Is Fear of Success A Real Thing?

On the surface, fear of success might seem ridiculous — what could be scary about success? But if you dig a bit below the surface, you might discover some powerfully limiting aspects of your own mindset.

Russell Bishop

It’s such a counter-intuitive idea of what we typically fear isn’t it - why would we ever be reticent to embrace success wholeheartedly?

But there’s lots of talk about ‘fear of success’ in coaching, and people swear they suffer from it, so it can’t be ignored. I’m a therapist, constantly exploring with clients, fears that sound inexplicable on the surface, which usually turn out to make perfect sense in their world. Let’s dig around and look at what ‘fear of success’ might actually be about, and what to do about it if it’s a real problem for you or someone you care about.

Author Steven Pressfield wrote of ‘the resistance’, broadly defined as the artist’s nemesis, the invisible force that gets in the way of progress and doing the work, and can cause us to battle with ourselves just to do that which we say we want to do. It’s like the anti-creator, or the anti-worker, far more powerful and complex than simple laziness, the fight to get stuff done against the force of the resistance, Pressfield says, can feel like WAR!

Let’s go deeper.

I’ve often wondered if fear of the unknown is part of what gets in the way, that we’re all comfortable and attached to the level of satisfaction and the level of suffering we experience now, and striving to make any change is just too scary and unsettling. Do we feel better camping permanently on the high slopes of what we’re good at, rather than risking a push for the summit and having to navigate the death zone of the highest altitude!?

It’s important to acknowledge how lonely it can be at the top, not on the day when you actually arrive — when everyone looks at you and claps — but on all those many, many days when you fought to go from good and naturally talented at your thing to truly tippity-top at it. Those are the lonely, lonely days. You don’t see many other climbers on those highest slopes above the average punters. You have to give up doing other things that are fun and social to slog it out, or you don’t get into that higher zone. And the ‘death-zone’ near the top, to use an Everest analogy, is anything but fun. It’s the unseen, non-glamorous, hard yards you have to survive, to arrive. The time people spend on the actual summit is very short, because the summit is small and rest of the thing is immense. The slopes are the real work, not the top.

Is fear of success also sometimes related to fear of change? Could be, for some. But what about when you very much want to shift up a level and you don’t like the spot you’re currently camped?

Sometimes when I’m with a client, I get an image of them weighed down and almost hiding under the heavy cloak of all their mistakes and imperfections — stuff we all have — but that some are more crippled by, than others. I suspect some of us fear that success would mean being truly seen by many, and all those things we don’t like about ourselves would be on show.

Perhaps we fear being seen and recognised for our achievements because we don’t want to be called out on our perceived imperfections? Of course that may be a baseless fear, but if we truly believe it, it could be enough to keep us small and mildly self-sabotaging any recognition.

Success generally gets attention. Letting people see you because you are successful means the wrong people will see you as well as those who wish you well. That can be scary too. It’s natural to fear the haters that come with the positive attention. You put yourself up to be seen, you cop the criticism and jealousy. The thing we call ‘tall poppy syndrome’ in Australia is alive and well. Someone stands up to be counted and there’s still that element in our culture, despite having been called out, that seems to want to cut their head off and keep them low.

Digging deeper, looking past social factors to the more personal, under the cloak of general low self-esteem and unworthiness that is an all too common garment in our world, lies not feeling worthy of being seen — a big unconscious sticking point in succeeding. Is there a part of you, you must ask if this is your struggle, that really doesn’t believe you deserve what you want? Do you feel like an imposter? Does a part of you think you’ve won it too easily, or faked it, and you’ll get found out?

If it’s a ‘yes’, you’ve got to start talking back to that stuff, and providing it with the ever-increasing evidence to the contrary about you, by continuing to do the work, and do your best. Tell your Inner Critic to sit down and take a break.

We all hit obstacles as we try to achieve something, and sometimes we hit glass ceilings — obstacles that are not supposed to be there and are only there for some because of gender or race or other factors. Everything seems to conspire to keep you from passing through and only a very tenacious spirit dares to say “Nup. I’m going on ahead. I won’t be stopped”. Many take the big hint the powers-that-be are trying to push upon them, take their bat and ball and decide it’s safer to go home. It’s a fair choice.

Then there’s the possibility that when you say you’re scared of success you’re actually afraid of losing your identity to yourself. You’re not scared of the success, you’re afraid of letting go of the anger, disappointment and feeling like a hopeless victim because those things have become, well, a little defining…I know there were times in my life where I had to shake myself out of the ‘pathetics’ — a hapless victim image I was forming of myself — born from the idea that I was entitled, and if I didn’t have the success I wanted it wasn’t my fault. I had to leave that one behind or I could never grow.

Now, here’s the really tough questions we have to ask ourselves if we think we might be afraid of letting ourselves succeed, don’t be offended by these, just be straight with yourself:

Is it that you’re actually not up for the hard work it would take to get there?

Is it that you love the thing you do, but not enough to push through the resistance?

Do you love the idea of adulation but not doing the thing? That’s a possibility too.

It doesn’t mean you’re all about ego, it might just mean you’re focused on the wrong pursuit for you, because the love is not about the thing for itself.

The thing has to be able to connect you to moments of flow, at least sometimes. Maybe you’ve got to love the thing more — enough to put in all the long lonely hours when others are sleeping or watching TV — to have those incredible results that a part of you dreams of having.

You have to do the work.

So, are you afraid of success, or of doing the work?

No judgment. Just have to ask.

The physical sensations of doing well can be scary, associated with anxiety, struggle and overwhelm. Succeeding often means struggling for a while, and nobody loves struggling. You have to push through. And frankly, generally pushing through sucks. You have to love the thing to keep pushing. You have to love you, doing the thing.

Finally, here’s the big possible reason for fear of success I’ve saved ’til last, because I think this is the one to reflect on most deeply. I think this one is often the key, core reason why we fear giving something our all, why we fear pouring our entire soul into our thing, working on into the night or in the early morning, while our loved ones are sleeping or when the rest of the world is having an ice cream and watching Netflix:

It’s the fear that if I give it everything I have, if I put in the work and do everything I can, night and day, to succeed, and I don’t make it, I will know for sure, I wasn’t the best.

That thought (although pretty out there!) might be at the basis of the resistance and the fear of success for many of us. To give it everything and fail would be to bust the myth of being the greatest the world has ever seen, the true champion, the hero of the universe. Perish the thought.

I would just be me at my level, not at Guinness Book of Records level. I’m afraid of knowing for sure, my limits. Because, if I never fully try, I can hold on to the hope and fantasy that I might have been the greatest in the universe, just unrevealed as the genius I always was.

Sound crazy? Yes, but sit with it.

There might be a grain of something in it…

To not fully try is to never fully know, is to remain in fantasy-land hope and not have to hit every limit, every boundary in the thing you love. You never have to know how good you are, or are not, if you live in fear of finding out.

In sum, I think the fear of success might really come down to the fear of losing the childhood fantasy of being great and special, and therefore lovable. The fear of accepting — we’re all the same.

Or are we?

Of course, that’s a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. We are all wanting to love and be loved, we all want comfort and satisfaction and to know joy, health and ease in our lives. Yet, we are all unique emanations of the energy of the universe, with our own loves and our own connections to flow, our own passions.

Perhaps what makes us the hero of our own lives is not whether we are the ‘best’ according to some arbitrary, common standard set by a governing body, the market, or a game-maker, but whether we’re the best at pushing through our own resistance.

I have glimpsed and felt in my soul, moments when it truly no longer matters what anyone else thinks, because all that matters is the flow. There is no external standard in living your passion and pushing your own limits, unless you impose one upon yourself. And that can be joy-crushing.

It is possible to ‘live for the joy of your own experience’ as teacher Carol Fox-Prescott told me. There is little else that truly matters, but loving who and what you love as fully as you are able, and with the least obstruction, the least resistance. Sometimes you have to push through, but you do it for the love and to find out who you are, not whether you’re better than someone else.

The victory of beating another is short-lived in your soul, but the victory of fighting through your own limitations and slogging away until you can say “that was my best’ stays with you always.

Don’t bother fearing success; Fear not knowing who you are, and what you can do when you give something you love, all you have.

Want to go deeper with me?

You’ll find my book Lovelands on Amazon.

Dr Debra Campbell is a psychologist and author of Lovelands, a self-help memoir about becoming your own hero. You can find out more at www.drdebracampbell.com

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