Do You Have a Fear of Success?

🚀 Don’t let it sabotage your future - Issue #215

Is there anyone who doesn’t fear failure? Ok, maybe a few people have fully embraced that failing is simply learning what doesn’t work.

However, most of us would rather succeed than fail. No one wants to look foolish.

You would assume, then, that everyone would do everything in their power to succeed. No holding back. No reservations.

Sadly, this isn’t true. Some people have such an unrelenting fear of success that they unintentionally self-sabotage.

I’ve experienced a fear of success, and I’ve learned that I’m not alone. I know other people who finally had to admit that they were not going “all in” on an initiative because they were secretly — or unconsciously — scared of what success represented.

Research has discovered that people aren’t literally afraid of success itself. Instead, they are worried about the consequences of becoming increasingly successful. They fear the unwanted side effects of success that they’ve witnessed in others. Or, they have already encountered negative experiences related to their past success.

Fearing success is more common than you might think. It can also have deeper underlying causes that date back to your earliest memories.

What causes it

People will sabotage their success to consciously or unconsciously avoid:

  • Punishment

  • Unwanted attention

  • Losing friends and family

  • Additional responsibilities

  • Increasing expectations

  • The unknown 

  • Change

Fear of punishment

Some people were punished for being successful in their childhood. I read a story about a man who was mocked by his father whenever he received good grades. Apparently, the father was threatened by the prospect of his son becoming more successful than he was.

Similarly, I remember being teased by classmates when a teacher mentioned my good grades. I wanted to fit in and avoid punishment from the bullies, so I stopped studying and caring about school for many years.

This childhood trauma sticks with us. We may not clearly hear that little voice inside our heads telling us, “Don’t be too successful,” but it’s always there.

Fear of unwanted attention

We’ve all witnessed successful people receiving attention. Sometimes that attention is positive, but it can also be quite negative (e.g., trolls, detractors, stalkers).

When you’re the kind of person who shuns the spotlight, you don’t want any attention — even the good kind. You certainly don’t want negative attention, nasty comments, and assorted unpleasantness.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” — Japanese proverb

Fear of losing friends and family

This may sound strange, but I have talked with people who were worried about becoming successful and leaving their old friends behind. Indeed, it can be challenging to move ahead in life if you have friends who feel threatened by your success and want to hold you down.

The fear of losing good relationships with family stems from seeing other families torn apart by arguments over money when someone becomes wealthy. I’ve witnessed this, and it’s sad.

A family member becomes successful and enjoys some of the financial benefits that come with it. Then, other family members and distant relatives come forward and start asking for “loans,” gifts, and other favors.

Fear of responsibilities

Success at work usually comes with more responsibilities. Every promotion means that you’re now operating at a level that places more demands on you.

You have a greater demand for your time. You’re faced with new tasks you may not be comfortable with performing yet. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. 

Fear of increased expectations

The anxiety that always lurked in the back of my head was the stress of increased expectations. Every success meant that you were expected to do even greater things later. You had to keep raising the bar.

I feared that I wouldn’t be able to live up to those expectations. I just knew that I would eventually fail and let everyone down.

I’m sure this is related to Impostor Syndrome. You fear that you’ve been promoted to a level that is beyond your abilities. 

Fear of the unknown

Somewhat surprisingly, failure feels safe for many people. They can honestly say that they tried but failed, and now they can go back to the known and comfortable life they had before. 

“Hey, I tried to get into medical school. But, I didn’t get accepted. The good news is that I don’t need to move away now.”

“I interviewed for that new job, but they didn’t make me an offer. I guess that it wasn’t meant to be. At least I still have my old job.”

Fear of change

In almost every situation, achieving great success means that your life will change. You would think that this would be everything you ever wanted. You made an effort because you desired that successful outcome. 

But, that success also means that things will change. You will leave the old to pursue the new. Your past life will be left behind. The comfort of the familiar will soon be replaced with fear of the unknown.

You may end up moving away from friends and family. You will face increased expectations and demands. The game of your life has leveled up.

Fear of success often masks the deeper underlying fear of change that most people harbor deep inside. 

How do you stop sabotaging yourself?

As with many issues, the first step is recognizing what is happening and admitting what you are experiencing. List all of your worries and fears about your future success.

What are you afraid might happen?

You can find ways to mitigate each of those fears. There are ways to avoid or manage those potential negative outcomes. 

Take ownership of your success by facing and addressing each fear head-on. Create a plan for how you will handle them. 

For example, nothing says that you must engage with people on social media if you fear unwanted attention due to your success. While numerous successful people are active online (e.g., Stephen King is quite engaged on Twitter), there are just as many successful people who spend zero time on social media (e.g., Cal Newport has no social media accounts). 

Recognize when your fear of success is manifesting in behaviors such as:

  • Perfectionism (I’ve talked about this before)

  • Procrastination

  • Avoiding challenges

  • Giving up (i.e., quitting right when you are on the verge of success)

  • Self-destructive behaviors (e.g., drug and alcohol abuse, skipping work)

When you catch yourself engaging in these types of behaviors, take note. Ask yourself if you’re doing this to derail your success.

Accept that increased success comes with pros and cons. Success is complex for everyone.

Yes, many positive outcomes do have a price. That’s to be expected. But, the “price” can be managed so that you can continue to enjoy the rewards. 

For many of us, a fear of success is manageable once we are aware of it, recognize the situations that trigger it, and have strategies for managing our coping behaviors. But, for some people, the fear can be overwhelming and interferes with their daily lives. 

If it doesn’t feel manageable for you, consider finding a professional therapist who can work with you on strategies for coping with your fear of success.

This week’s professional development challenge

⭐ What Has Failure Taught You?
- Capture your learning lessons for this year