When You Fear Success
So many of us fear failure—which, of course, makes sense. Even though failure is a vital teacher, falling on our faces can feel humiliating, demoralizing and isolating. But many of us also fear success, which can seem like a surprising fear. Because why would anyone fear accomplishing something amazing or noteworthy? Why would anyone fear getting a promotion or getting recognition?
Our fear of success is often subconscious, according to Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. We tell ourselves and others that we want to write that book or become a supervisor, but we sabotage our progress. We do everything but start writing. We wait until the last minute to start our work projects.
For some of Howes’s clients, success is seen as a loss. Because it means leaving their comfort zone—a zone of craving, striving, not getting and talking about their goal. It also means joining a different club—a club of individuals they might’ve envied and disliked or despised. “Underdog is a comfortable space for many, while success is dangerous territory,” Howes said.
And it means extra scrutiny. “Many people want success for genuine reasons, but they fear the microscope they’ll be under if and when that success is achieved.”
According to San Diego couple and family therapist Kelly Hendricks, MA, we also might not trust ourselves to maintain our success or to live up to our own and others’ standards. We’re afraid of the other shoe eventually and inevitably dropping, and the fall being too steep. We play all kinds of what-ifs in our minds: “What if people find out I’m just a one hit wonder and have nothing else relevant or important to say, do, or share? What will people think or say about me then? Will I be seen as a fraud?”
These are all understandable fears, and you’re certainly not alone in experiencing them. Below, Howes and Hendricks share what you can do.
Acknowledge the losses. Howes suggested asking yourself: “What will I lose if I become successful?” This also helps you identify why you might be sabotaging yourself. For instance, you might acknowledge that you’ll be moving out of your comfort zone and the all-too familiar space of striving, he said. “Your identity will change from striver to achiever. You won’t be an underdog anymore.”
Lovingly accept where you are. Often the things we tell ourselves when we’re stuck only solidify our paralysis. They only discourage us and make us feel even worse about ourselves. For instance, your natural instinct might be to say, according to Hendricks: “Come on, why are you being like this? You’re acting stupid; just do this already!”
What’s more helpful is to acknowledge just how hard change is: “It’s OK that I’m stuck, frozen, and feel scared. It makes so much sense why I feel this way, and I’ll come out on the other end with this just like I have with many other things in my life.”