The Fear of Winning

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Most of us fear failure. If you live with social anxiety, you probably fear it even more so. It might be surprising then, to realize that in addition to your fear of failure there is another fear lurking. One that you might not have thought about much or even believed could be a fear.

That fear is the fear of success.

The fear of winning.

The fear of doing well.

The fear of being recognized for your accomplishments.

Does this sound like you?

There are many reasons why people with social anxiety might fear success. At it’s core, what you are really afraid of is shaking up the status quo. As much as you might hate your life, hate yourself, hate your job, hate that you have no friends, hate your anxiety…. it’s what you know. Success… well that’s a bit scary, whether it’s social success, work success, financial success. It feels like that would come with responsibilities that you don’t know whether you can handle.

Why We Fear Winning

In the case of social anxiety in particular, you might literally be afraid of being thrust into the limelight because of your success.

Imagine winning the lottery. Writing a bestseller. There’s a reason why some authors/musicians/actors become private people—they were not prepared for what success would bring.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, because we all need our privacy.

How do you know if your fear of success or fear of winning is holding you back?

Ask yourself this:

Have you ever….

  • Done destructive things to handicap yourself such as drinking too much alcohol?
  • Refused to set goals so that you had no chance of success?
  • Been on the brink of success or nearly reached a goal and then suddenly changed paths to avoid going all the way? For example, not taking that last course toward getting your degree or closed down a business just when you started to attract more customers?

Another reason you might fear success is that you are worried others will be mad, envious, jealous, or hurt. If you are moving up, you might feel like you are leaving others behind. People with social anxiety are highly attuned to what other people are thinking/feeling, and you may worry that your success will come at the cost of other people’s happiness.

In fact, in Asian countries, it is actually expected that you downplay your success so as not to make other people feel bad.

Research on the Fear of Winning and Social Anxiety

Fear of success or fear of winning may be closely related to a fear of positive evaluation, which has been studied extensively by researchers in terms of how it relates to social anxiety, perfectionism, depression, etc. What we know is that fear of positive evaluation is a real problem for people with social anxiety.

People who have a fear of positive evaluation also tend to have maladaptive perfectionism, meaning that their perfectionism interferes with living life.

In fact, people who are perfectionists may actually develop social anxiety if they have a tendency to fear positive evaluation.

As a whole, the research shows that social anxiety and the fear of positive evaluation are related.

It’s quite the pickle! You are both afraid of people thinking badly of you and also of them thinking good things about you. What is a person to do?

Overcome Your Fear of Success

Beyond simply working on your social anxiety/perfectionism, there are specific things you can do to stop handicapping yourself from achieving success.

No, we’re not talking about “The Secret” here—although the message is similar. It’s not so much that what you seek you attract, but that when you are open to success, you allow it to happen. It was there all along. You were on the brink of it many times. You may have even felt it, achieved it, gotten there.. but couldn’t hold on.

I’m telling you now to let it happen.

If that feels too hard, then write down what you are feeling.

Ask yourself what you are afraid of.

Then accept your reasons for being afraid of success.

Realize that failure will always be part of success. You can’t get to to the top without falling once in a while.

But your abilities are not limited. Your skills are not limited. Those limits are ones you’ve created in your mind to protect yourself from what you fear the most.

Once you’ve decided to move past that fear, there’s nothing left to do.

Except..

Set those goals… and

Stick with that plan that is becoming successful.

And if you feel like being self-destructive, write about that too, until the feeling passes.

Sources:
Yap K, Gibbs AL, Francis AJP, Schuster SE. Testing the Bivalent Fear of Evaluation Model of Social Anxiety: The Relationship between Fear of Positive Evaluation, Social Anxiety, and Perfectionism. Cogn Behav Ther. 2016;45(2):136-149.
Weeks JW, Howell AN. The bivalent fear of evaluation model of social anxiety: further integrating findings on fears of positive and negative evaluation. Cogn Behav Ther. 2012;41(2):83-95.
Weeks JW. Replication and extension of a hierarchical model of social anxiety and depression: fear of positive evaluation as a key unique factor in social anxiety. Cogn Behav Ther. 2015;44(2):103-116.

How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life

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Does it ever strike you as odd that social anxiety disorder (or SAD, as I will refer to it sometimes on this blog) is among the top three most common mental health conditions (yes, up there with depression and alcoholism), there are science-backed treatments for it that we know work, and yet around a third of people with social anxiety experience symptoms for 10 years or more before seeking help. Wait, what?

10 or more years? Like, were they locked in their homes or something?

Well, kind of.

Not locked in a house like Paul Sheldon was in Misery.

No, these people with social anxiety are living with some kind of virtual shackle, that stops them from waving at the neighbor, going to work, raising their hand in class, leaving the house, speaking—

You get the picture. And if this is you, that picture confronts you every morning.

So, it’s no wonder that these people don’t, imagine that, pick up the telephone and call their doctor

How would that go anyway?

“Good morning, Dr. X’s office, can you hold for a moment?”

“Uh.” . Click.

You know what? It’s really not their fault. And it’s not your fault. Because, you see, the world is not set up to help people with social anxiety get help. In fact, it’s pretty much stacked against you.

But still, 10 years? Surely you can do better than that. Let’s think about what contributes to that 10 year gap.

#1. You’re not motivated to change.

Okay, okay. Hear me out.

I don’t mean not motivated in the sense that you lay about in your pyjamas all day, eat bon bons, and binge-watch Netflix. Well if you do, kudos. You’ve found a way to earn a living that doesn’t require working, so good on you. Unless, of course, you’re living with people who are supporting you. Not good. Very bad.

No, I mean the type of lack of motivation that stems from fear of making a major life change.

Maybe you’ve settled into your way of life and somehow made it work for you.

Maybe your family doesn’t support you changing.

Maybe you have other mental health issues that make life a struggle in general.

Maybe you think the cost of getting help is out of reach.

Maybe you think there is no help for you, that you were born defective.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I don’t know you or what reason you might have for not wanting to change.

I do know that if you ever want to get motivated to change there are 3 things you need to do:

  1. Become aware that you have a problem. Most people with social anxiety realize they have a problem, but they might think it is something they have to live with.
  2. Think about making a change sometime in the future. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be.
  3. Start planning to work on your issue in the near future. Something like within the next month.

But what about the why? Why are you doing this if things are ho-hum now. If your family doesn’t support you. If you can’t afford therapy. If you can’t be helped.

Are you happy?

How could your life be better?

The answers to those two key questions will tell you if you can dig deep to find that motivation. Because it will always feel more comfortable to stay the same. And people will often be unsupportive. And you may run into roadblocks getting help (but there are ways around this—a topic for another post). And YOU CAN BE HELPED.

You all can be helped. Don’t believe otherwise.

#2. You don’t have the information to change.

So, if you’ve got the motivation that’s all you need, right? Yeah right. You need tools and information. You can’t do this alone (well, maybe you can—again, another post). But if you think you know it all already, you’re done before you start.

You need expert help to get through this and live well. Whether that comes in the form of medication, therapy, self-help books, online treatment modules, your cat telling you what to do (not advised, cats don’t know social anxiety)—it doesn’t matter. And you know, combining different methods might actually work the best, kind of like the shotgun approach.

#3. You are not putting what you have learned into practice.

Medication aside, overcoming social anxiety involves a lot of mental work. It’s very easy to slip up and return to old ways of thinking.

Perhaps you got better for a while and then went through a stressful time in your life and regressed. We’ve all been there.

Maybe you’ve read all the self-help books, but that’s all you’ve done is read.

Guess

what?

It’s not going to work if you don’t put in the work. Kind of like you can’t spend 4 months exercising like a madman and expect to then keep six-pack abs for the rest of your life.

Why do people expect that from the brain?

“Well geez, I got treatment shouldn’t I be fine now?”

“Well geez, did you dump your gym membership because you saw you were getting in shape?

What I am getting at here is that medication, therapy, and even self-help approaches are often time-limited.

We treat this as a mental health disorder that needs a short term fix. And I do understand that this is partly because it’s just not feasible to continue in therapy or on medication for an extended period.

But. Still.

We need to start envisioning mental wellness instead of focusing on mental illness. Especially for issues like social anxiety.

And we need to focus on maintenance of mental wellness among the healthy.

You can do this. You’ve got this. I believe in you.