Fear of Success is NOT the Same as Fear of Failure…But Fear is Still the Point



X Games 2009 Los Angeles BMX Bike Verts
What makes a person successful? Fearful? Fearless? I had not yet been pondering this quite so intensely when we enjoyed watching these young men toss themselves freely into the air at the 2009 X Games in Los Angeles.

You might be thinking that a disappointing weigh-in led to giving up on sugar detox, but my problem is the opposite.

A few years ago my weight was 262 pounds. I added cardio and changed nothing else about my lifestyle, eating or fitness.

In about two and a half years I dropped 15 pounds from just doing cardio “when I felt like it.”

Six months ago I began weight training. I weighed 248 pounds before I started my first weight training session. As you know, muscle ADDS weight, so I’ve been repeatedly told by trainers not to expect a lot of weight loss while building muscle. Overall I’m still becoming more fit and clothes are fitting me better, but I knew not to expect much.

My routine is 6 days a week of cardio, 3 days a week of weight training with a trainer. And I don’t mean little five pound resistance weights, but actually breaking and building muscle as much as my body can handle it.

I didn’t expect much on the weigh-in, but there it was:

228 pounds!

I dropped 20 pounds in the last 6 months, while increasing muscle mass.



Trigger pulled.


“The mind thinks thoughts that we don’t plan. It’s not as if we say
At 9:10 I’m going to be filled with self-hatred.'”
Sharon Salzberg
Fear of Success Fear of Failure Unknown
Was this winner of the 2012 Madison Regatta afraid of winning the race? Or did he just…RACE?

I didn’t tell my trainer about my instant switch from elation to fear. I tried not to think about this weight loss, about how close I was getting to that 200 pound benchmark weight. I did my workout with the new trainer, left the gym and immediately went to Starbucks for a salted caramel latte and sandwich, and commenced hating myself for the rest of the week as my inner saboteur kept Abbeying the works with a monkey wrench.

Why do I keep returning to things that are not good for me when I seem to be making progress? And how do I stop before I slide too far backward?

My undergraduate writing professor (now mentor) always told me I had a fear of success. I thought it was just some kind of b.s. way of twisting the phrase “fear of failure” to make it sound more optimistic. She was the one who told Kurt that he must, must promise to someday support me so I can be a writer full time, since writing is not a job that pays well (unless you hit that lottery of bestseller or have a day job). She insisted he repeat the promise to her of supporting me to write full time. I already wrote about that, so if you want more on it, read this post on Thankful: My Husband…

Fear of Success Fear of Failure Unknown
From successful authors and artists to sports competitors to business and political leaders – they all make me wonder about the mentality of success and successful thinking.

I’ve talked about my fear of success with you in past blogs, sometimes related to my writing, other times related to physical changes. Examining what success would mean and trying to understand my relationship to it have been an undertone of much of the self-analysis that takes place in here.

Yesterday’s post, “Who Fails on Day 2!?!?!?” is about this ongoing issue. Understanding something (about yourself or about others) doesn’t mean instant change, but as long as the dialogue is open and the language starts to evolve, it is, indeed, progress.

I love this online community and our ability to inspire and be inspired by the same topics. I’ve noticed many fellow bloggers working on fear of success and trying to understand themselves through or offer wisdom to others. I think this can be a positive thing, but it’s important (for someone like me) to recognize whether it’s truly fear of success, and not fear of failure. If you approach it without really understanding yourself, you’re still spinning your wheels. (And I am an expert at mud-stuck pedal-to-the-floor wheel spinning, friends!)

X Games 2009 Los Angeles Moto Cross
The finish line of the Moto finals, X Games Los Angeles, 2009. Success!

So what’s the difference, and frankly, who gives a shit?

Here is how I see the difference between the two (and it doesn’t matter if these aren’t prescription definitions, because what I’m examining is “self” and how I define them influences my choices and influences my ability to move forward). A person who isn’t quite as introspective will rightfully say “Who gives a shit?” and simply progress through life based on sheer will and the momentum that each forward step gives to the next. I admire those people, but I am not them, and my choices are determined by this trickster little mind of mine, who may throw in a bout of self-hatred, doubt and fear at various times throughout the day.

When you fear succeeding, you actually believe you can succeed, but… that doing so means you must sacrifice other things in order to achieve success: maybe you outgrow a person; maybe you stop being liked by certain people; maybe you lose privacy; maybe you think the darkest parts of your personality will surface when you have wealth or fame.

When you fear failing, you don’t think you can succeed, and… you’re pretty sure trying will only reinforce that assumption about yourself; maybe others make fun or remind you of your mistakes; maybe you lose even more self esteem than you already had; maybe you lose what comfortable things or people you had before trying (note that in this case you aren’t afraid of outgrowing them, but that they will no longer find you worthy).

Fear of Success Fear of Failure Unknown
Sean Tucker was inspirational to watch as he defied death multiple times at the 2009 Miramar Air Show in his Oracle Challenger.

I probably have a tiny mix of both, like many do, because although I believe there are fundamental differences between the two, and those differences are what shape and help me improve, they both come down to a common fear: fear of the unknown.

Again, so what? What’s the point of analyzing myself to death anyway?

If you’re one of those wonderful people who just looks at life and says: I don’t like this. I’m going to change it. Then count yourself lucky. You are the exception. And you were most likely not a f*cked up child.

My husband is one of these wonderful people. He has no need for long, drawn-out introspection. He doesn’t always change, but it’s because he doesn’t see a need. When he decides he wants to change something, he simply does. He puts his mind to the task, gives something up or adds something in, and moves on about his life without another consideration about it. It’s not my place to decide if the reason he is this way is because he had a two-parent no fuss, no muss childhood, free of death, divorce or any serious trauma.

Fear of Success Fear of Failure Unknown
Maybe success starts with the little things. Maybe knowing your fear really isn’t as important as focusing on what you’ve done, what you’re doing and what you’ll do next? More on that tomorrow…

But of course you know I’m going to speculate the heck out of it. 😉

How does knowing and understanding all of this change me? By helping me recognize what’s failing, address it, embrace it (the way Kurt physically embraces me to diffuse my abuse-pattern anger) and take one more small step forward.

Being told you have a fear of success is different than really coming to understand, recognize and believe it yourself. And knowing you have a fear of success is not the same as overcoming it. But it’s a start.

So what, specifically, does this all have to do with failing the 21 Day Sugar Detox on Day 2? Well, I’ve run out of space and my fingers are cramping, so I’ll save that for tomorrow…

Love, Marla

P.S. Here are a few of my favorites related to change, introspection and fear:

Beauty, Guilt and a Makeover

Why, How, What the…

On Wanderlust and Writing Hard…

Bubble Popping

P.P.S. The cardio and weight portion of my changes are still wonderful. Yesterday my new trainer tricked me into bench pressing 80 pounds (a new record for me). I only got it up on my own for 3 reps and then he helped me go-go-go-go-go-go- until muscle failure. I’m so wonderfully sore today and it makes me so happy! I love the feeling of muscle breakdown and buildup. It’s a new kind of high I had no idea existed. Makes me wish I were a guy. If I were a guy in this new obsession, I’d be Ahhnold! Ya!! Or no, I’d probably be more like Hans and Franz… “We gonna pump…you up!”

10 thoughts on “Fear of Success is NOT the Same as Fear of Failure…But Fear is Still the Point

  1. Wow….this entry really connected to me. You know one of things that came up as I read that part about sabotaging your work-out with Starbucks and as I read on: was that I understood completely. And I understand also the very importance of overcoming that fear. It is very hard because it is so ingrained in our little minds. I don’t know if ppl who do not have this fear understand that our brains, our minds, have a lot of power that we must take away from it. It doesnt matter whether I succeed or fail, my little voice is ready to turn both things into fear and make it all about how I am just not good enough.

    I do not know your own whole personal story, but would like to share with you a bit that helped me. I dont know I just connect to yours. But one of the main things for my constant self-hatred or putting myself down…was that I thought I was not good enough. That because of the past….of the things that I felt I had “let” people do to me, I did not deserve to be thin, beautiful, successful, etc. I did not deserve to be happy. So whenever I did succeed I would minimize it. Never celebrate it, never look at it, never notice it. Yet, at the moment I failed it was the end of the world. I was horrible and here was the proof of it. Me stuffing my face with bread was the proof that I was no good, that I deserved to extremely overweight and not pretty.

    I still struggle with that part. I mean even though I lost 80lbs…it still surprises me ppl consider that a big deal. I dont celebrate it as much as I should. One of the things that helped though, as I failed, was a friend of mine. When I did fail, with a food or something, I would tell him and he would set a consequence. Maybe I didnt get my cheat meal for the next two weeks, perhaps I couldnt buy something I wanted, perhaps I had to take on 10 more minutes of gym. Whatevers. But he emphasized that once the consequence was over I was not allowed to feel bad anymore. I was to let it go. THAT takes work. Stopping your little voice when it begins “you are no good, look that bread is the reason there is another 1lb on the scale, you are never going to be pretty.” Stopping it and quieting it down. That is hard. Telling it to be quiet, then replacing it with all your other successes.

    But being conscious and doing the work of stopping your little voice really shows you how much we have let those negative words rule our world. How much we have let them put us down. And at one point late last year I decided that was over. I was done letting my past continue to have power over me. I was done letting them continue to tell me I am no good and its all my fault. I would succeed despite them. I would show them, my mind and my past, that I overcame and I will be better than they ever will.

    Doing that I have seen my mind change and I am happy that I will become someone better. That I can look back at the past and leave them behind with a smile because the past will stay there and those who hurt me will never be better than me. I will be better. I will be beautiful despite them, I will be successful, I will be who I WANT TO BE.

    Sorry such a long reply….should of blogged it and sent you a link…hahaha. But your entry really connected with me :D. And I still have my break downs once in awhile. My fear completely taking over, but now I just ride it through and then push the positive forward. I do not know when I stopped eating when feeling so bad, but I did. Now I just curl up in a ball feel what I need to feel and let it out. Then when a little space is given I move in with the positive. And if I feel the bad being too big…I ask for help. Help to stop my brain from taking over. And HE is always there. He calms me and takes it away. Jesus gives the peace I can not get. By reminding me I am his. And nothing that is HIS is bad or not good enough.


  2. Phew! It’s a good thing I like you so much or I’d never have gotten through that whole thing. You should be honored! 🙂 I’ll save you my opinions, besides you probably know them all already anyway.

  3. I was most impressed with the fact that you work out 9 days a week (3 days of weights + 6 days of cardio) – if that isn’t making the rest of us look like failures, I don’t know what is, sista’! ha! 😉 Great reflective post – thanks Marla!

    1. Ha. Yeah I guess I worded that funny.
      My weight training days also include cardio: an hour of weights + an hour of cardio.
      New trainer just told me this needs to change, though, because I’m crashing on afternoons of days when I’m doing both.
      Blah. I love this routine, but of course I don’t want to be tired all the time.

      Thanks Jody – hope you enjoy the 3rd and final part of this one tomorrow.
      Your family is beautiful, btw. I really enjoy the photos you’ve been having on your blog.

      1. thanks. same here. It’s fun to get to know someone because they make themselves “real” (not the kind of real, of course, as my first “real” boyfriend! ha!)

        And you worded it perfectly for comprehension – you know I was just teasing you. You are both beauty & the beast with this intense work-out plan you’ve got going on. Keep on keepin’ on! 🙂

  4. Timely post…yeah, I recently had a meltdown over this same thing. Have you ever read “SWITCH: How to Change When Change Is Hard” – by the funny ha-ha sociology brothers, Chip & Dan Heath (who wrote MADE TO STICK: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die). I highly recommend SWITCH. They first describe the brain as having 2 parts; the Rider and the Elephant. The Rider loves schedules and charts and keeping the Elephant heading on that path to success. The Elephant is all about emotion. Guess which one is bigger? The big truth I learned from this book – which in all my 60 years I’d never been told, taught, or ever truly conscious of (I’m good at denial) – is everything a person sets out to do, from dieting to being in relationship to making art to being an Olympian, will be met with failure along the way. You can’t avoid it. I’ve gone through life thinking I could – and should! – as my perception is everybody else does! But what has needed to change is my attitude toward failure. The Heath guys say we need to be more like coaches (like your trainer and your hugging hubby) instead of a scorekeeper (Rider with a Whip). So I contend, if you really want to do the sugar detox thing, you haven’t failed, you just have a different path to blaze than the online gang and on Day 2 reached an epiphany about its terrain -you’re now in the “Valley of Insight” (as they call it) – and realize you might be more suited to breakdown & buildup of muscle to get up the other side of the mountain than denying your Elephant her sweet tooth…Pump UP!!

    1. Well said. You guys are making it much easier for me to put out tomorrow’ post, which looks at types of success (see response to my brother below) and about my path vs. the idea of “the” path.
      No, I never heard about the elephant and rider, but I’ve heard similar analogies and I like it. SWITCH sounds like something I would enjoy reading.

  5. Hahahaha, oh my dear, dear little sister! You crack me up!! Sometimes I think you talk circles around your own circles!! You are already a success in SO SO many things! I wish you could embrace all those successes so fully that you would’t ever worry again about some little “backslide” or minor failure! You’re just such a wonderful, quirky, person inside and out! You’ve already done such a terrific job of getting in shape ( looked great last time I saw you) I’m sure you’re going to make it as far as you WANT to, setbacks or no!

    Love, love, LOVE the show!

    1. In that case, you are going to LOVE part 3 of this tomorrow, because it will focus on “focus” – looking at success, “success” and SUCCESS (and more from my insane mental basket).

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