A young entrepreneur client of mine asked me once:
How can people have a fear of success? That’s got to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Success is awesome!
The way my client phrased the question was short-sighted, to be sure, but I could see 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 strange, especially in a culture that’s as idealizing of success as ours.
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 overnight success. And he was having major anxiety about this recent “success.”
Given the conversation I’d had just a few hours earlier with my young entrepreneur client, I was especially curious to learn more about what fear of success really looked like, where it came from, and what it’s impact was.
What I learned was fascinating.
Learning to Fear Success: Where Fear of Success Comes From
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.
In our first meeting, my older client who ran the non-profit 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 own insecurities about never graduating from high school—would often mock my client 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 academic successes. 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 “non-flashy.”
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 the solution was 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.
- And the one thing that kept him from walking away from everything right now, he explained, 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 Most People Don’t Know About Fear of Success
Since that time, I’ve worked with several other clients who all presented with similar experiences related to fear of success.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about what fear of success really looks like:
- 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 leads 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 (and made worse) by avoidance. No matter what leads to a fear of success initially, most people end up unintentionally behaving in a way that reinforces and strengthens that fear. My client, for example, took jobs that allowed him to avoid explicit and obvious signs of 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. In fact, far from it. They were suffering from extremely high levels of anxiety, and often had been for much of their lives, even though they were by all accounts quite hard-working, bright, conscientious people.
- Fear of success is embarrassing. Most people who are afraid of success are embarrassed by their fear. Because of people like myself and my young entrepreneurial client whose attitudes are largely naive about and dismissive of fear of success, the people who suffer from it largely suffer alone.
Whether you suffer from fear of success yourself or know someone who does, it’s important to understand what that really means and how difficult it can be.
What to Do If You Suffer from Fear of Success
Here are a few recommendations for beginning to work through your own fear of success. They’re based on my expertise as a psychologist who specializes in anxiety as well as my experience working with clients who suffer from fear of success.
1. Validate your fear of success by understanding its origin.
Most people who suffer from fear of success have a lot of shame and embarrassment about it. This makes it difficult for them to talk about it, ask for help, or even start to look at it clearly themselves.
But being clear-eyed about your struggles is the first step to working through them. And often the best way to summon the courage to do so is to validate and acknowledge the pain first, in part by trying to understand its origins.
If you can identify why your fear of success developed in the first place—and acknowledge that perhaps there were reasons why it happened—we can reduce the shame around it and actually start working to change.
I recommend journaling as a good place to start validating your fears of success:
- Simply schedule 20 or 30 minutes when you have some time, take out a legal pad or scratch paper and start writing whatever comes to mind when you think about your fear of success.
- Try to recall your earliest memories or experiences with it. What was that like? Who was involved? How do you remember feeling?
- You can keep these notes if you like, but it’s not necessary.
- Try to schedule a time to do this several times over the course of a week or two.
If you build a simple routine of thinking (and writing) about your fear of success, I think you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn about it. And as a result, learn to be a little bit more compassionate with yourself about it.
2. Track your avoidance strategies related to fear of success.
While uncovering the origin of your fear of success can help you to be more compassionate with yourself about it, where a fear comes from often has little or nothing to do with why it’s sticking around and how best to eliminate it.
All irrational fears are maintained and strengthened by avoidance strategies, subtle mental and behavioral habits we engage in that signal to our brain that we are afraid. While it feels relieving in the short-term to avoid things that frighten us, in the long-run we’re teaching our brains to be afraid of something that it’s truly dangerous. This is how all anxieties work, and fear of success is no different.
The first practical step to eliminating your fear of success is to identify all the ways you are unintentionally teaching your brain to stay afraid. To do this, you must start to pay attention to all the ways—big or small, mental or physical—that you run away from your fear of success.
Here are some examples of avoidance strategies around fear of success:
- If you fear success at work, you may tend to avoid taking on big projects or opportunities.
- You may also tend to shy away from compliments or praise, either avoiding situations like that entirely or quickly trying to shift the conversation back onto the other person.
- You may semi-consciously sabotage yourself in order not to be recognized or promoted by, for example, showing up late or producing sloppy work.
- You may choose to hang around with people who you know won’t be challenging or push you to do better or improve.
In any case, it’s important to begin looking for these avoidance strategies and tracking them. I recommend keeping a notes file in your phone and briefly listing any situation where the idea of success was frightening and the strategy you used to avoid or minimize it.
3. Face your fears of success (the smart way).
Once you’ve begun to identify the many ways that you avoid situations related to success (and therefore strengthen your fear), the final step is to begin approaching these situations instead.
But simply facing your fears is rarely the best way to go about it. In order to be successful in changing how your brain thinks about success in the long-run, you have to prove to it through your behaviors that you’re not afraid of it. This means playing the long game, which means starting small and creating tiny wins and shots of confidence for yourself.
Here’s how to get started:
- Based on your list of avoidance strategies from #3 above, choose one that is relatively small. Something that would be uncomfortable but doable if you chose to approach rather than avoid it. For example, the next time someone compliments you, simply say “thanks” rather than reflexively changing the conversations.
- Each time you do this, note how much anxiety/fear you feel (scale of 1-10 is usually good).
- Practice approaching that small fear as many times as possible, noting your anxiety/discomfort level each time.
- Eventually, you will notice your anxiety/discomfort starting to go down a little bit. This is your brain learning to not be so afraid. Once this happens, go back to your list and choose a slightly more difficult task and repeat the process.
- Rinse and repeat this process gradually until you can approach rather than avoid progressively larger and larger feared situations related to success.
There are no shortcuts to retraining the brain. If you suffer from fear of success, it’s likely because you’ve spent years, if not decades, training your brain to be afraid of it. It’s going to take some time to re-train it to be confident that success doesn’t necessarily mean pain.
4. Get professional help from a cognitive behavioral therapist.
While it’s good to try and understand your own fear of success and take steps to work through it on your own, if it’s causing significant problem’s in your life (work, relationships, satisfaction, etc.), finding a qualified professional is the way to go.
A good cognitive behavioral therapist who specializes in anxiety can help you do understand and work through fear of success in a timely and effective way.
Not sure where to find a good therapist or counselor? I wrote a guide about how to do just that:
Find Your Therapy: A Practical Guide to Finding Quality Therapy
Summary and Key Points
Fear of success is a very real but often misunderstood struggle. The key thing to realize is that, in most cases, the fear is about the consequences of success, not the success itself. This fear likely has very strong and very old origins in a person’s past.
In order to work through your fear of success, the following steps can be helpful:
- Validate your fear of success by understanding its origin.
- Track your avoidance strategies related to fear of success.
- Face your fears of success (the smart way).
- Get professional help from a cognitive behavioral therapist.
😇 5 Quick Ways to Feel Less Anxious
If you’re interested in practical steps to lower your anxiety, I teach a free 5-day email course where I share five of my favorite science-backed tips for lowering your anxiety quickly and in a healthy way.
40 CommentsAdd Yours
My fear of success comes, I think, in large part, from some of the issues you mentioned towards the beginning of your article involving parental influences, There are the more direct, or consciously internalised one’s, such as, in my case, not being “ allowed” to show off when I was little, or celebrate me, in a sense. It actually seemed to be something that had the potential to embarrass my dad or, maybe, due to his childhood, he didn’t want me to overindulge my enthusiasm for life or develop precociously, or have too much confidence, and then suffer a fall or become a failure. But, in fact, that mindset leads to the exact things the parent doesn’t “seem” to want. I say seem in inverted commas because I believe there is a lot of ambivalence which can be intergenetaltional, and can play out in ( in its own way) in subsequent generations, and it’s quite messy ( and I think Freud had a lot to say about ambivalence and it’s often deleterious effects). Personally, I remember as a child ( and I realise now this is ‘ magical’ thinking) that I could not have a better life than my parents. And success can mean many things, but it is considered mostly in relation to achievements, recognition and/ or money. In a way, I felt Id be letting them down if I outshone them— almost like I was letting them down by, perhaps, having a better or happier life than them. It sounds a bit weird stating it here, but z
I felt that intensely. I have a PhD but think little of it, and have done little with it. I hope it’s not spite— you can probably see from even that last automatic response how heavily I internalised negative associations, and, of course, am prone to think negatively of myself.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I think you’re right to recognize the impact of both early past experiences but also present-day mental habits like the negative thinking.
Thanks for the article. I am currently studying CBT on line but something I have a distortion with success, is letting others win even though you know you can win.
It’s comforting to know my fears are real and I am not alone. Thank you for sharing your clients experiences and for the recommendation.
I have been an under acheiever outwardly since childhood due to some bad stuff that happend in my life as well as teens and in early adulthood I am now middle aged and doing alot better as I am 34. I could relaise now i might not could have gotten a better outcome than i have now but the outcome i have now could have been sooner if i had advocated for myself. and took better care of myself i find that the bad mental health i have had due to aniexity and depression has caused alot of problems for me as far as achievements in terms of carreer i at present am finally in a position to spread my wings and realise i can do better now it only takes time medication and help from family friends and my conslor who has been a big help since i started working with him 2 years ago. i am more aware of who i am and what i have been doing to myself such as sabotaging my chances of success that i am now going to do better at being fearless and facing my challenges head on instead of running or avoiding them just feel the pains and good times that come in life in all its angish and glory and become stonger for it my faith in Chirst helps me personally as well thx for ur post sir.
Such a good article! I’ve been dissecting it like you’ve said and am realizing I’ve actually had no fear over winning big competitions with big trophies or prizes or winning money at cards but it’s the little ones that I’ve actually had tons of insecurity about winning like raffles, where everyone really wants these little prizes and I don’t really want it but then I win it and everyone celebrates but I just feel so awkward and insecure and guilty that I don’t care about what everyone else does. Any insight on when it’s situational like this? My husband has won huge awards but still enjoys the small ones so much, even if he didn’t want it, I wish I could enjoy the small wins too.
Very helpful! Thank you!
Writing a book on motivation, mainly a collection of useful competencies anyone can use to plug in motivation-skills that offer useful ways of looking at motivation. I was working on the “fear of failure/success” chapter, and I found your website helpful. The completion of this book is about two years out. I would love a quote from you, if you don’t mind. What is the most important question to ask? Is it, “how do we become aware of our fear of success?” Include your credentials and how you want to be introduced. I will include full-citations if I quote you.
I clicked on this article as a means to relieve anxiety that developed this morning when I got the desired response to some writing I submitted. It appears that, once again, I am ‘on my way.’ This time I have been working toward being ready for success.
I want to address several comments. First, after literally decades of therapy, I was finally introduced to CBT; I have found it to be the most effective natural therapy. Spiritually, I agree with Jovon Green; recognizing that I was created for a purpose, that my strengths and weaknesses and all of my experiences are part of what makes me who I am has helped me to embrace opportunity. Prayer and praise are very helpful for encouragement, and faith in God helps me take advantage of these spiritual resources.
When I was in fourth grade, I lost a spelling bee that I could have easily won — should have won. One boy, Wayne, was still standing, along with some fifth grade girls, who whispered to me, “Let Wayne win.” It became a sub-theme of my life, and represents numerous experiences that happened both before and after that fated day when I choked — on ‘electricity.’ (Mrs. Morris even tried to cheat for me, pronouncing the word “electri City”.) I spoke with my sister about the experience and she helped me recognize that the ‘Wayne’ who keeps trying to win is me, or an aspect of myself that I have not yet been fully willing or able to honor. I’m going to struggle with that concept, prayerfully. In closing, another thing that is helping is the biblical principle that “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” I have come to think of myself as part of the ‘power grid’ in which God is the generator of power, Jesus the transformer that connects me to the power (my hookup), and I am part of the distribution system that is the “light of the world’. I have something valuable to offer. I get the opportunity to let it flow through me, but it’s not about me. So I’m gonna let my little light shine. (If it kills me!) Be blessed. And be a blessing. no matter what.
My goodness this was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you!
Thank you Daisy. Jesus wants to use us for something greater but my fear of success often sabotages His plan. Instead of using His strength to persevere, I use my strength to produce mediocrity.
Why are you anxious about a factious character? A “plan” that will never unfold?
Really helpful reflection, Daisy. I recognise myself in everything you say.
I want to read your book! I was literally thinking that tonight… I need to read a book about motivation. Something to get me going it’s becoming a bit of a viscous cycle. 😖
Anyway this was really helpful. Thanks guys
This is a fantastic article Nick, thank you.
If grown up in a totalitarian regime, your success means harmful to many people. Many good people will have the fear of success.
My fear was not actually of a failure but of success as I always knew that I can do it. This article reflect all the aspects; is a boon I feel like. It will sure help through out my life.
What I liked the most was:
You may choose to hang around with people who you know won’t be challenging or push you to do better or improve.
Thank you so much for this touching article !🌸
THANK YOU. I have known that I suffer from this for several years now. I now feel motivated to tackle this issue. I turned 60 this year and I plan to take action in my life. Your advice is valuable to me. No more avoidance for me.
WOW! Very powerful article!
I didn’t realize I had a fear of success or if was a real thing, but after reading this article and doing some research I have a better understanding what I’m up against.
Thank you for everyone’s feedback as well.
Hey I know this post is kinda old now but it really resonated with me.
As someone who’s studying I can see alot of this in myself and always thought that I could be suffering from this as when I was doing A-levels I did little to no revision because I didn’t want to achieve the grades I needed to get into uni. I’m now in university but suffering from the same issues when relating to study. But hopefully I can implement some of the strategies suggested here.
The author knows what he’s talking about. 5/5
The saddest thing I discovered while going through the suggested exercises is that I have NO memory of “success” as a child. The memories of successes as an adult are laced with fear and anxiety.
Thanks for a great article, it gives me a starting place.
I felt the same way sabotaging success shying away from it downplaying my abilities reading this is truly help me understand why and where it comes from.
Hi Nick 🙂 Thanks for this insightful site. I learned a lot by reading this. My fear of success comes from having an older brother who in every shape size and way was deemed perfect. He was smart, outgoing, and quick witted, as a kid. People loved him. I was shy, not good in school and ridiculed by my mother every day of my life. I was compared to my brother a lot, but not in a good way, especially by our mom and many of our teachers. I heard time and time again,how my big brother was going to be such a success and I’d amount to nothing. Now, as a grown-up, my brother has had a very successful career (or so we are led to believe), but has few friends (thankfully no children) and is emotionally and mentally unstable, especially when it comes to family matters, even with his wife. His way of dealing with it, is to brag about himself. Me, at age of 65, realize that I am a success at being a wife, mother, grandmother and daughter to a 97 year old mother, all huge things, I assure you, but nothing to brag about. I want desperately to become a published writer of picture books and my fear of success is holding me back and I’m terrified to send things to a publisher…
thank you so much for this insightful article. I am a therapist and am in the process of setting up a practice of my own but have been stalling in following up on ways of getting known. The reason, I’ve been telling myself, is my age-old story of never feeling ‘good enough’. Whilst this might be a story that holds many truths for my life, I now recognise that I also am afraid of being good enough! So much to think about now that the story has a new slant.
Nick 🙂 I have this, but again, it comes from being told at an early age that I’d never amount to much and my older brother was the great white hope. Well, now in my 60’s, I want to write picture books. I’ve wanted to do this for years and I’ve written a few, but then my fear gets in the way and I never follow through further than having my stories critiqued in a world-wide critique group. So, last month, I joined another critique group, where I might get some help figuring out how to go about having my work published. I just put my first story up in the group and am waiting to see what the four other writers think about my piece and how I will respond to their critiques. I figure the discomfort and fear I feel now will be rewarded in time with a writing career, which out weighs my angst right now, any day. Perhaps I’m on my way. Step one accomplished…
Nike very informative article. Thank you very much for sharing.This will really change my thought process.
I feel so seen. Sometimes you just need permission to begin to let go. There’s a name for it and you’re not alone.
Great article. I’ve done lots of reflecting and have come to terms with the fact that my own misses in my career and life have come from a deep fear of failing combined with fears of success, it’s complicated but overall it’s lead to stagnation, I don’t go up or down in life just sideways, I recently had the opportunity of a lifetime knowing about a certain stock that’s been in the news lately and I invested heavily in, only to get an anxiety attack when my prediction on the trend proved correct and saw my investment x30 in a matter of weeks. A massive anxiety attack over being right-being successful, it’s an odd thing to grapple with. I realize it now and will look to improve myself l through time.
Thank you for this article. The story of the gentlemen’s life experiences rang cathedrals of bells for 63 year old me. In my case, it was my mother who mocked. It started very early. A reaction of both her intergenerational wounds, and as years went on explained as a way to protect my older, less academically successful sister. Growing up, keep your successes and your pride to yourself. Showing off is morally wrong. Success = Trouble. Success = Hurting, shaming those I love. Success = Sadness for everyone, including myself. I am profoundly grateful for your guidance and will do those exercises. And thanks to everyone who commented here. I am moved to tears. Thank you.
This stuck a chord with me. I am trying to work through my own fears of success now.
I had always done poorly in school, but recently I returned to college as a mature student with more tools and self awareness than ever. I had a very successful first semester, getting 80s in all my classes – then I suddenly spiraled. I had no idea why but I was terrified of all of my classes, my teachers, my e-mails, my phone and my grades. I started having panic attacks and hair pulling again, out of nowhere. I thought it was the fears of failure, but my therapist said that it sounded more to her like I was afraid of success.
The origin is nothing so direct as what was mentioned here, and it confused me at first. If I fear failure so much, then why fear succeeding? It seems so stupid. But looking back, the answer became clear: being successful means other people know what you are capable of, and that level of aptitude becomes the baseline standard for their expectations of you. I’ve had undiagnosed ADHD and social anxiety all my life (I got my diagnosis in January this year), and my successes were always wildly inconsistent without me ever knowing why. It felt like I had no control over when I would do well and when I would inevitably mess it all up. So showing that I COULD do well meant that the people around me knew I should be able to succeed. Then, when I failed at the same thing later, they knew that it wasn’t because I couldn’t – it was because I was lazy and didn’t care.
I know now that it’s because I’m an interest based learner who can succeed when engaged and not ripping out my hair because I’m so nervous. Yet I still keep falling into self-sabotaging behaviors. Changing schema isn’t as easy as sounds like, I guess.
Thank you for the wonderful article. I’ve had a lot of therapy & know I’m terrified of success. But I can’t stop sabotaging myself. Horrible things happened every time I succeeded. Horrible punishment, loss of loved one’s out of envy, loss of beloved teachers when I surpassed them. Then I was relating all losses to nearby wins – like a parent would die of cancer. When I lost weight and decided date, date rape. I could go on and on. It started about four, now I’m sixty+. I panic when I start to succeed at simple things that I need to do. Preparing for the big event was safe. So I bust my ass preparing to win, but the punishment comes when I actually win, so I stop myself before I actually win. This is so hurtful. I waste all my energy preparing.
Well…I’m going to try those small steps like walking right into the fear, a small step today. And maybe I need a therapist who is versed in this particular issue.
..Thank you thank you for this wonderful article. I feel less alone.
Did you send them? Pls do!
I got so emotional reading through this article. The fear is real. Am 26 plus,bt i cant remember any kind of success ive heard. Its like a circled failure. Thanks for the article,ill try them out
Strangely, my fear of success stems in large part from my perception of Judgements from Others. It is difficult for me to take pleasure from “successes” as I am acutely sensitive to the perceived natural human jealousies on the one hand and the raised expectations I feel from successes.
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