At first blush, fear of success doesn’t sound like much of a fear. But it’s very real and it can hold you back in a big way.
It’s probably not success itself that you fear, but the potential price of success. Sometimes, it’s your own behind-the-scenes manipulations that keep tripping you up on the road to success.
Keep reading to learn more about fear of success, where it comes from, and how to overcome it.
Fear of success is when you have an ongoing fear of succeeding, so much so that you might be inadvertently self-sabotaging.
It’s not that you think you’re incapable of succeeding. It’s more about the fear of change that may come and whether you’re up for it. For example:
- You might get extra attention, but you’re shy or introverted and uncomfortable with the spotlight.
- Public success may bring social or emotional isolation.
- Your achievement might alienate your peers.
- People might think you’re bragging or self-promotional.
- You fear being knocked off the pedestal you didn’t want to be on in the first place.
- Success may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
- Success might change you, but not for the better.
Fear of success can be easily confused with fear of failure because either one can keep you from reaching your full potential.
Fear of failure has to do with beating yourself up when you think you’ve bombed out. Fear of success is more about anticipating how other people will react to your triumph.
Fear of success can also be referred to as “success anxiety” or “success phobia.” It’s even been called “achievemephobia.” Whatever you choose to call it, it’s associated with a negative impact on overall life satisfaction.
Fearing the consequences of success can manifest in subtle and obvious ways, such as:
- Low goals. You set the bar low to keep yourself from being challenged.
- Procrastination. You stall just enough to let opportunity pass.
- Perfectionism. You strive for perfection and when you inevitably fall short, that’s reason enough not to proceed.
- Quitting. Just when you’re on the verge of success, you find a reason to quit.
- Self-destructiveness. Substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors may serve to derail success.
Any of these behaviors can keep you from realizing your full potential.
Being afraid of success can cause mixed emotions. A 2001 study on the subject involved athletes and performing artists who reported feeling:
- guilt over asserting themselves in competition
- anxiety about surpassing a record established by another performer
- pressure over repeatedly having to equal or surpass your own best performance
The reasons for developing a fear vary from person to person and can be rather complex.
Researchers call it “backlash avoidance” when traditional gender roles lead to a fear of success. In many cultures, men are applauded for their successes while women who achieve the same thing are socially penalized.
Women are discouraged from appearing self-promotional or aggressive in favor of modesty and compliance with gender norms. Some women fear that success will lead to attacks on their femininity or being labeled unlikable and underserving.
Even people who appear confident can have their doubts. When success comes with increased attention, you may wonder if you can live up to expectations. What if they don’t think you deserve it? What if they think you’re a fraud? Fear of success can be fear of being knocked off an imaginary pedestal.
Childhood experiences stick with us for life, though we’re not always aware of it. If, as a child, you were belittled for success or scolded for showing off, it probably knocked the wind out of your sails. You learned to avoid success rather than face the negativity. Childhood trauma is a perfect setup for fear of success that continues into adulthood.
Mental health conditions
Fear of success isn’t necessarily connected to a particular mental health condition. However, fear of success may coexist with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
It’s hard to say how many people have a fear of success because it’s incredibly easy to overlook. You might think you’re a procrastinator or perfectionist without connecting it to fear of success. You may be reluctant to talk about it, not recognize it as a problem, or confuse it with fear of failure or general anxiety.
You might even have a mild fear of success, but not to the degree that it prevents you from getting where you want to go.
If you’ve identified your fear of success, you’ve taken the first step. From here it may take trial and error to find the strategies that work for you, but here are some ways to get started.
Explore the origins
You’ve acknowledged the fear. Now examine your past experiences with success, going back to your childhood to figure out how you got here. Think about earlier successes and what happened as a result.
Note how it manifests
Consider how fear of success shows itself. It may be helpful to make a list of all the ways you’ve been sabotaging your path to success. Writing it down will help put it all in focus. Identifying these behaviors means you can start counteracting them.
Success is complicated. What does it mean to you? Visualize success with the idea that it’s not likely to be all roses and sunshine. Nothing’s perfect. So, what are the potential positives and negatives? Imagine achieving your goal, what may happen as a result, and different ways you might deal with it.
Manage stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety may be contributing to your fears. Here are some lifestyle strategies that may help:
- Eat well. Aim for a balanced diet that provides all the necessary nutrients. Don’t skip meals.
- Avoid junk food. Go easy on alcohol, caffeine, and highly processed foods.
- Relax. Make time to kick back every day to read, soak in the tub, or whatever helps you wind down.
- Exercise. Some physical activity every day is important to overall good health. Join a class or enlist an exercise buddy if it makes it easier to stay on track.
- Socialize. Share a few laughs, talk things over, and hold your support network close.
- Volunteer. Helping others is a great way to distract from your own fears.
- Write it down. Journaling can help you get in touch with your feelings and gauge your progress.
Get professional help
Overwhelmed and can’t get a handle on things? Consider seeing a professional therapist who can help you cope with fear of success. You may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help you learn to view success differently and practice alternative ways of handling fear.
Tips for dealing with success anxiety
When success anxiety starts ramping up, try these in-the-moment coping strategies:
- Take a time out. Back away from your stressors for a few moments to relax and let go. Listen to your favorite song or just sit and chill.
- Count to 20. A gentle counting exercise can help you slow things down and clear your mind.
- Breathe. Close your eyes and take 10 slow, deep breaths. Focus on your breathing to calm body and mind. Repeat as many times as necessary.
- Walk. Change the scenery and let your mind wander.
- Call a friend. A little give and take with a friend can help take the edge off.
Fear of success can be obvious or it can lurk beneath the surface so you don’t recognize it for what it is. Either way, it’s a genuine fear that can come at great personal cost.
If you’re scared of success and its consequences, recognizing it is step one. There are a few things you can do right now to start combating this fear. Or, a therapist can help you learn to embrace the changes that come with achieving your dreams.