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Fear of Failure or Fear of Success?

When I started out as a therapist, I didn’t think much about what we call “fear of success.” I believed that the underlying problem—the real fear—was of failure. Now, thanks to the numerous clients who have educated me about their issues, I understand that people also suffer from a bona fide fear of success, a fear that is common among people with eating problems. As a disregulated eater, it’s crucial that you recognize and deal with the fact that you actually might be afraid of achieving recovery.

Success and failure are natural occurrences. Success is, of course, more desirable, but each state is part of life. It’s a no-brainer why people fear failure. When we fail, we may feel ashamed and inadequate, and our self-esteem may plummet. We’ve all failed in minor and major undertakings and most of us never would choose failure over success. There are people, however, who are so uncomfortable with achievement and who feel so at home with failure that it hardens into their default setting.

Sadly, some children are admonished that being successful leads to arrogance, false pride, and boasting, when what parents need to do is encourage children to feel proud of success. Consequently, success generates anxiety in the child who wonders, “What if I feel too good about myself, is success a good or a bad thing, what if success makes me think I’m better than other people?” When success or achievement provokes criticism or anxiety from a parent, a child often will take the opposite route to please the parent or avoid criticism and that route leads to failure. So success becomes a mixed bag. Something within us says that it is a fine thing to be proud, while our parents send us equally strong messages that succeeding and feeling pride are wrong and bad.

Many disregulated eaters dwell on their failures and mistakes with food, but have enormous difficulty sharing their successes. Listen up: if you think that reaching goals, recovering from disregulated eating, and being successful are bad things, you will never get there. That is irrational, unhealthy thinking. Success is a wonderful thing. You want to feel proud and good about yourself when you make healthy choices and sustain progress. It’s thrilling to reach your goals and feel as if you’re sitting on top of the world. There’s no shame, only pride. How will you ever succeed if you believe in your heart that success will make you feel superior, arrogant, boastful, or egotistical? If you were taught erroneous messages about success in childhood, it’s time to rethink them. If you have mixed feelings about success, you need to resolve your ambivalence so that you can move forward and bask in the glow of your hard labor and hard-won achievements.