What Is Fear of Success?

fear of success

Having the fear of success is exactly what it sounds like: the worry that things will go badly if you achieve what you desire. Having the fear of success can happen to anyone at any moment in their lives. However, if you suffer from the fear of success, then chances are you have been struggling with it most your life. Having the fear of success is something that can follow you into adulthood and it can be especially crippling if you do not take control over it. 

It can be especially hard to identify this fear in yourself because it’s so deeply tied to its twin, the fear of failure. A careful look at your behavior, though, should enlighten you to whether this common fear is holding you back, and what its origin is in your own life. In today's article, we are going to take a look at what it means to have the fear of success syndrome and whether or not you exhibit signs of it. In addition to understanding what having a fear of success means we will go over some ways you can remedy this syndrome so that you can overcome the obstacles standing in your way. 

Do You Have Fear of Success? Common Symptoms

Holding off until the last minute

Do you find yourself procrastinating, nuzzling right up against a deadline instead of putting your best work on the table in time to mold it into an even better state? If so, you might be afraid of success.  Holding off until the last minute to get a job done is a common way to avoid doing what you need to do in order to succeed. When you wait until the last minute, you will often be able to justify any inadequacies with the fact that you simply did not have enough time to attain to it. 

Assuming the worst without giving it a fair shot

Do you decide not to apply for a job or go after an opportunity because you’re probably not going to get it anyway? And along with that you rationalize, assigning a reason why you’d never win. Maybe you tell yourself the job will go to a younger person, so why try? Or you say they don’t ever choose your kind of project for that grant, so it’s a waste of time filling out the application. If you find you talk yourself out of things or turn down jobs you haven’t even been offered yet, you might be afraid of success. When you assume the worst, you're creating conclusion that does not even exist yet. This negative outcome is a creative way of avoiding doing any of the work that could potentially give you a positive outcome. It all starts with your outlook on life, if you find that you tend to navigate life with a glass half empty mentality, then you may be in jeopardy of compromising your success before you even have the opportunity to attain it. 

You are always close but not close enough

Do you repeatedly get so close to success you can touch it, only to have something happen that fizzles it out? Yes, there’s the fear of success again. Now, you’re probably thinking, I’m just unlucky. I don’t have control over these outside forces. And maybe you don’t. But how you deal with things when you’re heading full speed toward success is different than how you deal with things when you’re afraid. Self-sabotage is one of the biggest symptoms of fear of success. In many ways, self-sabotage starts way before you get to the ending. When you convince yourself to do something, you will find that you may have no problem working really hard in the initial stages of the project. But when it comes to make a break time, it's a lot easier to allows a distraction to get in between you and your goal. Often times, this distraction can be characterized as an obstacle that you have very minimal or no control over. If you suffer from the fear of success, you will typically allow this distraction to keep you from reaching your goal because then you have the ability to say that it was out of your control fans out of your hands. 

Worrying about things that don't exist yet

While it may not be a solid indicator of the fear of success, but when you create stress for yourself because of things that don't exist, that could be your indirect way of trying to avoid the success you deserve. For example, if you have the skill set necessary to start a business and are set on starting said business, you are likely to imagine every worst case scenario first. If you are someone who suffers from the fear of success, you will then go on to create stress for yourself about these fictitious scenarios. While it is always a good thing to be prepared and to think about all your angles ahead of time, spending your time stressing out about issues that don't exist could be your psyche’s indirect way I'm telling you that it's easier to get out while you're ahead. 

Fear of being an imposter

For many people, the thought of being the best of the best is something that requires a little bit of pride. While successful people will generally embrace that pride, people who have a fear of success may find themselves suffering from a closely related syndrome called the Imposter Syndrome. The Imposter syndrome is exactly what the name suggests. It is when you develop a certain set of skills and are really good at those skills but then when push comes to shove, you doubt yourself in terms of credibility.  Talk to you may have with yourself includes narratives such as “everyone thinks I have it together but I'm really just barely making it by.” Others who suffer from Imposter Syndrome might be incredibly successful on the outside, but on the inside, they carry the constant stress of needing to be perfect and focused at all times. In the end, it feels you leaving like you are putting on a face and it is a matter of time before those around you realize you are just an imposter.

Unsurprisingly, many of the world's most successful people suffer from Imposter Syndrome.  to get over this, many people will often work twice as hard as their peers in order to make sure that they avoid failure. The catch 22 is this constant need to work harder only creates a more prominent feeling of feeling like a fake. 

Where Does This Fear Come From?

If you attempt success you’re automatically risking failure, and it’s perfectly natural to be afraid of failing. If you’re like most of us, you’ve failed before, so you know it feels awful and can make you wish you’d never stuck your neck out. This is where fear of failure and fear of success intersect. While that accounts for some of it, there are other reasons you might find success scary, most of them deeply rooted in past experience. If you suffer from fear of success, then the distinguishing factor between this and the fear of failure is the fact that after you fail, you do get back up and continue pursuing your goal. With the fear of success, there will always be a barrier between you and your goal whether it is a barrier you create, or a barrier that is actually an obstacle that you unconsciously find a way not to get around.

When it comes to the fear of success, there will often be a line of questions that you will find yourself  considering. We will explore these in our next segment. Here are common questions underlying the fear of success.

Do I Deserve This?

Many of us carry a lot of negative voices around inside our heads, letting us know we’re not really “all that.”  It doesn't matter who you are, or how you grew up, this negative thought process is something that exists in all of us. However, if you have the fear of success, you will find that these negative thoughts will often pop up more often than they should be.

A lot of the times, these negative thoughts can be associated back to previous experience that may have occurred during your more impressionable years. Maybe you got messages as a child, or even as an adult, that you weren’t the kind of person success happens to.  Messages such as these can severely impact your perception of success and whether or not you are worthy of it. Oftentimes, these negative messages may come from people who play significant roles in your life. These people can be anyone from your parents, to your teachers, to your coaches. Regardless of who it is, for some people, the fear of success can be traced back to negative comments that were made in their childhood.

These messages don’t have to be literal; they can take a subtle form too. Let’s say when you were young you heard your parents comment: “So-and-so thinks he’s so smart now that he’s got that job.” For a kid, this sets a tone that people won’t approve of you if you step out of your station in life. If you are someone who suffers from the fear of success, then these negative comments are ones that you've carried with you throughout your life. Instead of recognizing that they are statements made by people who have no business saying such things, they tend to be thought that you carry with you throughout your life.

How to remedy this

One of the best ways to help yourself get past the negative thought process of “do I deserve this” is by acknowledging these thoughts and getting ahead of them. Remind yourself why it is that you are worthy of whatever goal you're trying to pursue. Whether it's asking for a raise at your job, or pursuing a creative idea that has been nagging you. Check off all the components that make you worthy of that goal. When those negative thoughts do pop in your mind you will be better equipped to engage those thoughts by reminding yourself why exactly you are worthy of your goal. A great tactic to do this is by imagining that negative thought in a bubble, then let that bubble form, but be sure to let it float away. Mentally distancing yourself from these comments in a manner such as this can have a great impact on how you approach the steps to reaching your goal. 

Although it is easy to say, it is certainly much harder to do. However, when you begin to chip away at that negative self-image that was developed in your younger years, you can be one step closer to overcoming your fear of success. If you define yourself as a failure, you may find your mind wants to prove itself right more than it wants you to be happy. The thought of succeeding can be scary when it means challenging deeply held beliefs, even if those beliefs are bad for you.

Do I Really Even Want This?

Success means change, and change is a challenge. For many, the status quo can feel so much easier. After all, what’s a little discontent when compared with a complete restructuring of your life? Being successful usually means things will be different; it’s hard for them not to be. This form of fear of success is based in the fear of change.

We all have a friend who turned into someone we no longer recognize after a big success. You might be afraid of that being you. But you have control over that, and you can learn from your friend’s mistakes whether you realize it or not. Don’t let success pull you toward being a workaholic or an egomaniac or whatever your predisposition might be. It’s possible to both pursue your dreams and become the best version of “you” you can be. In fact, the two go hand in hand.

How to remedy this

In whatever goal you pursue, you have to remind yourself that as you grow as an individual, change is something that is going to happen whether you like it or not. After all, part of being a successful person means being a better version of you than the day before, the month before, or even the year before. Change can be difficult for some people to accept but you have to remind yourself that without change, stagnation may occur. And stagnation of any kind is never something that you want to entertain. The next time you suffer from the fear of change, you have to remind yourself that it's okay for things to be different. Some of the world's leading innovators got to where they're at because they dared to deviate from the status quo. Embrace change when you encounter it and learn to grow with that wherever it takes you. Just remember, just because things are changing doesn't mean things are going bad. Change in any capacity means growth in one form or another.

What if I’m Disappointed?

Just as we’ve all failed, we’ve probably all had experiences where we accomplished a goal and found it lacking. It just didn’t give us the boost we were looking for. We may have discovered that what we thought we wanted wasn’t all that satisfying when we got it.  Or in contrast, we may have had a great experience with momentary success but found what came afterwards to be anticlimactic. This can create confusion, and confusion easily transforms into fear of success. Perhaps we’ve learned, through this, not to “get our hopes up.” The easiest way of keeping those hopes down, of course, is not to try.

How to remedy that this

It is completely understandable that disappointment may occur. Whether it's disappointment because of lack of this element or disappointment because of failure. One of the best ways to overcome this is by learning how to manage your disappointment. You can start off by setting reasonable expectations. Someone once said the number one way to be happy in life is to have no expectations. While we certainly suggest you take this quote with a grain of salt, there is something to be said with having low expectations.  Now, this does not mean lower your expectations to a point that there's no purpose in pursuing whatever it is you're pursuing, but make sure that your expectations are ones that are reasonable to obtain. 

For example, if you are just starting off at a brand new job at the intern level,  one would hope that by the end of the year you would have progressed to a more permanent position at the company. If at the start of your journey, you set the expectation that by the end of the year you will be in management or even at the corporate level, then you are setting yourself for an expectation that is  unreasonable and almost impossible. Learning how to manage your disappointment starts by learning how to manage what will realistically happen given all the work you put in.

Will Success Be Too Hard?

It’s true that if you succeed, more will be expected of you. There’s no question about that. Write a successful novel and everyone will be waiting for the next one, and don’t think for a second they won’t judge it against the first. If you succeed, you will be expected to keep on succeeding, and that’s a very scary idea. 

For many of us, success as a concept is a source not of pleasure but of stress. Never mind the satisfaction that comes with accomplishing goals. Never mind the freedom a truly successful life can bring. Success feels like pressure, or even worse, like trauma. If that sounds like too strong a word, consider this: psychologists say that, for many people, success can trigger the same emotions that actual trauma does. The adrenaline rush that puts you on guard in a frightening situation and the excitement that comes with success can feel all too similar. That’s why so many people sabotage themselves in reaction to that feeling. In this situation, it feels like success will demand more from you than you can give.

How to remedy this

While it is a difficult task to gain full control over your psychological reaction to stress, you can do things to help minimize the feeling of being overwhelmed. In whatever endeavor you pursue, you have to pursue it with an open heart. In whatever success you attain, you will have obviously have gotten there because of hard work and persistence. Know that the more you grow in your success, the more that will be demanded of you. One of the best ways to be able to manage this is by creating non-negotiables or boundaries in your life. Non-negotiables are simply the standards that you cannot do without regardless of what life throws at you. 

For some people non-negotiables mean spending time with family or not working past a certain hour in the day. When you are able to establish your non-negotiables and your boundaries in your success, you are more able to handle your levels of stress. For example, if you get a new job promotion, the one you have been waiting for, set reasonable expectations so that your workload is tackled only during the time you are at work not during the time when you are at home. Setting boundaries like this is especially important because it reminds you that yes, your new success will come with added responsibilities, but there is a time and place for those responsibilities. Letting your stress trickle over into areas of your life, especially your personal life, where it doesn't belong can compound your stress. This will then set off the chain of emotions that reminds you that perhaps this success it's simply not for you.

Tips For Overcoming Your Fear Of Success

fear of success

When you fail, try again

If you find your fears are rooted in worry about failure, Google Abraham Lincoln. A quick review of his pre-presidential history reveals all manner of bad luck, failed businesses, and even a nervous breakdown that kept him bedridden for months. Do those failures still haunt our picture of him? No. They’ve been eclipsed by his success. Sure, you say, but I’m just me. He’s Abe Lincoln. But the fact is, he wouldn’t be if he hadn’t arisen from his failures willing to try again.

While it is certainly easy to say, one of the best ways of getting over your fear of success is reminding yourself that you will fail and when you do fail you need to get back in and try again. No successful entrepreneur, activist, or innovator got to where they are at on the first try. It takes a series of repeated mistakes to find exactly what you're looking for. Success is no different. 

Sometimes, in combating negative self-talk, you’ve got to take baby steps. If you find you can’t disagree when that voice tells you, “You don’t deserve success,” it may be all you can do to respond, “Maybe not, but I’ve at least got to try.” It sounds like a small thing, but it challenges the negativity, and that opens the door. Pretty soon, you’ll be talking back, telling those nay-sayers in your head that not only do you deserve it, but you’re also entitled to it.

Reflect on your past accomplishments

If fear of change is lurking behind your fear of success, think back on all the changes you’ve already experienced in your life. How scary did they feel before and during the transition? But you survived. And the good news is, when the change involves success, you will more than survive: your life is on track to become immeasurably better. Remind yourself that humans are adaptable creatures. What better to “get used to” than success?

When you need the additional boost of confidence, pull out all your past accomplishments and ponder them for a moment. Think about the struggle and triumph it took to get to where you got to. It is easy to get overwhelmed on your journey to success, there is no harm in reminding yourself just how awesome you are. Do this by reflecting on your past successes and how proud and deserving you felt when you accomplish them. 

Never give up

If you’re afraid of disappointment, that might be because you’re too narrow in your definition of what success should look like. Dawn Steel, one of the first female studio bosses in Hollywood, once said something along the lines of, “If the door is locked, try the window.” What’s the window? It’s another way in, another version of success. 

If it feels like you’re banging your head against the wall, maybe you are. Heads are notoriously soft, and walls are notoriously hard. You may end up busting that wall down eventually, but your brain will probably be scrambled by the time you do, which doesn’t leave much room for excitement and passion. Stubbornly staying the course no matter what is a recipe for bitterness, and it’s just another manifestation of fear. Think of an athlete who says he can’t win the game without his lucky socks: if those socks shrink, and he still wears them, they might end up being the reason he loses. 

Overall, winners win because when one way doesn't work they always find another. Begin to build that mindset so that you can encourage yourself in whatever situation you find yourself in. Failure may happen, but it's just a bump in the road. There's always another way to tackle what you are going after. When you think positive, you will always find a way. 

You rise to the company you keep

It goes without saying that the popular phrase “you rise to the company you keep” holds ample amount of truth, especially when you are trying to accomplish a goal. If you are on your path to accomplishing a task, you want to be sure to surround yourself with people who can support you not pull the rug from under you. For example, if your goal is to establish financial freedom, then it would  probably be wise to spend your time around financially literate individuals. Avoid spending time with those who will drain you both emotionally and physically. Instead, surround yourself with people who have accomplished the goal you are after and learn what it was that they did to get where they are at.

Now this certainly does not mean that what worked for them will work for you, but it does mean you will have a wider array of options in terms of figuring out how to reach your goal. Many times, the fear of success is embedded in people because their goal may seem just out of reach. One of the best ways to negate this is by being around people who have been there and done that. Don't underestimate the power of common community.

Final Thoughts on the Fear of Success

It’s okay to be afraid, but it doesn’t have to stop you. Let go of what’s holding you back, trust yourself, and know that you can win. It is easy to tell yourself that perhaps you don't deserve the success, maybe you're not worthy of it, or you  do you accomplish whatever you're aiming for you won't be good at it anyway. If you let those thoughts and that type of self narrative consume you, then you are one step away from your self-fulfilling prophecy of not achieving your goal. If all else fails, find comfort in the fact that successful people will always have a little quirk in them. Whatever your little quirk that hinders you from accomplishing your task is, embrace it, and accept that it is just part of who you are.  Success, no matter what kind is something that is closer than you may think! 


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