We’re not afraid of success itself —it’s the consequences of success that terrify us.
I remember a young entrepreneur I was working with once asked me:
How can people have a fear of success? That’s got to be the dumbest, most disgusting example of privilege I’ve ever heard of.
The way he said it was off-putting, for sure, but I understood where he was coming from. Of all the horrors in this life that people are faced with, claiming to be afraid of success can seem a little… Naive? Narrow-minded? Complainy?
Ironically, several hours later that same day, I had my first session with an older gentleman who explained that what he wanted to work on in therapy was his struggles with… fear of success.
He told me how, after retiring, he had started a small non-profit that did volunteer work he was passionate about. But recently, his humble organization was faced with a flash of pretty big overnight success. And he was having major anxiety about it.
Now, I treat anxiety disorders of all shapes and sizes - and while I’d heard people talk casually about fear of success –this was the first time anyone had actually wanted to work on it in therapy with me.
Given the conversation I’d had just a few hours earlier with the young entrepreneur, I was especially curious. What I learned was fascinating.
Learning to Fear Success
While many of us grow up in an environment where our successes are met with enthusiasm, praise, and encouragement from the people around us, this isn’t the case for everyone.
Including, unfortunately, my older client who ran the non-profit. In our first meeting he explained how much of his childhood was marked by a turbulent and often abusive relationship with his father.
He recounted how his father – because of his insecurities about never graduating from high school–would often mock my client as a child whenever he brought up his success in school. And if his father had been drinking, it would go far beyond mockery into verbal and sometimes even physical abuse.
Unsurprisingly, my client learned to stay quiet about his successes academically. Even as an adult, he told me how his habit of “keeping his head down” lead him to pick careers and jobs that weren’t really what he wanted, but were “safe” and would never lead to “major successes or achievements.”
After retiring, he assumed that his little non-profit would simply be a quiet way for him to give back and volunteer for a cause he felt passionate about. But a few years into the project, a major newspaper did a story on my client and the non-profit which attracted a lot of positive attention and even some considerable financial gifts.
Along with this overnight success, my client started having intense panic attacks on a near daily basis and couldn’t seem to stop worrying. He came to me consumed with anxiety and 99% sure he was going to abandon his non-profit.
When I asked him what specifically he was worried about, he had a difficult time articulating it. But he did throw out some examples:
- He hated the idea of having to go to fancy donor dinners and meet-and-greets where he would be the center of attention.
- He was afraid that he would have to spend all his time answering emails from reporters and collaborators instead of just doing the work he loved.
- He worried that he would not be able to live up to all the sky-high expectations that seemed to tower before him. In fact, the one thing that kept him from walking away from everything right now was that he worried that people would be disappointed in him or think he wasn’t really committed to the project.
Whatever my preconceptions about it were, after just a few sessions with my client and his fear of success, it was painfully clear to me how real it was.
What I’ve Learned About Fear of Success
Since that time, I’ve worked with several other clients who all presented with similar but unique experiences with fear of success.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
- Fear of success usually doesn’t mean a literal fear of success. People fear the results and consequences of making lots of money, for example, not the money itself.
- Fear of success is often learned at a young age. Just like a rat learns not to touch the red button after it’s lead to electrical shocks a few times, people can learn to avoid success if at one point it was followed by something painful.
- Fear of success is maintained by avoidance. No matter what lead to a fear of success initially, most people unconsciously end up behaving in a way that reinforces that fear. My client, for example, took jobs that allowed him to avoid explicit success. Unfortunately, this deprived him of the opportunity to learn that success doesn’t always lead to bad things happening.
- Fear of success is painful. The folks I’ve worked with were not whiny complainers starved for attention. They were suffering from extremely high levels of anxiety, and often had been for much of their lives.
- Fear of success is embarrassing. Most people who are afraid of success are embarrassed by their fear. Probably because of people like myself and my young entrepreneurial client who had more or less dismissive opinions of it, the people who suffer from it largely suffer alone.
What to Do if You Suffer from Fear of Success
Of course, I’m a little biased given my profession, but if fear of success is playing a significantly negative role in your life, get some help.Ideally, qualified help from a trained therapist who specializes in anxiety.
Not sure where to find a good therapist or counselor?I wrote a guide to doing just that:
Besides therapy, here are a few additional recommendations:
- Try to be compassionate with yourself. You’re already anxious; don’t add unnecessary amounts of guilt, shame, anger, or some other emotion on top of it if you don’t have to.
- Try to understand the source of your fear. Often understanding that there’s a reason for our suffering can help us tolerate it better and work toward making productive changes.
- Test out your beliefs about fear of success in small ways. As I mentioned above, often fear of success is maintained because we avoid doing things that would show us that it’s actually safe and okay to have success. Try to find small ways where you could allow yourself to be successful and show it, and then see what happens.
Fear of success is a very real but often misunderstood struggle. The key thing to realize is that, in most cases, what fear of success is really about is fear of the consequences of success. This fear likely has very strong and very old origins in a person’s past. Working with a qualified mental health professional could be extremely valuable in helping to clarify and work through this difficult struggle.