Why we fear the results of success much more than success itself.
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.
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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’s 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 disorders 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 our 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 we can identify why our 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:
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.