What Is Fear of Success?


It’s exactly what it sounds like: the worry that things will go badly if you achieve what you desire. 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 whether this common fear is holding you back, and what its origin is in your own life.

Do You Have Fear of Success? Common Symptoms

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.

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.

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. No, 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 when you’re afraid. Self-sabotage is one of the biggest symptoms of fear of success.

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. 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.” Maybe you got messages as a child, or even as an adult, that you weren’t the kind of person success happens to, that you weren’t good enough. These messages don’t have to be literal; they can take a subtle form. 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 someone directly told you you’d never amount to anything, you could be carrying that person’s words around in your head, even if it was many years ago.

Maybe you were a poor student in your school days. It can be hard to let go of that self-image. 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. 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 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. 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.

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.

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 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.

Tips For Overcoming Your Fear Of Success

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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.

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, you’re entitled to it.

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?

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.


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 without the lucky socks.


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