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Caught Between Fear of Success and Fear of Failure

It’s Paul’s first visit to my office. He seems mystified as well as distressed. “I got a great job right after graduation last year,” he says. “My supervisor says I’m doing great. So he just put me on a harder project. I haven’t been able to sleep for days. I’m distracted and irritable and generally a nervous wreck. I can’t decide if I’m afraid of success or afraid of failure but I’m definitely freaking out. My sister says you’ve been helpful to her so I’m hoping you can help me figure this out.”

Maybe you can relate. Although only in your 20s, you’ve got a great job. You are being given assignments that allow you to show what you can do. You’ve proven yourself enough that you’re being steadily rewarded in the currency of the workplace: Increased autonomy, increased responsibility, and an increased budget. So why are you nauseous?

It’s at this juncture that many new workers find themselves caught between being afraid to succeed and being afraid to fail. To succeed might lead to being in over your head. To fail could mean that you’re not given another chance for a long time.

Why should success be scary? Easy. In most work places, doing well means being put in charge of more important projects with more money behind them. Perhaps it involves taking on supervision of others. It certainly means that the bar will be set higher. In short, the reward for accomplishing something difficult is that you’ll get to do more of it. This can be daunting, especially for someone who has the luck and/or gift to do very well very early.

Failure is no picnic either. Failure may mean that you’ll be given fewer or less significant opportunities, slowing down your trajectory in your career. In smaller concerns where everyone knows what everyone does, everyone will, of course, also know about a failure. That can be hard to live with every day. Unless handled well, failure can rattle our self-confidence and undermine our relationships with co-workers.

The way out of this bind is to redefine the problem: You’re not really afraid of success or failure. What you are reasonably afraid of is risk. It’s simply true: Challenges are inherently risky. Giving something your best shot doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the best outcome. Of course you’re nervous. But the good news is that your ability to manage risk can be systematically improved. You can make new challenges feel a lot less dangerous by reaching for support and making some shifts in your thinking.

What to do:

People who manage risk successfully and grow with their jobs generally do the following:

  1. Embrace opportunities: A company chooses carefully who they want to develop. If you’re being asked to stretch, it’s because someone with a whole lot more experience than you have thinks you’re up to the task. Okay. Maybe they’re just desperate for help. Either way, you have an opportunity, and the support, to take a risk. Remind yourself of all you do know and build on that.
  2. Don’t go it alone: Early in your career, the most important rule in the face of a risk is not to go it alone. You can’t afford to have your self-esteem wrapped up in doing it all by yourself. It’s just a fact: You’ve got much to learn. The smart thing to do is to learn what you can from more experienced staff. Ask someone to be your mentor. Get help breaking down the risk into smaller parts so that a glitch isn’t a disaster. Make sure your supervisors know about your concerns so they have an opportunity to give you input and support.
  3. Focus on process: Equally important to handling risk is a change in mind-set. If you make every challenge a win or lose proposition that puts your whole sense of yourself on the line, you’ll be nauseous all the time. It’s far better to develop the more-healthy attitude that risks are learning experiences and that every project is as much process as product. Often enough, what you learn along the way can be as important as the ultimate result, even if that result could be seen as a “failure”. (See #4.)
  4. Learn from “failures”: Someone has probably already told you that failures can teach us as much as successes. It’s true. At a minimum, failures can teach us what doesn’t work. Usually they provide us with rich and complicated information. Don’t give in to the tendency to walk away from “failures”. Milk them for every bit of information you can.
  5. Learn from successes: When you succeed, resist the temptation to just sigh with relief and put the whole ordeal out of your mind. Take the time to think through what you’ve learned, what you will do differently the next time, and what you feel good about. Ask your supervisor to debrief with you too.
  6. Share the glory and the setbacks: Team players are better liked and more successful than those who keep to themselves. Be generous and spread out credit where you can. You’ll enhance your reputation as a go-to person who is also a team player. If you tried something that didn’t work, share what you learned that benefits everyone and coworkers will see your “failure” as ultimately valuable.

You may be able to avoid taking on new challenges but always staying in your comfort zone is at the cost of personal and professional growth. Every risk you take, on the other hand, is an opportunity to develop confidence and competence. Those two attributes are joined in an endless loop. The more competence you develop, the more confident you will become. The more confidence you develop, the more competently you’ll manage challenges.

Caught Between Fear of Success and Fear of Failure

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Caught Between Fear of Success and Fear of Failure. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 4 May 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.