Can A Scientific Breakthrough Help You Overcome Your Fear of Success?

Beth Cox’s acrophobia was on the verge of wrecking her life. She couldn’t drive across bridges in her car, couldn’t stay in hotel rooms higher than three stories, couldn’t enjoy mountain biking, roller coasters, etc. Profiled in a recent issue of US News and World Report, Cox was described as “fearless in all other parts of her life.” Yet this one phobia was interfering with everything else. What about you? Do you have a phobia? No? How about fear of success? No? Then why haven’t you accomplished that dream of yours? How many times have you promised yourself that you would get working on it and then put it off for another day? How many times have you been just about to raise your hand or make that phone call or answer that ad . . . but something stopped you?

As I’ve explained in past ETR messages, almost any goal is attainable if you simply put in the time and effort required. That’s true of just about everything – learning to fly a plane, becoming a stand-up comedian, even finding the love of your life. So why aren’t you doing it? There are a thousand reasons for not taking action, but they all may stem from the same source: a deeply seated (and perhaps unacknowledged) fear of success. If that’s the problem in your case, you’ll be happy to know that scientists in the field of psychiatric research have come up with something that just might help you: They have found a way to defeat phobias.

And there’s reason to believe that the therapeutic approach that works for fear of heights and spiders will also work for the fear of success. Years of studying rats has provided scientists with an understanding of the biological process of fear. They know, for example, exactly where fear resides in the brain. As NYU psychologist Joseph LeDoux puts it, “the hub in the wheel of fear is the small, almond-shaped brain structure called the amygdala.” The amygdala is a major regulator of emotions and (according to US News and World Report) the “traffic controller of the fear response in mammals. The amygdala tells the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to elevate, sweat glands to start sweating, and the stomach to start churning.”

Another brain structure, the hippocampus, stores memories of the shock that created the fear. The two systems, the amygdala and the hippocampus, work in a loop fashion to identify signals that might be dangerous and set off fear symptoms. The cortex, the thinking part of the brain, doesn’t get involved until after the amygdala and the hippocampus have had their fun. And that’s why it’s very difficult to diminish phobias by rational process. The fear itself is pre-rational. However, much has been accomplished by exposure therapy – bringing the phobic face-to-face with his fear, over and over again, so he can come to understand that he is not in actual danger.

Plus, scientists have been able to isolate proteins in the amygdala (called NMDA receptors) that speed up the process of “unlearning” a fear. These proteins can be stimulated by D-Cycloserine (DCS), a drug that has been used in the past for treating tuberculosis. Beth Cox, the woman I spoke about earlier, eliminated her fear of heights by taking this drug and undergoing exposure therapy. She was one of 27 people who recently underwent the combination treatment – and it worked. And appears to be permanent. What Beth Cox has done about her fear of heights you may be able to do about your fear of failure – and maybe without the drug.

On initial consideration, exposure therapy makes some sense. Let’s explore it a bit more. It seems to me that the fear of success is comprised of three other, more specific, fears, including: the fear of public speaking the fear of confrontation the fear of failure Each of these fears is extremely common. The fear of public speaking, for example, is generally ranked as the second most common fear next to the fear of death. The fear of failure is the single most acknowledged and discussed fear in books on success. And the fear of confrontation, while not discussed as often, is clearly the reason so many people can’t negotiate well and get talked into deals they don’t like. Would these three fears be amenable to exposure therapy? I think so.

And here’s why . . . Like most other people, I had stage fright every time I was asked to speak in front of an audience. Even when I was a teacher, I sometimes had trouble making my point in the classroom, because I was conscious of the fact that everyone was looking at me. Then, about 20 years ago, I took a Dale Carnegie program that involved speaking to a group of 12 people once a week, three times per session. During a 14 week-period – for a total of 42 times – I exposed myself to my fear of public speaking. And guess what? I beat it. I remember the last class distinctly. Relatives and friends were invited in. There were about 50 people in the room. Each of us made two presentations, one planned and one impromptu. I nailed them both – had the audience laughing and cheering.

Afterward, two separate people came up to say that they thought I “should be in show business.” I haven’t yet hit so high a mark again, but I’ve been speaking in public ever since. And although my technique still isn’t perfect (though it’s greatly improved, thanks to my speech coach Virginia Avery – who I told you about in Message #1335), my fear is gone. As for my fear of failure, I cured that a long time ago. I don’t know exactly how I did it, but it definitely involved repeated exposure. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that I could live through the humiliation of being wrong. (And being wrong as often as I was no doubt speeded up the process.)

This lack of fear – this willingness to fail – now allows me to begin new ventures without a moment’s hesitation. Longtime ETR readers know that my mantra when it comes to starting new projects is Ready . . . Fire . . . Aim. That’s the modus operandi  of someone who understands that it’s OK to be a little wrong about some new idea. What’s unforgivable is never giving it a try. Take your best shot. See how far off the mark you are. Aim again. Shoot again. Before too long, you’ll be hitting the target. So of the “big three” fears that make up the fear of success, I have conquered two of them: the fear of public speaking and the fear of failure. But I have not yet conquered my fear of confrontation. I don’t like fighting with people, even if I feel that I’ve been wronged.

The fear is not paralyzing at this point – but I know that if I don’t do anything about it, it is going to get worse. (I can already see the signs. I’m less willing to fight for a fair deal or my share of the profits in a fair deal, for example.) Unless I change the tide of this current, I’m going to be afraid to ask for the correct change when I get stiffed at the supermarket. So what am I going to do? I’m going to put myself through some sort of exposure therapy. I’m not sure how it will work exactly, but I do know that I need to start forcing myself to experience more confrontations. I don’t have to be nasty or pushy. But I do have to speak up.

And while I’m doing that, I’m going to get together with the people at Agora Learning Institute to see if they can contact some experts and put together a program that would help ETR readers identify and defeat their fears. It would be a pretty impressive accomplishment: a program that would allow ambitious people to break through the psychological constraints that have held them back. Imagine what would happen if you could defeat your fear(s) of success: You would be able to express your thoughts and argue your ideas in any situation at any time.

You would never shrink from a bully and never shy from a problem. You’d confront every challenge and overcome it. You would take immediate action to accomplish all your goals, because the fear of failing to accomplish them wouldn’t be in your consciousness. You’d be an unbridled energy ball of intentionality. You’d be a go-getter and a doer. If the people at Agora Learning Institute like this idea, they’ll want to put together a small program of charter students to prove out the principles and establish success stories that can be used to sell it. If you think you’d like to participate, keep your eye open for an announcement about it next month.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]