Jump to section
Sometimes, it feels like success eludes us no matter what we do. We think that if we just got to that next level, things would all work out. But even though we’re doing everything right, something just doesn’t click.
When that happens, it may be that we unconsciously have a fear of our own success. But why would we be afraid when we’re working so hard to be successful? Learn what the fear of success is, what causes it, and how to identify and overcome it.
What is the fear of success?
Fear of success is the concern that once we achieve something new, we’ll be incapable of sustaining it or may suffer because of it. Most of the time, we’re not consciously aware of this fear. That’s because when we focus on a goal, we talk up the positive outcomes of achieving the goal. Rarely do we share with others what might happen when we get to that next level.
Fear of success is not necessarily the fear of reaching that deeply personal achievement unique to each individual. Instead, it is most often the fear of the possible change or consequences of success. It is an anticipation of how others — and oneself — will respond to the triumph. The concern is that achieving success will come at the cost of something else valued in one's life. In many ways, it's similar to the fear of failure.
Sometimes the fear of success can be apparent to a person. Other times it can lie just below the surface, noted in patterns of thought and/or actions repeated by the individual. It takes a high level of self-awareness to identify your own fear of success.
6 ways fear of success shows up in our lives
Fear of success can manifest in different ways. Here are a handful of characteristics to be aware of:
The person may avoid being the center of attention, being praised, or use other avoidance strategies.
The person may delay starting and/or completing a project. As a result of procrastinating, the opportunity may be missed altogether, or the end product may be lackluster.
The person may believe they are keeping the bar high. But by holding an impossible standard of perfection, the outcome will inevitably be disappointing.
The person may find an excuse to quit just before the goal is in sight, over and over again.
The person may set obstacles in their own way or stay in unhelpful situations.
At its worst, the fear of success may involve self-destructive behavior. Left unchecked, that derails any real opportunity for success.
How do you identify the fear of success?
Fear of success can manifest in the following symptoms:
The person anticipates the future consequence of their success. Perhaps they worry about being in the spotlight or leaving loved ones behind in pursuit of their success. They might be afraid that success will make things too complicated. They may also worry that critics will talk badly about their work, and that success won't be like anything they imagined.
The person may experience a sense of guilt at possibly taking the highest score from someone who held the record for the past ten years. They may be concerned that their light will outshine another who is equally deserving and feel a sense of shame.
People may feel uncomfortable pushing themselves towards goals that still require some growth. This might include anything out of their comfort zone, like public speaking or coming up with their first-ever strategic plan.
The person may feel the pressure to have another project in line. They may feel that they have to follow up on this one success with another even better success, and in less time than the first.
Lack of motivation
Sometimes, people who are afraid of success seem lazy, lacking motivation, and having low expectations. Their fear prevents them from ever making progress towards their goals.
Consider the following examples of how fear of success manifests:
- The writer who can’t stop editing their book, worries about the response of critics, and how they will follow up this book with the next
- The woman whose childhood wins served to highlight her brother’s losses
- The investor who lost large sums of money in a restaurant investment and plays it small, not wanting to “lose it all” again
- The entrepreneur who is afraid of growing their business because they doubt whether they can support the growing team year after year
- The musician who loves the flow of creating music in private but fears performing the piece in public if he were to receive recognition
8 causes for fear of success
There can be many reasons for a person's fear of success, many of them that have built up over a lifetime:
1. Childhood experience
A childhood experience can negatively impact people on their road to success. If a person had the repeated experience of being taunted for receiving praise in childhood, they might avoid the spotlight. If as a child, their work was never acknowledged or seen as good enough, they might become perfectionists — which is inherently set up for failure.
Childhood experience is deeply ingrained in our neural pathways. The person may expect a negative outcome that has its roots in a playground or sibling experience.
2. Impostor syndrome
A lifetime of self-doubt can lead to a fear that one's achievement will be lacking compared to others. A person may fear not being able to live up to expectations (whether theirs or someone else’s) and being found out as an "impostor." Imposter syndrome makes it hard for the person to see that their skill, knowledge, and/or hard work has brought them to the place of accomplishment.
3. Misinterpreting feelings
The feelings of excitement, nervousness, and anxiety result in similar physical responses. A person may interpret one as the other and want to avoid the feeling altogether.
4. Backlash avoidance
People may worry about social repercussions, especially if their success goes against expected norms. A writer may worry about the consequence of their article's cultural critique. Women may be discouraged by the social repercussions of surpassing their male colleagues.
5. Negative experience
An unfavorable outcome to past success may make a person wary of future success. Perhaps collaborators shunned the person for "hogging the limelight." The person may be concerned that future success will mimic that previous response.
6. Poor self-efficacy
The person does not believe that they can achieve the goals they have set for themselves on route to success.
A person may prefer not to be the center of attention in general. They may shy away from the attention they’ll draw to themselves due to the success.
8. Mental health
What are the consequences?
Fear of success can hold a person back from achieving their potential — and the accompanying sense of fulfillment in doing so. It can make a person feel stuck and wonder why they feel that way when others around them appear to be flourishing. They may consider what has held them back. Perhaps they take the first step, and then give up when they consider the long road ahead of them. This negatively impacts overall life satisfaction, which affects both personal and professional life. The limiting thoughts result in behaviors that undermine authenticity and satisfaction.
What can you do about it?
If the above sounds like you, consider some of the below approaches to working through your own potential fear of success.
1. Be curious and aware of your thoughts and actions
What are the messages that play over and over in your mind? Is it the cheerleader? The naysayer? The fear-monger? Or all of them at once?
What are your responses to those messages? How do they inform your actions?
2. Start a journal
Journaling can help you track and deeply connect with your thoughts and your response to the world.
In the journal, write:
- What is your vision of a life well-lived?
- What are your greatest hopes and fears in accomplishing that vision?
- What are the best and worst outcomes of achieving success-your life vision? How do you imagine you would respond to both?
Consider the possible fear of success and how it has shown up for you in the past and present. Do you fear a negative outcome resulting from your success?
4. Acknowledge the fear
By doing so and writing it down, you bring it into the center of your attention.
5. Explore the origins of that fear
Was it something that happened in childhood or adulthood? What message did you take away from your past experiences? What would your life look like if you never pursued this vision of success at all?
Review your journal every week. What are the consistent themes and patterns? By identifying patterns related to success in your thoughts and behaviors, you can begin counteracting them.
Once you identify your negative beliefs and self-talk, you can consider how you can reframe them into generative and empowering beliefs. Sometimes, we can get stuck in our thoughts, so working with a coach can be helpful in creating an alternate response.
6. Visualize success
Visualize yourself being able to navigate both the potential positive and negative outcomes.
Manage stress and anxiety by taking care of your mind and body. Exercise, eat healthy food, take the time to relax and sleep and enjoy the company of friends and family.
Practice mindfulness and navigate the world with an awareness of how you respond to your circumstances. Deep breathing can give you space to navigate a difficult emotion or thwart a negative, reflexive response when you feel stressed. Focusing on your mental fitness and physical well-being will help you proceed thoughtfully in the world.
Be aware of your discomfort. Sit with the feelings and consider the origin. Is the feeling in service or of disservice to you? How can you adjust your approach?
Be gentle with yourself
The fear of success is very real. With awareness of its impact over time, a person can work to counteract the thoughts and behaviors holding them back and achieve success. The work can be done alone, but often the insights of a coach or therapist can be beneficial in doing the deeper dive. It's not until we start learning from our failures when change happens.
Consider partnering with a coach who can support and challenge you in self-exploration. Once you have uncovered the root of your fear of success together, the coach can help you remain accountable to yourself. They'll cheer you on as you begin to achieve success — and challenge you when old thought patterns and actions rear their ugly head!
If fear of success is causing you distress or disrupting your everyday life, consider seeking the services of a therapist. A therapist familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can assess how negative thought patterns result in maladaptive (unhelpful) behavior. They are trained to work with you to counteract these thoughts with positive ways of thinking and approaching your vision of success. Psychodynamic therapy can help you dive into the unconscious influences of your past. Sometimes, it's something under the surface that hinders our efforts to achieve success.
Remember, it is a life-long journey. Be patient with yourself as you work to unravel the fear, and reconstruct it with a positive expectation of your upcoming success.