Fear of Success

Everybody understands the fear of failure, but I think its cousin — fear of success — may be less obvious, not as well understood, and shows up in more unexpected ways than you might think. At least, I never really got my head around understanding it until now. It can seem ironic to fear “success” because who wouldn’t want to be successful? Of course, you won’t find anyone who will say they are afraid of success. Most people aren’t even aware of this fear in themselves.

I had this fear for the longest time, and I didn’t even know I had it at the time. When I started taking on consulting work, I was “afraid” to have conversations with prospects on the phone, to meet with them in person to discuss the objectives they were trying to meet, whilst fully knowing that I could help them. I was afraid for fear of making a mistake as to how I would be perceived. I was afraid I wouldn’t measure up to these people.

Of course, I did my best to hide my nervousness at the time, but I was afraid nonetheless. Maybe it was partly because I felt like an impostor. Here I was, coaching highly successful individuals to reach their objectives, while at the same time worrying that I’d be “found out”. Of course, looking back at it, it’s the most irrational fear in the world (but a fear nonetheless). Unless you learn to deal with it quickly, it will thwart your progress.

So, how do you know when you are afraid of success? Well, here are some potential signs or symptoms.

It was Steven Pressfield who said that the thing that is closest to your soul is the thing you’re going to avoid the most. In other words, better to keep the status quo now (and resist change) than to change, as that might mean more work. If you’re scared to take the next step, you’re probably on the right track. Remember, the obstacle is usually the way forward.

Here’s what I wrote in an earlier draft:

Fear of success is even more of a roadblock for us than fear of failure because it’s easier to be the person we are now than the person we want to be. When we try to do the latter, we’ll have to do more. We will have to change ourselves. We will have to get out of our comfort zone, and it is so much more comfortable for us to do what we’ve been doing. Yet, we must come out of it because that’s where we find our opportunity for freedom and growth to make things happen. In other words, our fear of success comes from fear of change.

I am reminded of a beautiful quote by spiritual author Marianne Williamson that explains the fear of success:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

So why are we afraid? Why do we get in the way of our own progress? Well, there are many reasons for it. The most notable being, any kind of success means having to deal with change (even if it’s the change we’ve always wanted). We resist change for so many reasons, but above all, it requires us to take action and do things. It’s easier to allow inertia to take over as objects at rest will tend to remain at rest. As humans, we naturally resist change. We want things to be the same. In fact, the voice in your head will do everything in its power to help you keep the status quo because it does not want you feeling ridiculed, hurt, or disappointed. This voice’s only aim is to protect you from failure.

It could also mean dealing with fear of the unknown — what might actually happen if you succeed. Fear of not being able to cope with new-found success. What if we succeed and enter uncharted territory? Things will be different. Things will change. It might complicate our life and that can be downright scary for most of us. We might think it’s better to stay put rather than to do all these things because success can be more complex than failure.

For instance, one way this fear could manifest in your life is when you are promoted in your job. It could mean more pay, but also more responsibilities, which you might not be ready for or willing to take on because that might entail spending more hours at work. Or it could simply mean you want to keep doing what you do (creatively) rather than get promoted to a managerial role (which in your mind might otherwise be a demotion). Speaking of which, isn’t it ironic to get “promoted” for doing something other than what you were hired to do in the first place?

Here are a few ways I’ve found to deal with this fear:

While the fear of success may be easy to spot in other people, it’s more challenging to find it within ourselves. I think a lot of this boils down to being aware and marching forward by acknowledging our fears and moving on. Realize that Resistance will do everything in its power to save you from failing. Acknowledge it and move on. Believe that there is only one person between you and that success you seek, and that person is you. You have to be able to expect things from yourself before you can do them.

Get outside of your comfort zone. Try new things. For instance, if you just got out of an unhealthy relationship, you might fear entering a new relationship because of your troubled past. But just because it didn’t work out for you in the past doesn’t mean it won’t work out for you in the present and future. You have to put yourself out there. This is as true in relationships as it is in business. Stop putting things off and take action now. Don’t succumb to your fears, but use them to drive you forward. The people who succeed the most are the ones who take the most (prudent) risks. No risk, no reward.

Get your fear in some kind of rational order. Ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that can happen (as a result of this success)? Examine your core beliefs as well as the emotions that underlie your fears. For instance, you might be having self-limiting beliefs, which might come from low self-esteem. How you talk to yourself determines a great deal of how you think and behave. Your beliefs determine your actions and behaviors. Get a coach or mentor to help you identify some of these fears. This is similar to visualizing failure in order to diminish the voice in our head; it’s never as bad as our rampant imaginations make it. Write your fears down on paper to think it through. A journal can be a great place to explore this. Ask yourself: what would you regret more — not moving forward now or living with regret later on?

Trust that you’ll be able to overcome the challenges that come with success, given that you were able to overcome failure. Get feedback from those you trust. Surround yourself with people who will encourage your work and bring you up (not put you down).

The thing that worked for me when dealing with my fears was practicing gratitude. It took me a few months of gratitude journaling to internalize the new beliefs. Of course, it’s hard to be afraid when you’re grateful for helping others; it’s just positive psychology. One of the lesser known things about living with gratitude is you also want to be grateful for things you want to be true in the future. But you talk and write about it in the present as if you already have it and you’re grateful for having it. For instance, you feel grateful that you get to do incredible work every day (even when there is no one you’re working with right now). Having daily affirmations can also help you affirm those beliefs you want to be true later on.

The affirmations become important especially after an idea or pitch fails. Being kind to yourself and honing the idea or pitch instead of giving up is a big part of pushing past the fear of success.

Here’s the thing. There is no silver bullet for dealing with this kind of fear except to be aware of it.

The fact that you think you have this fear is an indication to move forward, not to step back. You have to face your fears head on and want the future circumstance (success) more than your present situation.

The way I see it, we have only two real choices: either we stay in our comfort zone and settle for mediocrity, or we take a chance, do the work, and maybe we see our vision come to reality. Either way, we won’t know without trying. No risk, no reward.

Be comfortable with change. Realize that in the long run, change is the only thing that remains constant. It’s okay to feel some discomfort at the outset, but take solace in the fact that it won’t last forever.

Success isn’t a destination you reach some day. It’s more of a checkpoint in a series of milestones along the journey that is life. The second you feel you’ve “arrived” is the second it’s over. Never let success go to your head and never take failures to heart. Treat those two imposters just the same.

The thing about success is it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It comes with a price few are willing to pay, but the rewards are often greater than whatever you think it will require of you. One of the things that happens is we don’t actually think through our fears rationally. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be so afraid.

As FDR has rightly said:

There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

Realize it’s not about you per se, but what you were meant to do in order to serve a greater good so others can benefit from your strengths. In other words, serve a purpose that is greater than yourself.

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