggressive and skilled in the sport, he would feel a sense of deep vulnerability and find himself exhausted in the first round of a sparring match. After several years of working together, we understood that he did not fear his opponent but the prospect of victory. If he won the bout and experienced all the consequent feelings of pride, strength, and power then he would have to dramatically reduce himself back down to size
Jerry had to play whack-a-mole with his self-esteem. 

The higher he rose the harder he’d pound himself down.  The only time it was safe to know and show his grit and strength was after he felt so persecuted that he had nothing left to lose. He could summon his aggression and strength while playing football in college but only when he believed that his teammates and opponents doubted his ability and toughness. Once he made a few good plays or had a good game, he felt wholly depleted before the next practice. Instead of carrying the momentum from his earlier play, he experienced himself to be a shell of himself and likely to get physically dominated by other players. This led to a pernicious belief that he was actually weak and cowardly and any signs otherwise were anomalies – not the real ‘Jerry’. He always had to prove himself worthy of redemption – dig himself out of a hole. 

He could never play from ahead.
He would put himself in a state of being bereft of all that he wanted in life – love, accomplishments, respect – so that he could safely go about trying to accrue these things. He was socially adept but believed that he always on the cusp of saying the wrong thing and alienating his close friends.  Physically, he felt like a powerless small boy in a world full of bigger and stronger grown-ups. These feelings of ‘smallness’ belied his powerful build. He was very intelligent and well-spoken but at his job he would inhibit himself from speaking freely. If he did speak up, he would excoriate himself over the inaccuracy or ‘foolishness’ of his words.
 Life was a slog.
Jerry had to diminish every positive aspect of himself with an equal and opposite – though artificial – negative ‘observation’ about himself. Tragically, none of these ‘negative’ aspects about himself were true. It felt more coherent to believe that he was a bad person than to feel like he was good. In fact, the only way he could know himself was as someone who might temporarily but undeservedly experience success. The thought of himself as a successful person felt alien and impossible. As if, this outcome could not possibly apply to him and things would be worse if they did than if he continued to feel so deficient.
Feeling good felt worse – at a deeper level – than feeling bad.
He deeply hated this way of living but something compelled him to repeat it and repeat it. What was the benefit of feeling so bad all the time instead of acknowledging and expanding upon his areas of mastery in life?
To answer this question, we have to take a bit of a detour. But along the way, we’ll have another answer – how experiences with caregivers in early childhood impact us as adults.

Embracing success requires early relationships that encouraged it

Young humans need to feel nurtured, loved, and welcome in the world. Without this, it becomes much more difficult to take one’s place in it. We are not reptiles that rely on hard-coded brain-stems to tell us how to find food and escape predators right out of the shell. The human infant is born and requires a consistent welcome to the world to develop. How do we know this? From rigorous studies of infants not afforded such welcomings.
In 1951 a British psychologist named John Bowlby wrote a report for the World Health Organization on the consequences of infants being raised in orphanages in war-torn Europe. These children were separated from their mothers and had no designated adult caretaker. They were deprived of a warm, intimate, and ongoing relationship with someone.
These orphaned infants went through a series of tragic phases:
1) protest – tantrums and wailing cries at the absence of what they were programmed to find in the world
2) despair – agony at the felt realization that what they need in the world is not available
3) detachment – collapse of the will to live. Infants in this phase did not respond to smiling human faces or attempts to coo, etc.
Bowlby documented why children must have a feeling of secure attachment to a specific adult caregiver. Deprivation of this kind of welcoming to the world resulted in a psychic death for these children. We can assume that infants are motivated to avoid this calamitous outcome and will strive – at any cost – to find ways to ensure their caregiver’s willingness to care for them.
In his later work, Bowlby and his colleagues understood how infants develop internal understandings for who they are in the world based on how they were treated by their primary caregivers. He coined the term ‘internal working models’ to refer to what children learn to expect from others in response to their needs for love, security and protection.
Fortunately, the majority of children have the consistent experience of a caregiver wanting to provide care for them.  These children see the ‘gleam in their parent’s eye’ when they enter a room.  As a result, they develop an internal working model that the world is generally a better place because they are in it. They feel entitled to express and have their needs met in close relationships. They will assume that when separations occur in relationships that their partner will be motivated to reunite with them. They will have a sense of being held in the minds of the people they care about and who care about them.
Bowlby identified three broad categories for how a parent’s inconsistent or outright abusive behavior can impact a child’s internal working model of attachment:
1) Anxious/Preoccupied Internal Working Model:  When a parent is inconsistent in their affection and/or attention the child can learn that others cannot be counted on to meet his needs. He may have a lingering sense that he cannot have enough of what he wants in the world. When he finds a relationship as an adult, then he may take great pains to disconfirm his fear that his partner could abandon him at any moment. Tragically these efforts to prevent what he fears – possessiveness, distrust, and/or jealousy – often hasten it.
2) Dismissive/Avoidant Internal Working Model:  When a parent is dismissive of their child’s needs and/or acts punitively towards the child for wanting to feel attached, then the child may learn that they only feel worse when they try to get close to others. Children in this situation can develop the internal working model that their needs for attachment result in humiliation. Adults with this kind of early experience have had to disavow their needs for attachment and avoid emotional closeness with others because of how disastrous they expect things to go.
3) Disorganized Internal Working Model:  Finally, there is the worst possible scenario where the parent is both unavailable for connection and actively rejecting and punitive. In this case, the child is programmed to seek the same person who is dangerous to their survival. Kids have to develop a range of internal strategies and beliefs to survive upbringings like this. The common denominator in these coping tactics is that they impair the child’s ability to develop and fully be themselves because it is so dangrous to do so. When a child feels that their parent poses a danger to them then they have to focus on keeping that parent happy over their own development. As part of this process, the kid is deprived of the maternal connection he so desperately needs – just like the orphans in Bowlby’s studies! The internal working models for these children can be marked by a lack of belief in the continuity of relationships, certainty that others will eventually turn against them, and feeling overexposed and too vulnerable in intimate relationships.

Children are Shaped by Their Parents’ Internal Working Models of Attachment

So, we learn how safe it is to expect others to respond to us based on our repeated experiences with our early caregivers. Knowing how such early experiences get encoded and persist into adulthood, can help us understand Jerry’s extreme reluctance to stand out in life and relationships.  First, we must understand his parents’ working models of attachment to understand how he developed his.
Jerry’s mother was born to two functional alcoholics.  Her mother was a vituperative, scheming, and deceitful person whom was impossible to get close to.  Her father was a much kinder and gentler person but was not consistently available to Jerry’s mother.  To make matters worse he seemed to favor his mother’s younger brother.  Jerry grew to understand that she developed a deep-seated envy and hatred towards her brother for ‘stealing’ her father’s love from her.  It was as if she made a promise to ‘get even with the universe’ for how she was wronged by her brother.
Jerry’s mother’s internal working model equated wanting to be close to a male with rejection.
Jerry’s father was a quiet, reserved, and anxious man who always seemed scared of saying the wrong thing. He grew up in a family where kids were ‘meant to be seen and not heard’ and perfected this mandate. Although he graduated from a military academy and became a member of the elite special forces unit in the military he strove to stay hidden in his relationships.  His father would defer to the other person – especially his wife – by berating his own ideas, preferences and tastes and elevating the other person’s. His father would go out of his way to deny evidence of his own strengths in the world because doing so could result in him feeling entitled to ‘speak up’.  As a kid, Jerry’s father learned that speaking up risked losing the people he needed.
Jerry’s father’s internal working model of attachment required him to stay quiet, self-effacing and approving or face abandonment.
Jerry had the misfortune of being the spitting image of his uncle:  same physical traits, subversive sense of humor, and impishness.  His mother likely saw these traits as Jerry developed into his own person around age three and saw red.  She went out of her way to domineer and control Jerry.  She would react to his happiness with the immediate assumption that he had broken one of her rules.  Jerry felt like a marked man from as far back as he could remember.  He always tried to stay out of his mother’s awareness. Nothing good seemed to happen when she paid attention to him.   The only times he recalled feeling safe and calm in his home was when he would spend time alone in his room.
As Jerry grew into his adolescence, he watched as his mother treated his younger sister like her best friend. Furthermore, his father never came to his defense as his mother screamed at Jerry for the “cardinal sins” of not taking the trash out according to her timeline, forgetting to get a permission slip for a school field trip signed, or him not being thrilled to perform an exhaustive list of household chores instead of hang out with his friends, etc.  Jerry’s father’s internal working model of attachment left no room for him to disagree with his wife in defense of his child – doing so violated the rule that kept him attached to his wife.
Jerry found cruelty where love was expected
Nobody around him intervened to give him the message that this abuse was undeserved. Jerry could not face the fact that there was nothing he could do – once and for all – to get his mother to relent in her attacks on him. She attacked him for who he was not what he did. Due to his need for someone to attach to, he had to find a way to get her to stay willing to care for him.  He noticed that if he showed signs of self-confidence that she would attack him particularly viciously – calling him ‘selfish’, ‘inconsiderate’, and ‘acting like he’s the only person who matters in the world’. He reasoned that he could get temporary relief from her attacks if he refrained from thinking highly of himself.  Jerry construed feeling good about himself to mean neglecting the people he needed. This allowed him to continue seeing her as someone who meant well towards him if only he could behave as he should – obsequious, obedient, and self-denying.
To compound matters, Jerry never knew that his mother was mistreating him until his first bout of therapy at age 22. This happened for several reasons: 1) nobody around Jerry intervened for him to learn that he did not deserve her abuse, 2) Jerry’s father and sister acted as though nothing wrong with the way he was being treated, 3) from an early age, Jerry’s mother took pains to isolate him so that he saw her as the only person available to attach to. In order to avoid the kind of psychic death described above that occurs when a child has nobody to attach to, Jerry developed a set of beliefs about himself that preserved his mother as a viable caregiver.  These beliefs required him to assume personal and moral responsibility for all of the ways she tormented him
Jerry was like the character Winston in the book 1984  forced to believe that 2 + 2=5.
So, these were the tragic circumstances of Jerry’s childhood but there is a transcendent storyline here, too. Although Jerry had to consciously disavow his strength, intelligence and grit, his life reflected these qualities in spades.
Jerry’s unconscious refused to let him completely shrink from success.
Despite all of the prohibitions against standing out, I believe Jerry’s unconscious refused to let him wholly comply with this mandate.  It was as if his unconscious carried forward what it was too dangerous for his conscious self to know and express.  He was good with people. To a person, anyone asked about him would say that he is a ‘good guy’. He was not short of friends and had an air of sincerity, warmth, and humor that drew people towards him. Intellectually, and professionally he acted in ways that belied his conscious sense of himself. He threw himself into his studies in high school and attended an elite university graduating with high honors. He obtained his master’s degree right out of undergraduate school and proceeded to develop a successful career in the technology sector. He was known as a consistent and reliable person in all spheres of his life. Inwardly, Jerry had to prohibit himself from knowing these things, but they were more true about him than the identity of ‘too selfish’ forced upon him by his mother.
These aspects about Jerry are raised not just to tout his virtues but to highlight how his unconscious protected the kernel of who he was from his mother. Jerry knew that if his mother found out that he was successful at something that mattered to him and felt good about this that she would make it her mission to take it from him. He could act in ways that garnered success but he could not let himself consciously be aware that he was the one doing it.  This strategy allowed him make progress in his life while staying protected from his mother’s vindictiveness.  

Dismantling Jerry’s Fear of Success in Therapy

Jerry’s story is moving towards a good ending. In the course of his therapy we have discussed how his mother’s treatment of him, lack of protection from anyone else, and requirement to attach or die as a child forced him into believing that success was punishable offense. I consistently highlight how well others respond to him. By emphasizing what a positive impact he makes on everyone he encounters, he has been able to see how much of an exception to the rule his mother was. When Jerry feels safe enough to express his ambitions for himself I spring to reinforce and support these strivings. As a result, Jerry has been able to sustain his efforts towards success in work and hobbies with far less fear of the inner reprisal he grew accustomed to. He can consciously recognize how people actually respond to him in the world rather than his mother’s bad old soundtrack that he’s persona non-grata to everyone. Most importantly, he is growing in his ability to believe his own inner voice that he has worth, is deserving of respect and kindness, and is deserving of success when applying his talents in the world. When Jerry was in the throes of having to adapt in the way he did to his mother, he lost the ability to believe anything good he might say to himself about himself. He had to vanquish this inner voice because it could have invited his mother to attack further. Therapy has helped him to recover and protect this positive voice.  He now finds his inner world to be a much more comfortable, enlivening, and enjoyable place to inhabit.
*All references to clients are amalgamations of people, papers, books, life that do not directly refer to any specific person.  
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).  If you are interested in working through a fear of success please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.

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  1. Well said and understandable truth! I can “see” my life playing out as I read your article. Thank you for clarity! 🙏🏼

  2. Thank you for the article. When I was a child I was taught to bond or die. I was also the scapegoat. I would go to school in terror and wait for the afternoon bell so I could return to safety. The sibling before me had died and my parents were both narcissistic bpds. They accumulated over 2 million and passed away but my sister was given power of attorney and took it all.