Understanding the Fear of Success and Self-Sabotage

The fear of failure is an almost universal human anxiety in the modern world. We all, at one point or another, have worried that our actions will disappoint others or ourselves. But the fear of success? Why would someone intentionally (although unconsciously) self-sabotage what is best for them? Unfortunately, many of us suffer from engaging in self-defeating and self-sabotaging behaviors, patterns that are highly correlated with anxietydepressionmarital problems and social isolation.

On the surface, self-sabotage is counter intuitive and does not make any sense; you desperately want to succeed in your profession, find a loving mate, and become involved in those things that you fulfilling and exciting, right? Unfortunately, at an unconscious level, many of us have conflicting internal desires that lead to self-sabotage.

What is Self-Sabotage?

What is self-sabotage? Self-sabotaging behaviors can range from not returning an important phone call, turning in work assignments late, or continuing to become romantically involved with those that are emotionally unavailable. At its essence, it is engaging in behaviors that are against one’s self-interest, while at the same time not being able to practice self-care and promote one’s well being. What is so troublesome about most self-defeating behavior is that it primarily operates on an unconscious level, making it often very difficult to address.

Punitive Parenting, Rebellion, and the Internal Tyrant

According to psychodynamic theory, some behaviors of self-sabotage are rooted in early childhood experiences. The toddler must learn to control his or her impulses, such as learning “no” and to be potty trained. In the normal developmental stage of the “terrible twos”, the child experiences anger and rage over being controlled. The toddler, if the parenting methods are too punitive and correcting, turns the aggression toward him or herself. In fact, this can create a harsh inner conscience, or superego, that can become a self-punishing personal tyrant. In other words, this is aggression turned inward, leading to self-punishment, depression, and masochist behaviors. In fact, masochism can be viewed as a way to control negative feelings: “Whatever I am feeling, even if it doesn’t feel good, is what I want and seek.”

In the same vein, self-sabotage and a fear of success can also be a form of rebellion against harsh parental expectations. If the parental expectations are too high and exacting, then the child feels angry and controlled. If this is a consistent dynamic between child and parent, the adult child may unconsciously feel that success is submitting to someone else’s wants and requirements. Self-sabotage is a way of punishing the overcritical parent.

Feelings of Low Self-Worth

Regardless of the origin of the behavior, for almost all individuals with self-sabotaging impulses, they overwhelmingly experience feelings of being inadequate, undeserving, and worthless. Unfortunately, any masochistic pleasure experienced unconsciously from self-sabotaging acting out is paid for many, many times over in guilt, envy, anger anxiety, depression and fear.

This undercurrent of worthlessness is apparent in almost everything that they do to better themselves; for example, they do not attempt creative or emotionally risky projects because they are sure their efforts are not going to be good enough, no matter how hard they try. Hence, they are defeated before they have even begun. In a clever way, self-sabotaging saves them psychologically from failure; they did not actually fail since they did not even try and perhaps could, someday, succeed if they actually made an effort-leaving success for their fantasy life and saving some sense of self-worth on a conscious level.

Success Triggers Anxiety

Self-sabotaging behaviors can also be triggered by actually achieving some success, especially professionally. For the self-defeating person, success only leads to anxiety, as others might have start having increased expectations of them, and they are sure that they will ultimately fail and disappoint others. No “success” of theirs is real; they have somehow falsely duped others into thinking that they are performing well—a sort of “smoke and mirrors” trick, and only they know that they cannot really do what is expected of them.

Since fear of success primarily operates on an unconscious level, it is difficult to address without some therapeutic intervention. If you are interested in counseling for self-sabotage, depression, anxiety or couples counseling in the Irvine, Orange County, or the Newport Beach area, please contact me at (949) 251-8797.

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