Fear of Success & 3 Steps to Overcome It
Being fearful of success seems like a strange concept. Why would anyone be afraid of their own success? I mean, isn’t that what we are all hoping for anyway? Having all of our wildest dreams come true. What else could be better?
The truth is a lot of baggage can come along with achievement. Becoming successful in anything can mean more public exposure, greater responsibilities, and more pressure, both from yourself and others.
Anxiety, self-doubt, fear of failure, and many other negative thought patterns can arise. The success that was supposed to bring happiness and joy to a person’s life could turn into misery and pain really quickly.
When all of this is taken into account, having a fear of success starts to become more understood. But still, like any fear, it can be overcome. First by going deeper into what exactly the fear of success is, and the symptoms it presents.
What is Fear of Success
Similar to the fear of failure, the fear of success keeps us from going after our goals and stepping out of our comfort zone. It is a debilitating condition that is difficult to recognize and even harder to acknowledge.
Being honest with ourselves and admitting we are actually the ones keeping us from success due to an underlying fear is quite scary.
In my experience, the fear of success is actually an overshadowing condition that is caused by many underlying factors, the culmination of which leads to a fear of success. This is because we are not really afraid of the success itself, but all the side-effects that come along with it.
I believe that there are four key factors that lead to the fear of success: introverted nature, fear of failure, perfectionism, and guilt.
When we become successful in anything, more recognition is usually thrown our way. This can mean the requirement to speak more or be in the public eye more frequently. If like me you are of an introverted nature, then this additional public exposure could lead to increased levels of anxiety.
In order to avoid speaking more and being the center of attention, both of which are incredibly uncomfortable for an introverted person, the fear of success proves to be a comfortable alternative.
Fear of Failure
The fear of failure and the fear of success can go hand in hand. When working towards a goal, if there is a strong fear of failure present in an individual, then they will equally fear success.
Since the road to success is often paved with many failures, this can be taxing on someone who is affected greatly by their failures.
The resulting outcome is a fear of success since we know what will be faced along the way.
Also, fear of failure influences the fear of success due to what is imagined will happen once an achievement is reached.
When we achieve success in our field, it is natural to have the desire to retain that level of excellence. This can be quite difficult, causing us to imagine and fear the failure that would be felt if it were unable to be done.
The fear of this imagined circumstance can cause us to develop a fear of success.
"Since the road to success is often paved with many failures, this can be taxing on someone who is affected greatly by their failures. The resulting outcome is a fear of success since we know what will be faced along the way."
Perfectionism leads us to always be desiring more, never settling or being satisfied with what we have. While it is an admirable trait for someone to possess ambition, when it is taken to the level of perfectionism, things can turn negative very quickly.
When we have a perfectionist thought pattern, then our thoughts are fixated on how we are not good enough, and how we can achieve more. It’s funny to think that a condition that eliminates us from truly feeling successful causes fear of success.
But, that inability to appreciate what has been accomplished is what leads to fear.
The power behind the emotions that a perfectionist feels is extreme and can wear someone down over time. When we know that each success will be accompanied by this level of emotion, we begin to fear and avoid such results.
Guilt can be an incredible factor playing into the fear of success. We can feel guilty about many things when it comes to being successful. From increased attention to time away from our families.
While these may seem insignificant, guilt is a powerful emotion.
I used to and still do feel guilty whenever I am given praise or recognition for something. Rather than feel proud, I get a little embarrassed and guilty, especially when it is done in front of others.
Having this tendency can lead us down a path to fear any future successes as to avoid any further guilt.
Fear of Success Symptoms
You Tend to Blend In
A common behavior that individuals with the fear of success will display is the tendency to blend in. Whether it is a conscious habit or not, it is present.
This can take the form of blending in during meetings by not speaking up much, keeping a low profile in a classroom setting, or trying to not stand out in a crowd. By blending in, we are one amongst the many, and so no extra attention will be brought to us.
One of the main problems we run into with this symptom is that it is often a subconscious reaction to an uncomfortable or possibly comfort zone threatening situation. We may have had all good intentions of succeeding going into the event or activity, but the fear takes over once in the middle of it.
I dealt with this a lot in high school when I would go to showcase camps for baseball. These were big events where a hundred or more players would come to show their skills and abilities to college scouts.
The goal of these was to hopefully get a scout interested in you. If you could do that, then possibly you’d have a chance of getting signed to a team.
When in preparation for these events I would work diligently on my craft. Getting my swing how I wanted it and taking hundreds of ground balls.
But, whenever I would get into the showcase, I would begin to fade into the group. Rather than try and stick out, which is how you get noticed, my comfort zone felt extremely threatened and I sank back into myself. Ultimately blending in and never getting too much recognition out of these showcases.
Fearing success can mean that whenever we get close to achieving something, some part of us steps in and interferes. This interference is also referred to as self-sabotaging behavior.
There are different ways in which we can self-sabotage. Psychology Today points out some common forms, including procrastination, perfectionism, finances, relationships, and our work.
Sabotaging behavior is not always easy to spot, especially in ourselves, but it is quite common. You see it a lot in relationships, when one person gets uncomfortable with how fast or serious it is progressing, they will often take part in some bad behavior to sabotage the relationship.
As we get closer and closer to attaining success, our perceptions and thoughts about ourselves may not align with reality. Therefore, we must find congruency somewhere, and the result is usually self-sabotage.
You Make Excuses
As someone who fears success, it can be easy to find excuses not to do things.
All of these reasons something won’t work, or why we can’t go after that job or that person, are all just cover-ups for the underlying fear that is present.
It becomes easy to lie to ourselves because the lying allows us to stay in our comfort zone. Any type of new endeavor holds with it both the possibility of success and failure. When we fear success, we usually equally fear failure, and so making excuses is the only logical way out.
I have definitely been guilty of doing this myself. Out of fear, I would say how I could not make a certain team or play at a higher level.
There was no real evidence that I couldn’t. I just never gave myself the opportunity to try. Maybe I would have succeeded and been able to achieve something great, or maybe I would have failed. Either way, I will never know since I made excuses out of both the fear of success and failure.
Now that you are aware of what the fear of success looks like, and the signs and symptoms it presents, it will be helpful to outline a plan for overcoming the fear.
If through reading the description of symptoms, it became apparent that you might be dealing with the fear of success yourself, or someone close to you is, an outlined technique is useful to be able to follow.
3 Steps to Overcome Fear of Success
Step 1: Acknowledge & Accept
The first step in the process of overcoming the fear of success may be the most difficult. It involves a lot of honesty and introspection.
As previously stated, when we have a deep fear of success, it is easy for us to make excuses about why we cannot accomplish certain goals.
Since it is natural for us to then make excuses, hard work must go into peeling back these excuses and becoming honest with ourselves about why we have not been succeeding.
A good exercise to help with this is journaling.
Through journaling, we can spill our deepest thoughts and emotions onto paper. During this process, our internal fight for desiring success and making excuses as to why we cannot achieve it can be worked out.
No one has to read the writing, not even you if want to just write it once and then never look back over it again.
But journaling is a great place to safely work through our internal dilemmas and finally be honest with ourselves about the fear of success that has been keeping us from achieving our goals and dreams.
Step 2: Locate the Underlying Issue
As I have previously pointed to, the fear of success is fueled by underlying thought patterns. These ways of thinking create negative feelings around success and make us easy targets for fear.
In order to overcome our fear, we must pinpoint which of the four factors are the true drivers of our feelings. For a quick recap, the four factors that lead to the fear of success are an introverted nature, the fear of failure, perfectionism, and guilt.
Locating which of these factors is the root cause of your fear is a much-needed step. You may display one factor or maybe even all four.
For myself, I struggle with a mixture of them. My personality is very introverted, and I tend to be a perfectionist. The fear of failure is also something I’ve had to address.
Since this step is once again going to involve some introspective work, it is nice to have a solid strategy in place.
Track Avoidance Patterns
In his article on the fear of success, Nick Wignall talks about tracking your avoidance patterns related to the fear of success.
I think this is a fantastic way to understand the underlying reasons you fear success in the first place.
Our avoidance patterns show us at what points we are self-sabotaging and running away from our goals. This will help to get the brain thinking about why we fear success in the first place.
A good way to track avoidance patterns is, again, to keep a journal. Any time you feel yourself avoiding a certain situation or not taking a step you know would push you closer to your goals, write about what is going on, and what is causing the avoidance.
At this point, you will have accepted the fear of success and discovered which of the four factors are driving it. The next step will be to work on overcoming the factors that you have identified.
"Our avoidance patterns show us at what points we are self-sabotaging and running away from our goals. This will help to get the brain thinking about why we fear success in the first place."
Step 3: Work on Overcoming the Factors Causing Fear of Success
To have the best chance of overcoming the fear of success, it is best to take a deeper look at each of these four factors and see how they can be individually dealt with.
I want to start by saying there is nothing inherently wrong with being an introvert, as I am very introverted myself. However, there are some traits that I have found in myself that tend to get in the way and significantly lead to the fear of success.
These traits can be summed up by a fear of public speaking and being the center of attention.
While many people have a fear of speaking in front of groups, for an introvert it can be a situation as simple as speaking up at a table or telling a story to a group of friends that causes anxiety or nerves to build up.
So, how can you go about overcoming a fear that is so ingrained in your personality type?
Well, I must say this has been one of the most difficult aspects of my personality that I’ve been working on. I am not completely comfortable yet speaking in front of groups, but significant progress has been made in my small talk and communication skills.
There are two guidelines that I have been following which are quite simple but have helped me grow in this area.
Decide What You Want to Be
The first step in overcoming the fear of speaking in front of others as it inhibits your success is to decide what you want to be and how you want to act.
While it may sound like an obvious statement, this decision made in our mind is very powerful.
We must realize that however we want to act and however we want to be, we can. Our minds and the identity we hold of ourselves are the only things that keep us from acting a certain way.
So, if you want to be more confident or more outspoken, you just have to decide that’s what you want and do it.
This brings us to the second step, which is to face the fear.
Face the Fear
The second part of the equation may be the most difficult.
Once you decide how you want to act, it is now time to put yourself in the position to act that way, as to condition your mind to the new way of thinking and behaving.
The way I do this is by keeping a journal that I write in every night.
There I jot down what I did that day that put me out of my comfort zone and forced me to be more outspoken and outgoing, two attributes that the lack of has kept me from succeeding in the past.
Doing this becomes something like a game, and if I don’t have anything to write down by the end of the day, I feel a little disappointed. So, I will plan an activity to do the next day to ensure it will be done.
That brings me to an important point with this step.
In the beginning, plan out activities for yourself to do. This will initially allow yourself to be sure you are doing what needs to be done. Secondly, by planning, you can prepare yourself mentally for the situation you are about to be thrown into.
Fear of Failure:
To overcome the fear of failure, we must look to a three-step process to do so.
Much like with the fear of success, and something you will see a lot with mental barriers, acceptance is the first step in overcoming the fear of failure.
Before we can make any progress, understanding, and accepting the fact that the fear of failure is present within ourselves is important.
Locate the Cause
The second step is to locate the cause of the fear. A lot of times, we are worried about failing due to the perceived reaction from coaches, family members, peers, employers, or anyone else whose opinion we value.
Placing our attention on them and giving them the power to dictate how we feel about our performance greatly causes us to fear failing.
That is why, before any further steps are taken it is a must to discover what is the cause of our fear of failure.
"A lot of times, we are worried about failing due to the perceived reaction from coaches, family members, peers, employers, or anyone else whose opinion we value. Placing our attention on them and giving them the power to dictate how we feel about our performance greatly causes us to fear failing."
The third step is where tools and techniques will be utilized to help overcome the fear of failure.
Once we have accepted the fear and located the cause, we are now in a position to attack the fear.
This is done through self-talk exercises, visualization techniques, and mindfulness training.
Being a perfectionist can cause us to always feel inadequate. This type of emotion makes it hard to want more success because we know it will never be enough. As a result, the fear of success can begin to form.
In working to overcome perfectionism, there are 3 tools that can really help.
Focus on the Positives
The first tool is to focus on the positives.
If we are a perfectionist, then it is likely that the first thoughts that come to our minds are negative. They will consist of all the ways our performance wasn’t good enough and areas that need to be improved.
The best way to combat this is to make it a rule that you will not say anything negative until you have pointed out at least 2 positive aspects about yourself.
This will get us in the frame of mind of focusing on the positives rather than on the negatives.
Alter Your Self-Talk
As a result of constant negative focus, our internal dialogue can become full of mean and degrading thoughts about ourselves.
To work on changing our self-talk to be kinder and more compassionate, I have found affirmations to be a great help.
Make a list of positive phrases about yourself and repeat them out loud at least 2 times a day, or more if you would like.
Over time, these new thoughts will begin to take hold in your mind, and you will notice that your internal dialogue is no longer negative, but positive.
Learn to Enjoy the Process
Learning to enjoy the process is honestly one of the best skills you can learn. If you talk to anyone who has achieved success, they will tell you that one success only makes you hungrier for another.
So, as a perfectionist, this means you will never be satisfied in life and you’ll always be telling yourself you can do better. The only way to overcome that thinking is to be less end goal-oriented and start to enjoy the process along the way.
Guilt can be a terrible feeling to constantly deal with.
In terms of the fear of success, this guilt usually manifests by use feeling badly about succeeding if our friends or parents didn’t or feeling like we don’t deserve to succeed.
It is a very personal and unique feeling because everyone experiences guilt for different reasons. However, by learning to stay present and be proud of the success you have achieved, then guilt will start to fade away.
You see, guilt is attached to our focus on either a past event or another person.
If we bring our focus on ourselves, in the present moment then the guilt will no longer have a place to live.
Also, by being proud of the work you have put into achieving success, you can accept your achievement without feeling guilty about others not succeeding.
The fear of success, like many other thought patterns, can really get in the way of us achieving our goals. But as you now know, it is not the actual success we fear. It is other factors that accompany it that cause us distress.
So, by locating those factors and working to overcome them, we can once again strive for and be excited to achieve the success that we work hard to deserve.
I hope that this article has served you well and you learned a lot regarding the fear of success. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions or concerns you have on the fear of success or any other performance psychology topic. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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