Everyone talks about the fear of failure, and how to look it in the eye.  (See this post by Seth Godin.)  Not as many people talk about the equally real fear of success that undermines and self-sabotages just as many.

Here are just a few examples of fear of success:

-The person who finishes every requirement to graduate and get a degree except for one course, maybe even an elective they could have taken pass/fail.

-The person who spends hours, weeks, even months on a project, but can’t quite seem to over close it out, publish the book or paper, or otherwise complete the damn thing.

-The person who looks at a project and all of its upsides, everything looks like a go, it’s obvious to everyone this is a winner… and then they change their minds at the last minute and decide to do something else instead.

-The person who always puts a roadblock or reason/excuse in their own way, such as waiting for someone else to do something before acting themselves.

-The person who always seems to be on the fence about any decision, ranging from where to have dinner, to what color to paint the bathroom, to what purchase to make. (The Hamlet Syndrome)

I’ve been this person from time to time- I think we all have.  What’s really behind this inability to finish, or what seems like lack of ambition?  It’s not really fear of failing- it’s a fear of succeeding, and what that might mean for your life. What goes into this fear?

-You might have more responsibilities.

-People will expect more from you.

-People might criticize you if you are in the spotlight.  They might snipe and be jealous.

-Your success might outstrip a parent, friend, or spouse- and that causes anxiety and/or competition.

-You aren’t sure what you’ll feel like after that moment of success, or how long it will last, and you’ll have to find something else to do or worry about.

-Anxiety and being the perpetual underdog may feel more normal and natural than being on top.

-You might have to make decisions and take control instead of letting others do it for you.

-You might not know what you want to do next, but you’ll be forced to decide if you finish.

-You might push yourself down a road you’re just not sure you want to commit to forever.

-Making a decision and taking action might foreclose other options, and you’re afraid to commit in one direction or another.

-You might have to take control and stand up for yourself, which means giving up the role as spectator or victim in your own life.

Objectively, we can see that failing to make decisions and to commit to a direction leaves us floundering and drifting.  Many smart and intelligent people, often over-achievers, flounder because the options are many and picking just one “mission” seems scarier than leaving options open.

The trick to all of this, of course, is to recognize the fear when it starts taking hold.  Here are five things you can do to help get out of your own way:

1.  Recognize procrastination as anxiety and fear.  If you are avoiding something, try to figure out why you “just can’t seem to get that thing done.”  If you find the root of the problem, you can address it.

2.   Write down your feelings, even if it starts out “I’m not sure why I’m avoiding this thing….”  Hand write two or three pages, longhand, free form, just thinking about the issue and what you might be thinking about.  Usually, you’ll start to find what’s really bothering you by the end of the pages.

3.  Try short programs like The Artist’s Way to identify where you might be blocking your own success and happiness.  Sometimes it might be things from your past getting in your way.  The Artist’s Way is a great pathway towards uncovering your own self-sabotage, whether you consider yourself an artist or not.  This is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and it’s often great to do with a friend you trust, to keep you both on track.

4.  While trite phrases like “If you don’t try, you can’t succeed” seem, well, nauseating, remember that we all learn from failure and stumbling along the way.  We need failure to learn, and we need at least a little success to keep going.  Be kinder to yourself and allow small successes- even crossing off tasks on your daily to do list, to help build comfort with accomplishment.

5.  Draw a roadmap to what you want.  Make a list of dreams and aspirations.  Pick one or two.  Then write down all the things that need to happen to make that dream a reality.  Seriously- every step.  If you can, break down those steps into smaller steps. Be specific.  For example, even if you write something like:  “Wait to be discovered by a talented director;” Break down  that “goal” into things you would need to do to get a Director’s attention, such as putting samples on Youtube, starting a blog, etc.  Then get started, put deadlines on the calendar and hold yourself accountable.  Once you make the dream a tangible reality, it’s much more likely you can find a pathway to the end.

Fear of success is painful to watch from the outside.  Watching people sell themselves short and not reach their potential seems like such a waste of talent and energy.  If you think you have an awful inner critic, or what Arianna Huffington calls “The obnoxious room mate in our head who always tells us how terrible we are,” remember the real world is often much more kind and only sees or assumes your good qualities, so try to live up to those standards instead.

If you need something to fear, fear the sad shake of the head from people who say “She had so much potential and seemed to have it all together, but it never lived up to its promise.”  That’s tragedy.  Going for broke and failing or stumbling along the way is natural and normal.  You’re probably already there.  Don’t fear finishing.  Don’t leave things only “mostly done”.  Finish it, close it out, and look back with pride as small successes start making you more comfortable with bigger ones.

I’ll be here working on these things right beside you.