Bordering on Fear… of Success

A few days ago I talked about  Sabotage. I found an interesting article that touches on potential subconscious reasoning behind the fear of success and it immediately struck me as relevant to Borderline Personality Disorder and my experiences with it. I’ll talk about the relevant parts. You can find the full article here.
Fear of Success
The excitement of success can feel close to anxiety for some.
As a psychologist specializing in trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) I’ve had firsthand experience coaching clients whose past experience feeds their current fear of success. For them, the excitement of success feels uncomfortably close to the feeling of arousal they experienced when subjected to a traumatic event or multiple events. (This feeling of arousal can be linked to sexuality, in certain cases where trauma has been experienced in that realm, but that is not always the case.) People who have experienced trauma may associate the excitement of success with the same physiological reactions as trauma. They avoid subjecting themselves to excitement-inducing circumstances, which causes them to be almost phobic about success.
There is another layer to the fear of success. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that the road to success involves risks such as “getting one’s hopes up” – which threatens to lead to disappointment. And many of us-especially if we’ve been subject to verbal abuse-have been told we were losers our whole lives, in one way or another. We have internalized that feedback and feel that we don’t deserve success. Even those of us who were not abused or otherwise traumatized often associate success with uncomfortable things such as competition and its evil twin, envy.
In order to have a healthy relationship with success (and it’s flip side, failure, or disappointment), the first step is to learn to differentiate between feelings of excitement and a “trauma reaction.”

“I was looking up how the body responds to fear, and it said that when we sense fear the brain transmits signals and our nervous system kicks, in causing our breathing to quicken, our heart race to increase… we become sweaty, and we run on instinct. When we get excited or enthusiastic, doesn’t our nervous system work the same way?”


{Yes}, the physical reactions to stress and to excitement are very similar. So, when we experience a traumatic event—such as a car accident or a school bullying incident—our body associates the fear we experience with the same physiological feelings we get while excited. Once we have been through enough trauma, we start to avoid those types of situations that trigger memories of fear. For this reason, trauma victims can tend to avoid excitement, and that can lead them to avoid success.
I work with trauma victims to get past their fears and associations and help them embrace and follow the path to success and healthy recovery.
I have a very mixed experience with success. By all outward appearances I appear to have a very ‘successful’ life. I’m independent, well educated, employed in at a renowned laboratory, financially stable… and yet, none of these things feel like a success to me. They seem flat. Like I had a goal, I worked towards the goal, I completed the goal, but I have no excitement, no pride, not satisfaction from my accomplishments. I always find a way to temper my expectations of the outcome so that I never get my hopes up.
Or when I’ve finally come so close to a big goal that will earn me more respect and recognition I pull back.
I will work full throttle until the 10th hour and at the very end slam on my own brakes so that I complete what I need to complete but fall short of something as exceptional as I know I could produce. I self-limit and I don’t really understand why. I am so used to disappointment, being disappointed, that I don’t want to get my hopes up for one more thing only to be disillusioned yet again. If it’s a hope that I’ve had in myself and do not reach: Forbid! That will just point to one more reason I’m not good enough, a failure. If I put everything I have into something and it’s not good enough, than it means I’m not good enough. But if I hold something back, it doesn’t mean I’m not good enough because I haven’t put all of myself into it. There’s a reserve in the back of my mind that can say, well if I just did this other thing it would have been exceptional, and since it’s all hypothetical there’s no fear of failure had I put all my energy into it. Sounds ass backwards to me, but it’s true enough.
The Author even provides an exercise to begin overcoming this fear of failure:
  1. Recall an event where you were successful or excited when you were younger, and notice what you are feeling and sensing in your memory. Stay with the sensation of for 5 minutes. 
  2. Recall an event where you were successful and excited recently in your life, and notice what you are feeling and sensing. Stay with this sensation of for 5 minutes.
  3. Now tap into the sensation of a memory of an overwhelming situation. I suggest not to start with a truly traumatic event, at least not without a therapist’s support. Start with something only moderately disturbing to you. 
  4. Now, go back to visualizing your success story. Do you notice a difference?
I’m going to do this for the very first random things that pop in my head:
1.      My first thought was of complete work while I was in the 4th grade, showing my teacher work that I was proud of because it was extra work and I thought I did a good job. Excitement and anxiety. Anxiety is inextricably bound to this set of  memories. That the next one won’t be good enough. I must have done half a dozen extra things that weren’t asked of me. Each time I completed something I was happy with what I did and showed the teacher. Finally the teacher said she would no longer reward me with a sticker for this work. I didn’t know I would be rewarded when I began this work. I didn’t care about these small rewards. I was proud of my work and wanted to share with someone that I looked up to. I wanted the approval of someone I admired for doing a job that actually was above and beyond what I needed to be doing, but I didn’t want a physical reward. Just acknowledgement. She seemed annoyed so maybe I wasn’t doing such a good job. I stopped showing her more work.
Staying with this memory for 5 minutes is very uncomfortable. It’s such a little thing but I recall the hurt and disappointment that I felt, like I’d been abandoned by the approval I sought.
2.      Two instances:
– I just had a huge design review for a ‘part’ I created. There is some additional testing I need to run in order to verify more ‘worst case scenarios’ that were mentioned, but in general, my design is a complete success and will go into production within the next 6 months. I felt nothing. No anxiety, no pride, no fear, no excitement. Blank. Not only could I not get my hopes up, I completely detached from the experience. Even afterwards when it was clear that the work I’ve been pouring into the project over the last few months has been a success.
– Painting: This I actually have a small spark of pride about. I smile. I am content in my new found hobby despite the fact that I am a novice at this art. I have no expectations of mastery but I look at the work that I’ve done and I like what I see. I am calm and content when I’m painting. Focused. I’m happy in the recollection of this and look forward to the times I will be able to sit down with my brushes again. It’s not an overwhelming feeling. Not a huge welling of pride, but there is definitely satisfaction in this. This is the kind of feeling that I think should be associated with success.  
3.      A few months after I moved to NY I finally made a couple new girlfriends. I told Evil-Ex that I would be out late. We hung out at one of their houses, drinking, dancing, just having a good time. He texted me around 10p asking when I’d be home. I told him I was drinking and couldn’t go home for a while, why? He was very evasive. Panic began to set it. Anxiety began to suffuse through my entire body as my mind ran in directions that could explain why he wouldn’t answer my question. None of them good. I tried to sober up but I couldn’t force this process in order to drive home. I ended up falling asleep on the couch. I woke up at 6a to go home in a panic. As it turned out he had invited a girl over ‘for us’ because ‘he thought I’d be home’.  Just when I thought I had made a very positive, healthy step in establishing some independence and newer healthy relationships, it turns out that there were very negative repercussions.
4. Of course I feel the difference. I can also sense parallels in my anxiety to my 4th grade experience.   Doing something because I enjoyed doing it, only to have it turn out to cause me painful feelings. Painting is utterly separate in feeling. Curiously, when I’m painting it is something that is dependent only on me. There are no other people in this activity or feeling of success. It’s an experience I relish solely as something I do for myself. The others are dependent on other people. Coincidence? Doubtful. I think I have become so accustomed to disappointment that my feelings dissociate completely which is why I feel no anxiety or anticipation in preparation or in conclusion of the major review I had that was by all standards, a success.
The problem is, some anxiety is good. It’s what drives you and pushes you to try harder. I have a lot of anxiety, but it’s out of proportion or directed at the wrong things. I am absolutely confident in my abilities, until I’m not. I know I can accomplish everything I set out to, until I convince myself otherwise. This is a fear of failure. This is not acceptable.