Fear of success. It feels like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Doesn’t everyone want to be successful in some way?
It sounds the same as if someone were to say they were afraid of puppies or ice cream or had a phobia of having too much happiness. When we hear that statement, we instantly associate it with someone who has a ton of potential, but for some reason, just refuse to tap into it.
Hardly ever is this notion a conscious thought, however. For most people, a fear of success is not so much a fear of finding prosperity as it is what that prosperity brings with it: lifestyle change, new friends, different career, etc. Because of that, we tend to sabotage our rise to the top in a misguided attempt to stay in a comfortable lifestyle.
Why does it happen? Unfortunately, the reasons that people have a fear of success is as diverse as the people who experience them.
Why are We Scared of Success?
Answering this question is more involved than just making a blanket statement about “fear of the unknown” or something similar (although that may apply in some circumstances; people may genuinely be afraid of something they’re not familiar with). In many cases, the reason rests within memories of a past event or in response to the stimulation that excitement presents.
Physiologically, the brain processes trauma in much the same way that it processes excitement. Even if the hormonal reactions are not the same, people begin to internalize and respond to the emotion of success that they would in regards to fear, despite the trigger being completely different. A person with a history of sexual abuse, for example, may have a hard time disassociating the feeling of arousal with the sense of outright fear and pain, causing them to avoid the situation entirely.
Likewise, people who have experienced verbal abuse have likely been told their whole lives that the idea of success is a far-off notion that is impossibly out of reach. In situations like that, achievement becomes associated with profound feelings of disappointment. Even worse, if success is connected to negative connotations, imbibed within statements such as “Nice guys finish last,” the idea of prosperity can make the person believe that to attain it they have to be “evil” in some way. Fear of success, then, is not so much the problem as it is the negative feelings of what it takes to get there.
In some cases, the problem may be much more straightforward: aversion to risk. Though people can see success in the not-so-distant future, the idea of “putting yourself out there” holds enough danger in their eyes that the reward is not remotely worth it. Seeing the current life as comfortable, they hold onto it and torch any paths that lead to a higher position.
Regardless of the specific reason, the fear of success can manifest itself in a myriad of different ways, whether to an individual’s real search for meaning or because of an overriding feeling of inadequacy in some way. More recently, however, scientists have begun to realize that success can be torpedoed by choices made by the individual – conscious or otherwise – in a deliberate attempt to impede their own progress.
Are You Sabotaging Your Own Success?
Believe it or not, there is actually evidence that people have a tendency to disrupt their own work efforts precisely when they’re in peak operating mode. According to researchers at Indiana University, who used two sets of control groups – one self-described “early risers” and the other “night owls – to determine how people responded to stress. They found that the early morning group purposefully made excuses to downplay their abilities in the morning time, as opposed to doing so at nighttime, when mental faculties are lower. The same was true for the night owl group, who self-handicapped themselves in the evenings by claiming things like fatigue or inadequate resources, even though many of those slights were imagined.
Why did they do that? Researchers concluded that humans have a tendency to sabotage their own success to protect their ego; in other words, when the pressure is on to perform, we will begin to make excuses as to why we won’t succeed to protect ourselves against the genuine possibility of failure or maybe even just the fear of failure. Instead of trying to force subjects to work at off-peak hours – morning people working at night and vice versa – the study advocated working through the feelings of self-sabotage that were so apparent in the subjects. That explains a bit of why we have the fear of success.
The unfortunate reality is that it’s when we tend to be most aware of our own imminent success that we start to disrupt it from the inside out. It’s not, as so many of us believe when we’re trying to work through a foggy brain and actual sub-optimal conditions that we are hindered, but when our minds are clear, and we have no excuse not to succeed.
How Do I Know If I’m Afraid of Success?
As stated above, many people who are afraid of success just don’t realize it or believe that they are their own worst enemy in this regard. Most times, it’s a more subtle and nuanced disposition that can only be uncovered by a bit of introspection. To help facilitate this process, ask yourself a few questions:
1. Am I Up to the Challenge?
Success inevitably involves new frontiers with societal, economic, or even geographic implications. As such, it can be scary for anyone who has remained static in one position for very long to deviate from what they know or believe that they are inadequate for these new opportunities. Because of that, they don’t move forward.
The best way to get over this specific hump is to simply envision all the new benefits that await you on the other side of the mountain, such as more money, learning from new experiences, a greater appreciation for what you have, or a better-developed sense of confidence. Only be realizing that the benefits greatly outweigh the perceived risks can we hope to make any kind of progress.
2. Am I Worried About What Others Will Think?
Since success so often comes as a result of someone “selling out” – compromising their values and principles to attain a material reward – we may sabotage our personal success for fear of what someone else will think. Crippled by a crushing belief of other people’s negative perceptions, we hold still in a fruitless attempt to save face. If people do feel like that about your rise, then you have to understand that it’s either jealousy, bitterness, or both.
As long as you are at peace with your decision to advance in life since you’re the only one who understands all the various factors at play, no one else’s opinion really matters in the long run. Consider their views, but you’re the one who has to live with yourself at the end of the day, so do what you think is best. No wonder people who worry about what others think have the fear of success.
3. Am I Worried I’ll Lose My Identity?
If someone you know is in the position that you aspire to be at someday, it could be that you’re trying to destroy your progress because of a desire to keep those elements that make you unique. Success necessarily involves change, and so a shift in identity is naturally assumed to be part of the bargain. The opposite is most commonly true: instead of changing who you are, you’re merely enhancing the best qualities about who you are and mitigating those things that detract from your character. Moreover, look at this time as an opportunity to gain the qualities you want instead of losing the ones that make you feel comfortable.
Beyond these three questions, there are other ways you can identify your own capacity for self-sabotage. People that are afraid of success tend to exhibit some essential characteristics:
- Multi-tasking on several projects without actually finishing any of them.
- Continually second-guessing your own actions.
- Apologizing for your work, no matter the state that it is in.
- Something always seems to happen right before you “make it.”
- Your goals now are the same that they were a decade ago.
- You talk about your plans more than you work towards them.
Five Steps to Sabotaging Self-Sabotaging Thoughts
1. Take Charge of Your Life
In your professional life, you’ll undoubtedly experience a variety of different forms of training, from leadership to technology. But unless you’re one of the lucky ones, you won’t find much in the way of personal development. Instead, you’ll have to chart your own course and find your own way in life to beat the fear of success.
Many people just refuse to do this, whether because they are unsure of the best way to proceed or they’re afraid to make the leap for reasons described above. The only way to truly conquer your self-defeating thoughts is to acknowledge and believe that you are in control of your life, not your emotions, and make the decisions that best propel you in that direction.
2. Make the Right Decisions
Speaking of decisions, it’s imperative that you make the right ones. Before you begin to get neurotic and waffle on making any decisions because of fear that it’s the wrong one, it’s important to clarify what “right” in this definition actually means. For our purposes, it doesn’t describe what’s most efficient or most advantageous to you, or what you feel like, but rather what you actually want. Take some time to dig down into your soul and discover what makes you tick and aligns with your value set, as well as potentially opens up new doors for you to walk through. Once you’ve found it, make sure to push forward with all your might and if you lose it, go back to your values.
3. Use Your Village
“No man is an island,” as the saying goes, and that applies even more so for people who are trying to move past boundaries in their life. While you never want to trumpet your plans to everyone you meet (doing so can give you the feeling of success without actually attaining it), it’s vitally important that you reach out to someone else to ask them for support and guidance. This is also a great time to evaluate your network as a whole; if you find that very few people are in your corner, it’s time to find people who will be.
4. Be Flexible
Plans change. People change. You should change too. What you define as success as a 22-year-old straight out of college may look different than how you define it as a 51-year-old executive, so don’t be afraid to pivot. One of the best ways to stay fearful of success is to have a fuzzy image of what you want in the first place, so it’s only by adapting your plans to your current situation that you’ll have the confidence to move forward in the first place.
5. Build the Right Boundaries
Fear exists for a reason. It’s there to protect us from danger and keep us from embarking on something that will ultimately hurt us. Success is not dangerous though. It can be uncomfortable at times, to be sure, but it’s the exact opposite of what you deem hazardous; in fact, it can be your saving grace.
The key then is to build the right kinds of boundaries in your life: boundaries from negative people, negative thoughts, things that try to get you to compromise your values, etc. Once you identify and keep those at bay, you’ll be much more confident to pursue the things that you know will bring you happiness.
6. Plan for Long-Term Success
Tony Robbins has famously said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in a decade”. While that timeline may vary from person to person, the reality is that long-term growth is far more important than short-term success. Only by planting today the seeds that we’ll be able to reap for the future can we experience the type of true fulfillment that so many of us desperately crave.
Success doesn’t have to be scary, but because of the fears that we manifest in our own minds, we create fictional barriers that don’t do anything but stop us from achieving what it is that we genuinely want. The fear of success holds us back and once we move past those limits. That’s when we discover that what we were afraid of the whole time was not only non-existent but counter-intuitive and that only by listening to our souls can we uncover what real success is.