Are You (Subconsciously) Afraid of Success?


Have you ever found yourself on the verge of a big success, and noticed things starting to go wrong?  It begins with a feeling of agitation.  The tiniest details irritate you.  It becomes hard to concentrate.  You find yourself procrastinating over essential tasks that will facilitate your success.  You say something stupid in an important meeting.  You get into arguments with your partner and friends, who wonder why you’re being so “touchy.”  At some point, you look in the mirror and ask yourself, “What’s wrong with me?”

These are classic symptoms of a common phenomenon — fear of success.  What makes this condition so dangerous is that it’s so unexpected.  You want to be successful, right?  You’ve sweated blood to get to this point, so why would you sabotage yourself?  But in our success-oriented culture, we don’t give much thought to the fact that success can be downright scary.  We’re used to seeing fear as the enemy, so we do our best to ignore it and soldier on.  Which means the fear remains subconscious, expressing itself in the kind of “stupid” behaviors above.

So, what can you do about it?  Sometimes all you need to do is “out” the fear by admitting to yourself that you are, in fact, afraid.  Paradoxically, it can have the effect of helping you relax.  “OK, I’m nervous, which is pretty normal considering what’s at stake.” (Deep breath) “Right, what’s next?”  And sometimes it helps to focus on exactly what you’re afraid of, and find a way to deal with the perceived threat.  Here are three classic versions of fear of success, and what to do about them.

  1. Fear of Not Coping with Success.

Achieving success (however you define it) means you’re entering uncharted territory.  You’re putting yourself out there to be scrutinized and criticized, and exposing yourself to new pressures and demands.  It’s only human to wonder whether you’ll be up to the challenge.  A small anxious part of you would rather not take the risk.  That’s why, on some level, it’s more comfortable to stay in a familiar situation, even if it doesn’t feel great on the surface.

What to do about it:

Although the idea of success can be scary, the reality is generally easier to cope with than what you had before.  If you’ve been resourceful enough to keep yourself going during the tough times, you’ll probably be able to do the same with the good times.  Yes, you’ll have to make changes and learn new things, but you’re creative and adaptive enough to do that.  If you experience doubts, remind yourself of all the extra resources success will bring you:

  • A boost to your confidence
  • A bigger, more powerful network
  • A healthier bank balance
  • A growing brand and reputation that opens new doors
  1. Fear of Selling Out.

Creatives have a complicated relationship with success.  On the one hand, you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t ambitious to succeed; on the other, you don’t want success at all costs – especially if it means losing your artistic integrity.  Whatever choices you make, if you achieve any kind of public success, it’s a sad fact that someone, somewhere will be thinking (and even saying) nasty things about you – including accusations of “selling out.”

What to do about it:

First, accept that you’ll never please everyone.  Backbiting is part of the price of success. Second, make sure you are comfortable with your choices.  Make a list of all the things you would consider “selling out.”  Then keep the list handy. Provided you don’t do the things on that list, you can sleep soundly at night.  Whatever anyone else says about you.

  1. Fear of Becoming Someone Else.

Because we habitually put successful people on pedestals, the idea of becoming “one of them” can feel daunting.  You start to worry that you’ll turn into someone else, a person your friends and family won’t recognize—and won’t like.  This fear is understandable.  After all, if you were satisfied with the person you are now, why would you want to change?  But it’s also founded on a false premise: that change is about leaving your old self behind and replacing it with a completely new one.  Change is more complex than that.  You are more complex than that.

What to do about it:

Instead of thinking about change in terms of subtraction (losing your old self), think of it in terms of addition.  You are about to discover and develop new facets of your personality — adding to who you are and what you bring to the world.  And when you add to who you are, your life only gets richer.  Getting used to your new role will feel tingly and exciting.  And you can still be the person you’ve always been to family and friends. Spending time with them will feel like slipping on your old comfy jeans after spending time in your trendy new clothes.

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