I have seen several pieces written online about impostor syndrome (one of them by me) and there is a body of scholarly work about fear of failure. Fear of success can be as big a barrier, in my view, though much less is written about that. For example, on Google Scholar, “fear of success” gets around 8,500 hits, while “fear of failure” gets around 59,000. So here’s a post to help redress the balance.
I have been grappling with a potential project over the last couple of months which requires a brief application of 1000 words. I’m good at writing and I’ve had some top quality help and support, yet this has been a real struggle. I have emailed three separate versions to my main support person for feedback; I haven’t done that since my PhD days over 12 years ago. And I have come to the conclusion that fear of success is part of the problem.
I found myself doing various small acts of self-sabotage, such as putting a relevant electronic document in the wrong folder, and procrastinating about research I needed to do for the application because it felt too difficult to tackle. Those unusual (for me) activities alerted me to something unfamiliar going on in my psyche.
I don’t feel like a fraud, so it’s not impostor syndrome. It’s not fear of failure, either, as if I fail, I lose nothing but the time I have invested. I will be no worse off apart from a temporary feeling of disappointment. So I think it must be fear of success.
Reflecting on this, I realised that fear of success is based on fear of identity change. If I get to do this project, it will change who I am. I will become ‘the person who [does things I don’t do now]’. And change like that is scary, even though the project is something I think I want and something others are encouraging me to attempt. If I become ‘the person who’, will I still fit in my primary relationship with my significant other? Will I still more or less fit into my professional communities? Will I still fit in my skin?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. That means if the people who have the power to offer this project to me do so, and I decide to accept, I will be taking a leap into the unknown. That feels so scary.
I know impostor syndrome well; it was with me for the publication of Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners in 2012, and again for the publication of Creative Research Methods in 2015. Fear of failure goes back much further, to my school exams in the 1970s. But fear of success is new to me. I’m not familiar with all its little schemes and wiles, but I expect I’ll counteract them the way I have with fear of failure and impostor syndrome: I will get to know how fear of success works on me, and then I’ll carry on regardless.
You are raising a number of really important points here, Kara, ones that many people have not often articulated or considered well. In this manner, it may lead to new areas of potential research, as there is a definite need for better understanding the whys, hows, and whats about it.
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Thank you Jeffrey. I agree that it is a potentially fertile area for research – I am sure my post barely scratches the surface. Like you, it is something I want to know more about and understand more fully.
Someone once said to me that my fear of success might be fear of failure in a different skin – and in my case it was… if I succeeded in (this project) I would raise the bar and I might never clear that bar again (apologies for the sports metaphor, tis the season down here!) I like your take too, exploring what is at stake in the moment can be freeing or at least create a space for choice.
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Thank you, Rowena, that’s interesting. I think there’s very little known or understood about the relationships between fear of failure, fear of success, and impostor syndrome. It seems to me they are all related… three sides of the same coin – or something like that!
I always think what’s the worst that can happen? And what’s meant for you won’t pass by you. I would hate to regret doing nothing and wonder where it might have led?….
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Hi Mel, and thanks for commenting. I’m not a subscriber to ‘what’s meant for you…’, as I find chaos theory more compelling than some kind of grand design, but I have a great deal of time for ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ and have found it a very useful question to consider at times of anxiety or nervousness. And I think ‘no regrets’ is a great aim to have.