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What Causes Fear of Success? (and 4 Ways to Overcome it)

by Maili

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Fear of success seems totally irrational but it’s more common than people think. In fact, it might keep you from living your best life and reaching your potential. So how do you deal with this irrational, yet common fear of success?

The fear of success isn’t generally about success itself, but rather the consequences of it. Being successful opens us up to criticism, brings new responsibilities, and can lead to social exclusion. Striving to be successful also means the possibility of failure, which is scary too.

In this article, I will take a closer look at where the fear of success comes from, and more importantly, how to deal with it. 

What is the fear of success

Most people want to be successful in one way or another, and fear of success sounds – and often is – extremely irrational. Despite this, people may end up sabotaging their own success by procrastinating, giving up, and creating obstacles for themselves. 

Fear of success can also look like being on autopilot and going through the motions without much thought. A lack of goals or not working towards them can also be a sign that you’re afraid of success. 

Maybe you recognized yourself in that description, or maybe you’re still confused about how anyone could possibly be afraid of succeeding. To understand the fear of success, let’s take a look at the reasons behind it. 

Why would you be afraid of success?

Most often, it’s not really success itself that people fear, but rather the consequences of success. Most of us are aware that success doesn’t come without downsides. 

Success leads to criticism

For example, take one look at any celebrity’s social media post, and you’ll see that for every adoring comment, there is one filled with hate – success often goes hand in hand with criticism. 

Other than opening one up for criticism, success also tends to bring new responsibilities. At the time of writing this, Estonia has just elected our new president, and while it’s definitely a success for the President-Elect, it also comes with a massive weight on his shoulders.

Success leads to sacrifices

Even on a smaller scale, for every opportunity awarded by success, there is a new responsibility. And if you’ve ever run your local book club or homeowner’s association, you’re familiar with the double-edged sword of success. 

Success in one field can also mean sacrifices in others. Being successful at work may come at the expense of your personal life or relationships, despite your best intentions. Becoming the best in your field rarely comes without a certain kind of single-minded focus that leaves room for little else in your life. 

It should be noted that this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of people who juggle their professional and personal lives and are satisfied with both. However, there are also plenty of examples of sacrifices people have made for success. 

Feeling like you don’t deserve success

Imposter syndrome is another reason why we might be afraid of success. Imposter syndrome causes us to feel undeserving of our accomplishments and not good enough to be working in our chosen field, let alone be successful in it. It gets its name from the feeling of having somehow faked your competence and the threat of being exposed as the imposter you are, so it’s no surprise that it’s related to the fear of success. 

This spring, my colleagues nominated me for an award and instead of gratitude and love, my first reaction was confusion. Nothing brings out imposter syndrome quite like recognition, and I was initially going to rescind their nomination before my friends talked me out of it. 

By now, I have made peace with the fact that other people seem to value my work, but the first thing I was reminded of wasn’t my successes, but rather the mistakes I’ve made, and how they will be exposed for everyone to see and scrutinize.

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Why are some immune to fear of success?

Success brings new responsibilities and opens you up for criticism, yet not all people are afraid of success and chase it despite (or in some cases, because) of these setbacks. 

A 2016 article posits that a fear of success mainly comes from the fear of social exclusion. Being academically successful may alienate students from their peers and the study showed that family support and school connectedness negatively predict fear of success, meaning that social support is integral in protecting people from the fear of success. 

Self-esteem is another protective factor. A 2013 study showed that in university students, fear of success was negatively related to self-esteem and self-efficacy, as well as optimism. Interestingly, the study also reports a positive relationship between the search for meaning and fear of success, which can be explained by the fact that people with lower self-esteem are less satisfied with their lives and thus more likely to be searching for a meaning or larger purpose. 

How to deal with the fear of success

Supportive relationships and self-esteem help to prevent and curb the fear of success, and the good news is that both of those things are in your own hands to create and develop. And what’s more, they aren’t the only ways to deal with the fear of success.

Here are 4 tips on how to stop being afraid of success. 

1. Remember you’re not in it alone

Social support is often the best protection against any kind of fear or stress. Even if you feel like a fraud at work or school, having supportive relationships with your friends and family will help you face any challenges. 

Supportive relationships with your colleagues or peers are also important. I often feel that while my friends are always there to hype me up, they don’t really understand the intricacies of my work. I prefer to discuss work-related woes with my colleagues because they know exactly what I’m talking about, which makes their support a little more effective. 

2. Work on your self-esteem

While supportive relationships help to raise self-esteem, there are other conscious steps you can take towards it. 

For example, if you find yourself deflecting compliments, practice accepting them – a simple “thank you” can work wonders on your self-esteem if you practice it consistently. Try to be more proud of the things you do.

Affirmations like “I can do this” and “I am worthy of success”, or any other affirmation that targets your specific insecurities, can also help to raise your self-esteem and curb the fear of success. 

You can check out this article for a more in-depth guide to boosting your self-esteem. 

3. Manage your stress

Fear has more power over us when we’re already stressed and anxious, while also making us even more stressed and anxious. This means that stress management is a great tool for dealing with the fear of success. 

Managing your stress starts by monitoring your stress levels and noticing when it all gets a little too much. Try naming at least one change in your behavior prompted by stress and keep an eye on it.

For example, when work gets hectic, I stop making my bed in the mornings and let the dishes pile up in the sink. Those two things are usually a clear sign that I need to slow down and reevaluate some things. 

Once you learn how to monitor your stress levels, it’s a matter of finding a good stress reliever. It can be meditation, exercise, unplugging for the weekend, or creative endeavors like art or music. Whatever works for you and gets your mind off work or any other stressors. Play around with different methods and find the one that works best for you. 

4. Seek professional help

When casual conversations with friends and colleagues aren’t enough, seeking professional supervision is a great way to deal with the fear of success. 

During the supervision process, you can discuss your worries, thoughts, and feelings with a specialist from your own field, who has completed further training in supervision or coaching. It’s a great way to get insight and build professional confidence – I think I learned more during a year in my supervision group than my entire master’s program (this is an exaggeration, but not by much). 

If supervision isn’t common in your field, therapy or counseling work for any kind of fear, including the fear of success. During therapy or counseling, you’ll most likely explore the reasons behind the fear, learn coping techniques and work towards gradually conquering the fear. 

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Wrapping up

Fear of success is often a fear of the consequences of success – public recognition also brings criticism and a leadership role brings new responsibilities. It’s entirely possible to overcome the fear, though – maintaining healthy relationships, self-esteem, and stress levels are key. The fear of success is also still just fear, and different types of therapy and counseling can help to learn effective coping mechanisms so you can be the best, most successful version of yourself!

Have you ever allowed fear of success to stand in your way between you and your goals? What did you do to get over this hurdle back then? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

Maili Tirel AuthorLinkedIn Logo

School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“

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