The Two Fears that Sabotage Change


It’s become a recurring thought in my head about how to share with people who have a long journey of self- Change ahead of them something that I’ve learned from 9 years trying to become the person I want to be.  How do you take all of the successes, all of the struggles, and all of the questions that bounce around in your head and condense it down into something that both resonates with people and also encourages them to recognize what is ahead and how to deal with the challenges that will come?  I was reminded of something today which I said in a presentation several years ago.  I shared part of it on social media, but wanted to provide a larger commentary on the topic in blog form for those of you who were interested in my ramblings on how change is begun, how it is finished, and how change can be derailed along the way, Fear of Change is something that merits addressing.

Ultimately there are a number of things between the start and the finish of any journey of change which will cause you to have obstacles to climb over, under, or go around.  To try to write an article about those would be both difficult and incomplete.  The journey could be anything requiring significant time and significant change.  For some, that may be the perpetual desire to test the limits of your strength or endurance.  For others, it may be fitting into the same size clothes from 20 years ago.  For still others, it may be as basic as wanting to be “normal” after a battle with depression, anxiety, or any other mental condition.  Ultimately, the two fears that everyone faces down are pretty basic when viewed at face value but how they impact on your journey and how they are controlled might be a bit of a surprise.  So what are the two fears that I’m talking about?  The two fears that everyone faces are:

  1. Fear of Failure
  2. Fear of Success

I want to begin by defining each fear and capturing it for what it is (and what it isn’t).

fear of change on a diet

Defining the Fears

Fear of failure is the fear that prevents someone from beginning…from STARTING the process of change.  It comes across in the future tense.  All of the worries are about future events for which there is no logical basis other than maybe some historical baggage:

  • What if they laugh at me because they think I’m no good?
  • What if the outcome doesn’t live up to the scenario I’ve dreamed up?
  • What if after all of my effort, I find that it wasn’t worth the time, energy, and money spent?

In dietetics and wellness, you’ll hear a mantra repeated often enough that it’s cliché at this point, which says, “The body craves homeostasis.”  In other words – it doesn’t want to change.  This is wholly true for the mind of the individual as well. What if questions plague us because the fear of the unknown outcome is often sufficient to keep us from abandoning the cold comfort of the unhappy present that we have.  We accept that sitting in excrement is fine, because, “At least it’s fresh and it’s mine.”  We don’t dare venture toward change because change is scary, it isn’t known.  What happens with many of us is that we never toe the starting line of a journey not because of any real knowledge, but because a make believe game of “what if” cripples our will.  To put it in physics terms, there are conflicting forces in you – the desire to change some aspect of your existence propelling you forward toward a goal, and your fear of a negative future outcome restraining you to where you currently are.

On the other side of the coin is our second fear – the fear of success.  At first glance this sounds idiotic.  Why would I fear success?  In truth, I had no idea why anyone would fear success while I was in the middle of being a failure in nearly all aspects of my life.  When I began to make changes, it became clear to me that this is the fear of completion.  Fear of success is a fear that has its roots in concerns about authenticity and permanence.

  • What if I can’t maintain myself at this new weight? What if I gain some weight back?
  • What if no one believes that I’m clean?
  • What if everyone thinks that I’m just pretending…what if I AM just pretending?

Again, we see that the basis of these sorts of fears are “what if” scenarios that play out in our minds, but note that many of these are not future-state but present-state.  What I mean is that this fear is (if I can again borrow from physics) an issue of inertia.  You have reached a point at which you have achieved a goal you set out for yourself, and now your fear of success is telling you “keep going” because it doesn’t feel REAL to me yet.

Defining the Cause

The truth of the matter is that both fears come from a very basic place within each of us – anxiety about an uncertain outcome.

  • For the fear of failure, the anxiety comes from the question, “What if I can’t succeed?”
  • For the fear of success, the anxiety comes from the question, “What if I can’t sustain success?”

The anxiety arises in us because fundamentally we know two things about ourselves:

  1. We know that we are unhappy with where we are in some facet of our life.
  2. We know that where we are in that facet of life lines up with what we believe about what we deserve. (I may be unhappy, but I’m authentically unhappy)

With regard to the fear in general, there is a puritanical sort of judgment that happens in the seeker of change.  We first judge our present based on our past.  It could be as simple as “I never have, so I never could” or it could be as deep-rooted as “Someone I love and trust told me I would never be able to.”  Where I am, therefore, ceases to be a consequence of the choices that have been made and begins to be some sort of ritualistic worship of other people’s judgment about our life, our choices, our worth, and our destiny.  I believe that that is the force that must be counteracted by a stronger desire for change.  In a very real way, your fear of failure is based on a larger fear:  fear that failure to change is an indictment of your strength…that it is a character judgment.

How to Remove Fear

You can’t.  It’s that simple.  Fear is an inherent feature of the human condition (and a useful one for self-preservation).  Fear can also be a crippling and debilitating limitation of human growth and development.  Either way, fear remains.  What we can do with fear is manage it.  We can rationalize within our higher-order brain by realizing a few things that I feel need to be called out for what they are:

  1. If you try and fail – the failure is not a judgment of who you are. It doesn’t define you, your character, nor does it provide any evidence of your inability to eventually change.
  2. If you try and succeed – the success is not evidence of inauthenticity. You get to define who you are by rewriting not only how the world sees you, but how you see yourself.
  3. Fear (be it fear of failure or fear of success) should always be viewed through the lens of truth – is there any validity to my hypothetical scenarios? Probably not.

Fear will show up when you desire to get stronger, to get leaner, or to get better.  The fear of failure will stick around, and every day you are going to have to get up, and make the choice to permit the force for change to overpower the force for complacency.  Every decision which requires effort, requires uncertainty, or requires trust…every decision will be a battle until the momentum of the change is so great that your mind begins to ask fear of success questions.  Is it a battle of willpower?  At times, yes.

Fear of success questions are less likely to come up every day, they tend to show up toward the end of a phase of a very long journey or at the end of the journey itself.  The questions which come up regarding authenticity, celebration, and permanence can often ONLY be answered by allowing yourself to remain in the place of success for long enough that it “fits.”  It begins to feel, after a while, like you’ve always been lean, always been muscular, always been an expert in that field, always been self-confident, or always been content in that facet of your life.  It may seem like fear of success is the easier of the two fears to conquer, but truthfully it is the more difficult.  There are always nagging doubts, wonders, and questions about how people view you. If this weren’t true, why do so many people arrive at a destination along their journey, only to return back to the starting point?  Because they permit themselves to believe that they are a pretend version of themselves.  The allow fear to convince them they’re still the depressed, fat, abused, hurting, weak, angry, addiction-addled, or otherwise “broken” version of themselves that they were.

At the end of the journey, just as at the beginning, there is no end to fear.  That can either motivate you to tighten your work boots daily and keep grinding, or it can shake you to your core and cause you to retreat back to the place where you began.   These two fears will absolutely sabotage change if you permit them to cause you to beat a hasty retreat every time the “what if” questions start.  And so I leave you with ten what if questions to ask yourself about any change.  They aren’t questions intended to be answered so much as meditated on.  Something to ask yourself each time you’re faced with the decision of whether fear will cripple or motivate you.

  1. What if you’re meant to be more, better, greater, or stronger than you ever imagined?
  2. What if the current version of you is the counterfeit version?
  3. What if your fear is robbing your family, friends, coworkers…even robbing YOU of the real you?
  4. What if it IS worth it?  What if it ISN’T?
  5. What if the only thing holding you back from the satisfaction of a job well-done was the determination of a job well-started?
  6. What if they aren’t all going to laugh at you?  What if they do?
  7. What if every expert was once a beginner?
  8. What if it wasn’t as difficult as you think it will be?
  9. What if fear was a liar and a coward?
  10. What if the new you is a better you?