You’re probably familiar with the fear of failure and all the ways this can manifest. But what about having a fear of success?
Failure. It’s a big, scary, ugly concept, and when we say ‘fear of failure’, you likely nod along in recognition. Who wants to fail? It doesn’t feel good.
Success, on the other hand, roundly sounds like a great thing. We’d all like to be successful. But what if we told you that your procrastination – the times you knew what you should do, but just didn’t act on it – could be down to a fear of success, not failure?
London-based life coach Catri Barrett says this is a common phenomenon. “There are no official statistics on the number of people who are impacted by a fear of success, but studies show that women are more likely to have fears around succeeding in the very things they want most,” she tells Stylist.
“I’d say that over half of the clients that come with me struggling with procrastination and feeling like they’re falling short of their potential are experiencing fear of success.”
What does it mean to have a fear of success? How do you know if that’s what you’re dealing with? And how on earth do you overcome it? Let’s dig in.
“When the thought of achieving makes you feel anxious, you won’t put your full effort into tasks and therefore are far less likely to reach your full potential”
What does it mean to have a fear of success?
A fear of success, also known as success anxiety, is exactly what it sounds like: worrying about success and all its consequences.
What would happen if you achieved everything you wanted? You might be worried that your life would radically change. Or that the reality could never match up to your expectations. Or that your success will be followed by a dramatic fall from grace once people figure out you’re not as talented as you appear (as you might have guessed, fear of success and imposter syndrome go hand in hand).
You might be scared that success will alienate you from loved ones, or that you won’t be able to keep up your good work. Perhaps you have an idea that the higher you climb, the further you have to tumble down.
“It is not a conscious fear or phenomenon,” explains counsellor Bola Shonubi, a member of the Counselling Directory. “It is the fear or concern that, once something new or a higher achievement is attained, there will be inability to sustain it, consequently bringing great discomfort or suffering, even shame.”
Life coach Calypso Barnum-Bobb outlines it as this: “When you have a fear of success, you’re carrying a belief that if you achieve the things you really want, your life will be negatively impacted. The fear of those negative implications can stop you from taking action and going after your goals, dreams and desires because you’re worried that success comes at a higher cost than staying where you are.”
Signs you have a fear of success
As Shonubi notes, a fear of success lives in your subconscious. You might think there’s no way you have anxiety around success, that you desire success deeply. But success anxiety can rear its head in forms you might not be able to identify.
Some signs that you’re unknowingly experiencing a fear of success include:
- You often quit things just as you’re making progress.
- You don’t get started on goals that you profess to really want to achieve
- You think that success has to come at a price or sacrifice
- You cringe at the thought of the attention your success would bring
- You worry about being able to cope with the increased pressure that would come with achieving what you’re hoping for
- You’re a perfectionist. You have extremely high standards and worry that you, or your achievements, won’t live up to your own expectations
- You worry that if you succeed, people around you will be jealous or your relationships will be negatively impacted
- Rather than going for what you really want, you do things that are ‘easy’
- You fear change
- You’re big on the self-sabotage and don’t know why
- You often wonder why you’re not making progress or reaching your full potential, but can’t quite pinpoint the reason
What causes a fear of success?
Barnum-Bobb says that a fear of success “comes from our belief systems and conditioning. If you’re struggling with a fear of success, at some point in life you will have picked up the belief that there are negative associations with succeeding.”
She continues: “That could have come from your primary caregivers growing up, cultural conditioning or societal expectations. You may have been belittled or embarrassed after achieving something growing up. Maybe you lost people to jealousy and are worried that the same will happen again in the future.
“Comparison is also a huge cause of fear of success. We can look at how success affects others and assume it will be the same for us without knowing their full story.”
Barrett adds that discomfort around change, a lack of positive and successful role models, low self-esteem, imposter syndrome, perfectionism and simply being a woman can all trigger a fear of success.
“Women have historically been shamed for the same success that men are praised for so, unsurprisingly, are much more likely to experience fear of success than those who grew up identifying as men,” she points out. “Accomplishments that are often praised and celebrated in men are often labelled as showing off in women. Women have been conditioned by society to believe that success must come with a sacrifice, that they have to choose between a career or being caregiver to their families, and there’s often a lot of guilt associated with choosing success.”
How to overcome a fear of success
A fear of success can freeze you in place and prevent even the smallest step forward. It’s nigh on possible to achieve all you’re capable of if you don’t unlearn this anxiety first. So how do we do that?
Notice and identify your fear of success
“Noticing that you have a fear of success is a powerful first step,” says Barnum-Bobb. Carve out some time to really analyse your thoughts and behaviors. Question what’s holding you back – do you have some unhelpful ideas about what success will mean for you? If so, call those out.
Write down how your fear of success is affecting you
It’s worth identifying exactly how your fear of success is showing up.
Barnum-Bobb suggests: “I would start to explore what limiting beliefs you’re carrying around succeeding and make a note of how they’re affecting your behaviour. Are you procrastinating? Playing small? Are you telling yourself that you can’t handle it?”
Find positive success role models
Barrett recommends: “Don’t look at other people that reinforce your fears. Find people to be inspired by who have the type of success you want, without the negative consequences. They’re always out there when you go looking.”
Challenge yourself to think of success in a new way
Go through your beliefs about success and challenge them with an alternative view. Let’s say you think success means sacrifice – what if you think about all the things you’d gain, instead?
Find your why and keep it with you
Apologies for the big questions, but what do you want and why does it matter to you? This is something you need to figure out. Find your ‘why’, then keep that as your mantra for any time a fear of success threatens to throw you off-course.
“Ground yourself in your ‘why’,” says Barrett. “Make your ‘why’ bigger than your ‘why not’.”
Get comfortable with change
Often, a fear of success is a fear of change. We like our comfort zone – it’s warm and cozy in here. But to reach the heights you really, truly desire, you’re going to have to accept some changes to what you’re currently doing and how you’re living.
“Know that change is a certainty of life,” says Barrett. “Regain some autonomy over a situation that might feel out of your control by seeing change as certain rather than something to try and avoid. This will help you find proactive solutions instead of allowing any problem to hold you back.”
Show yourself kindness
“The fear of success can be a pervasive and vicious cycle which can seem difficult to get out of or unlearn,” notes Shonubi. “Unlearning and healing from this will take time and patience.”
Don’t beat yourself up for finding this tricky.
Barnum-Bobb tells Stylist: “I love to use visualisation for myself and with my clients as a tool to reprogramme limiting beliefs such as a fear of success.
“Close your eyes and imagine everything went perfectly. What would that look like? How would that feel? What would that unlock? How would that change your actions now?
“Allow yourself to get out of your logical, thinking mind and tap into the positive potential, doing this as often as you need it and knowing that when you do, you’re strengthening new neural pathways that make your default feelings around success more positive too.”
Work with a professional
Success anxiety is a complex thing to untangle. Consider meeting with a therapist or life coach to work through its root causes and learn new ways of achieving what you want.
Barrett recommends “working with a professional to identify where your fears come from and learn practical coping skills to help you manage the fears and believe in your ability to cope with any change”.
“As success anxiety is a fear deeply rooted in the unconscious, embarking on therapy with an experienced therapist can help you identify where it is rooted,” adds Shonubi. “Therapy will help you to explore and acknowledge how it manifests and how it is triggered.
“When this is acknowledged and understood, the journey of healing and unlearning begins.”