Unconscious Guilt and the Fear of Success

Why do we fail in our efforts, even when we have the talent, intelligence, and training to succeed? Why do we seem to sabotage these efforts in so many ways– by procrastinating, or forgetting a crucial detail, or suddenly losing sight of the goal?

The conventional answer is “fear of failure,” and the answer makes some sense. It can be very painful to put out one’s best effort and still fail. Better to sabotage the effort and avoid the risk of that pain.

But a better answer may well be “fear of success.” There are real, rational reasons to fear success, even though it seems contradictory to fear the very thing you desire. Along with success comes a great deal of pressure– not only to live up to past achievements but also to continually surpass them. Performing at one’s best can raise others’, as well as one’s own, expectations. The increased pressure to perform can evoke such painful stress and anxiety that some people opt out of the fast track all together.

These rational fears of success are generally conscious, patients that I see are often aware of the fears mentioned in the previous paragraph. An even greater and more hidden factor is an unconscious, often irrational fear of success. I have often found this fear to have roots in one’s family of origin.

A common example of such a family occurs when one or both parents have failed, or feel they have failed, in some crucial area of life. If a child of such a parent begins to succeed or excel in this same area of life, it can be a source of pain for the parent, as if salt were being rubbed into an old wound. In such circumstances, the child’s success can be experienced by the parent as insensitive or cruel. The parent’s reaction to the child’s success may be quite subtle and unconscious, without any awareness on the part of the parent or the child that the parent is reacting to the child’s success. One form this can take is the perfectionistic parent, whose constant criticisms do not allow the child to ever feel successful. Another parent may become depressed or withdrawn in response to the child’s success. For example a parent may react to their offspring’s success in school, socializing, sports or hobbies, by becoming self-effacing (“you’re doing so much with your life compared to me”), depressed (well I’m glad you’re happy), or withdrawn, by changing the subject or hardly responding at all to their son’s or daughter’s accomplishment. Or, a child may become the target of family members' ill will, resentment, or envy when excelling or standing out. Success in school may evoke reactions of ridicule, irritation, or an overall lack of interest from parents or siblings. Enthusiasm about pursuing one’s talents and interests may be seen by the family as showing off. Ambitions to go to college, to pursue a career, or to marry, may be met with criticism or rejection.

When there has been a pattern of such parental responses growing up, the child’s efforts to achieve personal goals are undermined. Instead of receiving love and support for their successes, the child finds that the parent feels hurt, depressed, and responds by criticism, ridicule or withdrawal.

Because it feels as if their success has hurt or damaged their parents, the child may end up as an adult, having unconscious feelings of guilt from wishing, striving for, or accomplishing success in an area or areas where a parent has failed. These areas may include relationships, career, finances, health, pleasure, or an overall sense of one’s self-worth. The guilt is unconscious, so that the reasons for self-sabotage, e.g., lack of ambition, or over-avoidance of competition, may be hidden. Wishing, striving for, or accomplishing success unconsciously triggers anxiety and guilt, resulting in procrastination, an inability to concentrate, low motivation, or a decision to just drop the project altogether.

Psychotherapy can be quite useful in helping to discover these hidden sources of the fear of success, so that the client can get a handle on what is getting in his or her way. Obviously this short description merely outlines a very complicated and subtle dynamic. Nevertheless, I do hope that this article sheds some light in understanding one’s tendency towards self-sabotage and underachievement. I have found that clients can make significant shifts in their lives when they begin to understand their own internal barriers to striving toward, and to achieving, success.

Please feel free to call me at (510) 528-4441 or e-mail me at Marc Miller, PhD to discus if I can be of help to you. I look forward to hearing from you.