When it comes to the idea of success, having a fear of failure is often the most talked about topic and often the most obvious. The fear of trying and not succeeding is an anxiety-inducing experience that most of us have faced, or will face, in our lifetimes.
The fear of success is a more discreet form of fear that is more intricate in nature yet deeply debilitating against reaching fulfilment and happiness. A fear of achieving success is one that can form in your subconscious mind and impede your ability to achieve the success you deserve. A fear of succeeding in something you are passionate about is an internal roadblock that you may not even be aware that you have.
How do you define success?
Before you can define what success is, and ascertain if you are afraid of it, you need to spend a little time on how you actually view success. The concept of success is a very personal one. For one person, success may be raising a happy and healthy family, whereas others may view success as reaching the top of the corporate ladder. The concept of success can be as simple or as complicated as the person defining it perceives it to be.
According to certified life and performance coach, Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) Practitioner and Matrix Therapist, Vanessa Talbot, success is different for each individual. “While a Ferrari in the garage may mean success to one, a quiet country cottage among nature may be success to another. What’s important about success is that we know what success means to us as individuals,” she says. “Success is knowing what you want out of life, and living it.”
Fear of failure
The fear of failure is a natural state of mind for many of us. Who hasn’t been scared they wouldn’t get the job they wanted or pass their driver’s test? Being fearful of not being able to successfully attain a goal is a natural fear to have, but letting it keep you from moving forward in life can be extremely limiting.
“The fear of failure is a mindset that keeps people stuck in their comfort zones, never achieving or moving forward. It is the fear of working toward your goal but not being able to attain it,” explains counsellor, holistic health expert and author, Luke Sheedy. “You also fear the consequences of failure in that it opens you to ridicule and judgement from others, usually at the peril of your own happiness, inner fulfilment or reaching your true potential.
“A fear of success is closely aligned to a fear of failure in that they both hold you back from achieving your goals and reaching your full potential,” Sheedy says.
Fear of success
The fear of success is a sneakier fear compared to the fear of failure, as it affects us in a subconscious way. “Fear of failure is associated with making mistakes and not getting approval, while fear of success is the fear of doing things right and therefore not being accepted, not being appreciated and not being able to maintain the level of achievement and success,” explains says life coach, educator, author and motivational speaker, Ronit Baras. “Fear of success is when the pain of achieving something we want is greater than not achieving it.”
Psychologist and inner voice expert Angela Bradley explains further. “Fear of success usually occurs at a subconscious level and involves self-sabotaging behaviours that unwittingly prevent you from dealing with the possible negative spinoff effects of reaching a goal or becoming successful.”
Such self-sabotaging behaviours can include negative self-talk, unrealistic perfectionism and pessimism: ways in which you may subconsciously hold yourself back due to the perceived risk of achieving success and the consequences that may arise from this.
Why are you scared of success?
Fearing success can encompass anything from a fear of change to trepidation at standing out from the crowd or dread of living up to others’ expectations and the pressure triggered by this. Sheedy believes it’s common for people to fear success and what will happen if one realises success, or “makes it”.
A fear of succeeding in something you are passionate about is an internal roadblock that you may not even be aware that you have.
“In our competitive and success-driven society, we don’t acknowledge that success can be overwhelming or daunting,” he says. “A fear of the unknown can sabotage our efforts to be successful. Fear creates blocks that prevent us from achieving success.”
Fear of change
The fear of change can often cause you to stay in a negative or stagnant situation long after you should. A fear of change can refer to altering an aspect of your life and the consequences of this, or the fear that you may change if you accomplish your aims.
“Sometimes we just fear change and therefore fear what success might bring, such as loneliness, less time with family or working longer hours. We like the status quo; even though we aspire to achieving our goals, perhaps the fear of change is so great that failing seems the better option in comparison,” says Sheedy.
Another fear associated with success and change is the fear of compromising who you are and perhaps changing as a person; for example, “selling out” your principles for a bigger pay cheque or abusing power and/or influence. “This is an identity-level fear,” says Baras. “People have it when they think success will ‘force’ them to compromise on who they are, their values and their time. It will result in many excuses about why success will make you dishonest and not true to yourself.”
Tall poppy syndrome
Tall poppy syndrome is most definitely alive and well today and can discourage many people from going after their goals for fear of being “seen”, judged and subsequently torn down because of this.
“We all want to belong and feel accepted by our colleagues and friends, and success can be feared as it will make us stand out from the crowd and perhaps lead to jealousy from others,” says Sheedy.
Tall poppy syndrome also plays into being fearful of the expectations of others in light of success, Sheedy continues. “Success can bring added pressure, stress and higher expectations to continue to perform for further, future success. This can open us up to criticism and judgement from our peers, so we tend to play it safe. This can lead to a debilitating paralysis of self-doubt creeping in.”
Pressure to maintain success & further excel
The idea that once you have achieved success you have to work even harder to keep it can be a daunting prospect. Is enough ever enough? Now that you have achieved “more” do you need to attain “more, more”? Will it ever stop?
“Another fear associated with fear of success is the need to maintain it,” says Baras. “This happens when people believe the toughest part of success is constantly fearing they will lose it.” The idea that gaining more in life means having more to lose can stop many from achieving in the first place.
Another theory related to the fear of success is the imposter syndrome. “This is when people develop a belief that their success is not real and they live in fear others will discover they are not really good at what they do and they are only pretending to be successful,” says Baras. Those who fear being caught out or uncovered as being an imposter or a hack distinguish between having “fake success” and “real success”.
Heavy cost of success
What will you have to give up for success? The fact that there may be negative consequence imposed on your life due to success, such as less time with the children, can often deter many from striving forward. According to Talbot, people with this mindset perceive success and sacrifice as one and the same.
“If the pain of what they think they must do to achieve success is greater than the pleasure they feel they will get from success, then they’ll subconsciously self-sabotage. For example, for someone wanting weight-loss success, the pain of doing without all the food they enjoy, limiting their food intake and also having to exercise can be greater than the advantages it brings.”
Perception of success as a threat
Instead of seeing success as something positive to run towards, you may perceive it as a danger or threat instead, which triggers the primal fight-or-flight response. “When people want to achieve what they call ‘success’, it typically requires alternative behaviour: behaviour that is not ‘normal’ for them. This activates a part of their brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response,” explains Rik Schnabel, accredited NLP trainer, life coach and training director with Life Beyond Limits.
“Anything that is not normal behaviour is overplayed in the brain as unsafe or dangerous. It signifies a threat-to-life function. Starting a new business, for example, is not a threat to one’s life but, according to our amygdala, it is.”
Can you change how you feel about success?
In a word, yes. You can change how you subconsciously feel about success by not just changing your attitude but also by altering your behaviour.
“Success is for everybody, not the selected few,” says Sheedy. “Success is a dream fulfilled, a goal completed. We are creatures of habit and behaviour; changing those is the easiest way to live the life you’ve imagined. Also, by surrounding yourself with other successful people you will find out they’re just normal people who had a vision with a plan of action to achieve what they wanted, believed in themselves and their abilities and, importantly, stayed positive and persevered when things got tough. Success is for you and it’s found everywhere.”
How to overcome your fear of success
Identify & clarify your “success”
It’s important to identify if you are seeing someone else’s version of success, or your own. “You need to know what your unique version of success is,” says Talbot. “If you’re chasing someone else’s dreams, that dream won’t have much meaning to you if you have to live it.
We like the status quo; even though we aspire to achieving our goals, perhaps the fear of change is so great that failing seems the better option in comparison.
“Know what success means to you,” she continues. “It most likely isn’t the same as all your friends, parents and society. If anyone achieves success that isn’t what they really want out of life, though society and others may view them as successful, that person will be discontented and unfulfilled. Happiness comes from living the life we want in our own way.”
Clarify what it is about success that you are actually afraid of. Is it that extra work will be involved? Is it the possibility of being judged and criticised or that you will be found out as not being who others think you are? After you identify what success is to you, and what it is about success that scares you, you can start to uncover ways in which you may have been self-sabotaging.
Change your self-talk
“The way you talk to yourself, day in and day out, creates the foundation upon which everything in your life is built. It can be your servant or your master,” says Bradley. “Pay specific attention to what you say to yourself about being a success. Are the statements true or do they just ‘feel’ true and are, in fact, keeping you from getting ahead? Don’t be afraid of, or be controlled by, that conversation. Take on board the constructive criticism and challenge the garbage.”
It is possible to give that negative internal voice a new dialogue, Bradley affirms. “Let the old unhelpful words flow into your mind and, without grabbing them, let them wash out again. These words come from old experiences and other people’s opinions. Take their power away and be the best version of yourself. Have whatever you want in life. What is the worst that can happen if you are successful? You deserve success and have a responsibility to go get it.”
Care for your health & wellbeing
When it comes to helping yourself overcome fears, taking a holistic approach is an important factor. A healthy mind and spirit only works if you have a healthy body as well. For example, how can you successfully identify and clarify your attitudes and behaviours if your body is functioning on zero sleep? Everything has a roll-on effect in terms of health and wellbeing — and how you deal with your fears.
“Anything that lowers your impulse control and impairs decision-making will hurt your mood and drive up fear,” says Bradley. “Every decision you make about yourself and your life is linked. You can’t truly be successful at one thing and neglect other things like your health and wellbeing. It’s like building a skyscraper but skipping the foundations: it’ll bring you undone eventually. Confident people prioritise their wellbeing, and healthy people have a better chance of overcoming fears and finding success.”
Ask questions & practise visualisation
Don’t be afraid of asking yourself some questions. For example, Talbot suggests asking, “If things stay the same for me, how will my life be in one year? Five years? 20 years?”
“Then think of having achieved your own unique idea of success and ask yourself: ‘If I achieve my version of success, how will my life be in one year? Five years? Or in 20 years’ time?’ Life should look quite different,” she says. Visualising and comparing alternative futures where you have given in to your fear of success versus conquering your fear of success can be a very enlightening exercise.
As with anything, fears can range in magnitude. Sometimes we all need a little help to conquer something that has been subconsciously plaguing us for a long time, and that’s OK. Changing or altering your natural behaviours can be a scary task. Investing in the services of a life coach, psychologist or counsellor can help provide you with the tools you need to start living the life you want.
According to Baras, awareness is the first step to overcoming the fear of success. “Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is very useful in treating fear of success as it involves subconscious acts of self-sabotage,” he says. “It helps the person create awareness to the fear. Another tool is using NLP, which works on early experiences of success that triggered the fear.”
Once you identify that you do fear success, you are already halfway there, but sometimes you may just need a little outside assistance to get past ingrained behaviours you have been unknowingly cultivating for years.