How Fear of Success Works And Powerful New Ways To Overcome It

“Why would I ever fear success?’. 

I’ve heard it many times from clients and friends. 

And yet the fear of success holds so many people back from achieving what they want in their lives. 

Fear of success isn’t really about fear of being successful. It’s actually fear about what might happen if you become successful. 

What Is The Fear of Success?

Every single one of us experiences the world through what we expect to happen.

We approach a crosswalk and we expect cars to stop. Wen we sit down to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs and we expect it to taste a certain way. Starting a conversation with someone who is smiling and relaxed, we expect that they’re a nice person. 

Your expectations shape the way you view your life, including your expectations of what you think happens when you (or someone else) become successful. 

At the end of the day, a fear of success is essentially your concerns about what happens to you and your life if you become successful. 

Fear of success is made up of the beliefs you have about what it means to be successful, and whether that’s compatible with how you see yourself as a person, what your values are, and what you think is most important in life. 

If you feel that successful people get divorced and don’t have time for their children, but your family is highly important to you, you may end up holding yourself back from being successful due to those underlying beliefs. 

Where Does Fear of Success Come From? 

Although the fear of success can come from many different potential avenues, there are generally a few specific ways that it develops. 

Experiences From When You’re Young

One client I worked with years ago found out she was gifted when she was in grade school. When her parents found out about it they ended up putting her into all sorts of activities to help develop her talents. 

The problem was that my client was no longer allowed to have the privilege of being a child who had loads of free time and felt carefree. Instead, she was taught that she was “wasting her potential” if she spent time on what her parents perceived as frivolous pursuits like riding her bike aimlessly, digging in the garden just to explore, or hanging out with her friends in the neighborhood. 

Due to what her parents believed about her potential and how she should spend her time, this client began to see her giftedness and success as a burden. They were things that robbed her of her freedom, caused stress, and made life a lot less fun. 

Once she went on to college the client became a chronic underachiever. 

She had the ability to get straight A’s but would often forget about assignments or half-ass her homework. 

Essentially she self-sabotaged herself because she saw success as something that she didn’t really want due to the beliefs that were instilled in her growing up. 

This followed her all the way into adulthood until she and I worked together on her beliefs and what true success meant to her. 

 

 

Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma is an often overlooked way that fear of success develops. 

If you’ve had experiences where you were made to feel bad for being gifted, being successful, or achieving things in the past then often this will result in a fear of success as an adult. 

One of my clients had an older brother who chronically had trouble in school. He ran around with other kids who skipped class and didn’t care about grades. He was often sent to detention and brought home poor grades. 

My client, on the other hand, was what is often labeled the “good kid” (more on how this is a response to trauma in another blog post). She easily got good grades, was involved with all of the clubs at school, and was elected to her student government. 

Yet her parents would often pull her aside and tell her to “stop showing up your brother”. They made her feel as though she was doing something wrong by being successful. They implied that it was her job to make her brother feel good about himself by hiding her own gifts and talents.

Ultimately this client had a moderately successful corporate career. But it was a career that she hated. 

She didn’t feel that her talents were successfully utilized and she often felt resentful for having to take a back seat in some of her meetings. 

She hadn’t yet learned that her experiences with her brother and parents growing up made her feel that she wanted success, yet fearful that success would mean she would be in trouble. 

This resulted in a terrible ambivalence toward success – at times she craved recognition and achievements. Other times she felt deep shame and hid her capabilities so as not to make others feel bad. 

She didn’t realize that trauma and success were connected. 

(Want to read more? Read the blog about What Is Fear of Success Trauma And Why It’s Holding You Back)

Your Parent’s Views On Success

Most of the time our beliefs about the world come from when we’re really young. 

You see others around you who hold specific beliefs and you yourself adopt those beliefs as well. 

This is called modeling in psychology. 

Essentially you learn about the world by viewing what other people do. 

So when you have important people in your life who don’t have a good relationship with success, you end up adopting beliefs and attitudes about success that might not serve you down the line. 

The tricky bit is that these beliefs and attitudes are unconscious, or they lie beneath your awareness. 

You may not even be aware that you have these beliefs. And yet they motivate your behavior, your choices, and your expectations nonetheless. 

Another client of mine had a very successful uncle growing up. This uncle would always show up at her parent’s house in a new flashy car with gifts. However, her parents had a really negative view of him. Although he was a lot of fun to my client, he would continuously brag about himself and his accomplishments to her parents, which made them feel bad. Her parents would often comment on how “stuck up” he was after he left the house and how “rich people are jerks”. 

When she got older this client became an entrepreneur and really wanted to be successful. Yet she found that she experienced an incredible amount of guilt every time she had a big success. 

At one point she signed a corporate speaking gig where she was making 5 figures and ended up not telling anyone because she felt as though it would mean she was stuck-up or arrogant, just like her uncle. 

Experiences With Successful People

There are many different types of successful people. Let’s just be honest. 

Some are selfish, greedy, and bossy. Some are materialistic, into their image, or only talk about themselves. 

Other successful people are giving, kind, and always willing to lend a helping hand. They’re gracious, don’t care about labels or image, and make others feel good being around them. 

(Not to say that successful people fall neatly into either one of these categories. Because they don’t). 

Yet, when you’ve had experiences primarily with one type of successful person, you end up having expectations about success which means success = greed or success = jerk. 

This is why it’s so important to gain experiences with successful people who mirror your values. 

Those successful people who hold the personality characteristics you hold dear, like kindness and empathy. 

Those successful people who feel good to be around, who give generously of their time, and who are great leaders. 

 

What Does Fear of Success Look Like? 

Fear of success shows up in many different ways and it’s unique to every single person. 

Some of the ways a fear of success can show up are: 

  • Hiding your natural talents and abilities.
  • Fearing wealth, making money, or having more than other people.
  • Discomfort with compliments and praise.
  • Sabotaging yourself when things go well.
  • Anxiety about becoming arrogant, self-centered, or narcissistic if you become successful.
  • Feeling like an imposter and that other people will find out you don’t know;w what you’re doing.
  • Procrastinating or getting paralyzed by wanting things to be perfect.

 

 

 

How Fear Of Success Impacts Your Life

Fear of success can hamper many areas of your life, often in unexpected ways. 

If you have a fear of success you may find that you: 

  • Chronically underachieve.
  • Feel frustrated that other less talented people seem to create success easier than you do.
  • Develop low expectations for your life, your accomplishments, or your relationships.
  • Have difficulty settling on goals. You may change your mind or bounce from goal to goal without ever achieving any of them. 
  • Get distracted easily by anxiety, procrastination, or shiny object syndrome.
  • Overfocus on education to the detriment of taking action on the things you want to achieve.
  • Feel as though what you want is always out of reach.
  • Have resentment of other people who are successful.
  • Sabotage success by overspending, addictive behavior, or procrastinating. 
  • Swing between feeling confident and driven and feeling deep self-doubt and like a failure.
  • Have negative thoughts about yourself and your capacity. 

 

Avoidance Is At The Root Of Your Fear of Success

Fear of success is an irrational fear at its core. 

And although it can be helpful to understand where it came from, those aren’t usually the same reasons that your fear of success is still sticking around. 

The reason your fear of success is still hanging around is that you’re avoiding it. You’re avoiding your fears. 

Avoidance is what you do to stop feeling fear of success.  You avoid things that make you feel fear. Like maybe you’ve avoided taking on that next big project. Or you avoid putting yourself out there on the dating scene after divorce. Perhaps you’ve even avoided working on developing that big new idea that will skyrocket your business.  

Fear is strengthened and maintained by avoidance. 

What Are Avoidance Strategies?

Avoidance strategies are all of those little subtle ways that you use to relieve short-term discomfort, anxiety, and fear. 

Your mind thinks that it’s doing good work by helping you not to experience those uncomfortable experiences. 

Yet what’s really happening is that your brain is learning that those things are actually terrifying and that you need to do everything in your power to avoid them. 

Think about something like public speaking. 

Getting up and making a toast at a dinner party isn’t that big of a deal. But the more and more you avoid standing up and making a speech in similar circumstances, the more your brain will believe that that experience is truly dangerous and do whatever is necessary to make you avoid it. Even if that means increasing your anxiety beyond what’s rational, making you feel sick to your stomach, or making you freeze and forget what you were going to say. 

Identify How You Avoid Fear Of Success

The first step is to identify how you avoid your fear of success. 

This might look like this: 

  • You avoid using your talents or hide them entirely, like refusing to sing at your friend’s wedding because you don’t want to stand out. 
  • Procrastinating or getting distracted right before you achieve a goal you were working on. 
  • Speaking negatively to yourself right before an important event so that you feel self-conscious.
  • Maintaining relationships with people who don’t inspire you to be your best so that you have an excuse to keep settling for less than you want. 
  • Making excuses for why now is not the time to do the thing you’re afraid of.

What To Do About Fear Of Success

There are many things you can do about a fear of success. 

One of the keys to overcoming a fear of success is awareness. 

Without understanding what’s going on and why you’re doing it you’ll end up doing the same thing over and over and continue making the same choices you’ve always made. 

It’s like the quote:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein”

Once you become aware of the way you think you can begin to make new choices. You can cultivate new behaviors, new experiences, and even choose new thoughts and emotions. 

There are many ways to develop awareness about what’s going on inside of you. 

Begin Meditating

Work on mind-body practices like meditation that help you become aware of your thinking and begin to realize that you are not your thoughts. 

Slow Down

Slow down and become more purposeful about acknowledging what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it when you’re doing it. So often we act very quickly in our lives without thinking. We react based on our old patterns rather than thoughtfully respond. 

Only when we slow down can we increase our ability to choose something new. 

Deal With Stress

Learn to better deal with your stress. 

Stress can stimulate fears of success. Especially because it lowers your ability to consider what you’re doing and why. 

When you deal with stress more effectively you’ll feel more in control of your moods and response. 

Flow With Fear

Learn to utilize fear of success to your advantage rather than running away from it. 

One of the biggest myths is that fear is something to avoid, demolish, or run away from. 

But when you learn to work with your fear everything changes. 

Accepting that you have fear and anxiety rather than fighting against it is key to breaking through those beliefs. 

It’s not about being fearless. It’s about cozying up with fear and saying “hey, that’s okay that you’re here. Come along for the ride. I’ll show you what I’m capable of”. 

Understand Your Relationship With Fear

The language you use, the things you say to yourself, and the ways you think about fear all create the foundation that creates how you respond to fear. 

When you understand how these things work you’ll be able to respond in different ways. 

This means really honing in on the language you use, what you say to yourself on a regular basis, and honing in on the ways you talk about your fears of success. 

Take note of when you say things like “I can’t do that” or “It’s too hard” or “I’ll do that important thing later” and ask yourself if those are your fears speaking or if they’re true. 

Kick Out The Asshole In Your Head

I hate to break this to you, but you have a little jerk inside of your head that says all kinds of mean stuff to you. It’s critical and judgmental and tends to try to make you believe that you’re capable of a lot less than you are. 

That inner critic is a liar. 

When you hear it saying negative things about you, about the project you’re working on, or about success in general tell it to take a seat and be quiet. Paying attention to that asshole in your head can paralyze you. Your goal is to listen to it as much as you listen to that crazy guy on the corner saying the world is about to end. 

Extinguish The Fear

This is a psychological technique where you basically get more and more used to the things you fear until they no longer make you afraid or anxious. 

To extinguish the fear you create an exposure hierarchy ladder. This is when you write down the specific things you fear about that thing in order of least threatening to most terrifying. 

Then you try the least threatening item on the list over and over until you stop feeling fear when you do it. 

For example, if you don’t like public speaking the most threatening might be making a speech in front of dozens of people, while the least threatening is speaking to a stranger in line at the grocery store. Begin with speaking to a stranger in line and keep doing it over and over until you get comfortable with it. Then move on to the next item on your list slowly progressing to making that speech. 

Do A Self-Help Program

Consider working through a program that helps you to combat fears and to learn techniques to become more courageous. 

When you dig into the beliefs which have limited your success, dig them out of your subconscious mind, and create that awareness you become more capable of doing whatever it is you’re afraid of. 

When you engage with your personal power, you’ll find that you no longer feel held back by the fears that once kept you stuck. 

Get Help Identifying Subconscious Blind spots

Work with a coach who can help you spot blind spots that you aren’t able to identify yourself. This is the work that I do with my clients.

If you’re interested in chatting about whether working together on your fear of success if a fit for you I invite you to schedule a free 30-minute call to talk about what’s been holding you back. 

What's on your mind?