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If you were to poll your colleagues and friends about their desire for career-related success, there’s a high probability that they would say, “Sure, I want to be successful – doesn’t everybody?”

Funny thing is, although people may believe they want success in life, in relationships and in their careers, many are actually afraid that once they achieve success, they won’t be able to sustain it. This often-unconscious fear of success can manifest in people as procrastination, perfectionism, giving up or the inability to set and accomplish goals. So identifying your fear of success may actually evolve over time as specific patterns of behavior become known.

It's important to look at what’s behind this self-sabotaging fear of success, and what the underlying causes are. Let’s look at a few and what you can do to move toward the career achievements you’re really dreaming of.

Fear of being in the spotlight

People who are more introverted may be afraid of being thrust into the spotlight. Social awkwardness and the anxiety it produces prevents some people from wanting to receive the recognition they deserve for their performance. Being the center of attention and the increased company or public exposure it brings is too daunting, so fear of success keeps them in a place where they feel most comfortable.

Fear of failure

Fear of success and fear of failure are closely related. Some people are overly sensitive to their failures and have a hard time moving past them. They are afraid of success because, once they reach it, they worry about what will happen if they fail, or if they don’t perform well. Maintaining the level of performance that made them successful in the first place can produce a great deal of anxiety – something they don’t want to experience.

Negative childhood experiences

Some adults may have experienced a childhood during which they were criticized for never being good enough, being smart enough or accomplishing enough. Maybe children in their classrooms made fun of them if they were praised or were regarded as the “teacher’s pet.”  Being compared to siblings who performed better in school or classmates who were better athletes can have a long-term effect on a person’s confidence, hindering their efforts to achieve success .If you bring these feelings of inadequacy into adulthood, they can definitely affect your career growth and your ability to accomplish your goals.

Fear of backlash

There are people who fear success because they anticipate repercussions in their relationships. Women especially suffer from backlash avoidance due to age-old gender norms that praise men for their accomplishments, while women may be looked down upon and considered unworthy of their success. These gender norms often make women fear success because they link success to negative consequences and harsh judgments.

Imposter syndrome

Fear of success can also be tied to a person’s belief that they aren’t really as talented or successful as others think they are. They’re afraid others might discover that they are a phony, and they question their own abilities, believing that they’re undeserving of recognition or success. They fear success because their peers and superiors will find out that they’re really not as intelligent as everyone thinks they were. This syndrome is an equal opportunity fear – causing similar anxiety in both men and women.

Lack of self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the belief that you can achieve your goals. A lack of it often results in feeling that you can’t accomplish your goals, leading to fear of success. This lack of self-efficacy can be the result of poor training, ineffective role models or having a micromanager or overly critical manager who erodes trust. Those with low self-efficacy doubt their own abilities to achieve success, so they don’t even look for opportunities to succeed.

Fear of success often results in low self-esteem, missed opportunities, an inability to achieve goals and stymied personal and professional growth and development.

How to overcome the fear of success

The first step in addressing fear of success is actually recognizing that you have it! This requires keen self-awareness and looking into yourself to identify why you’re afraid to succeed. It’s important to identify the negative messages that play in your head. Where did they come from? A critical parent, teacher or coach? How do you respond to that negative self-talk?

Here are some actions you can take to help eliminate your fear of success so you can begin to achieve your goals:

  • Engage a therapist to help you understand subconscious reasons for your fear of success and what the root causes for it might be. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may help to identify the automatic negative thoughts you have that are limiting your success. When you can understand these negative thought patterns, you can learn more positive ways of thinking that can then help you achieve your goals. This type of therapy can help you visualize success in a more positive light and reduce your anxiety.
  • Keep a journal where you can write about what you believe is holding you back from attaining your goals. Write about your hopes and dreams and the worries you have about achieving them. What would success look like to you and how would reaching it benefit your life? How are you sabotaging your own success? Journaling can help you understand patterns of behavior and shed light on ways you can combat some of your negative thoughts about success.
  • Examine your negative beliefs and challenge them by practicing daily mindfulness and gratitude. Try as much as possible to avoid having negative people in your life.
  • Address stress and anxiety in your life by eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, exercising, finding ways to relax and wind-down, avoiding too much screen time and social media, and limiting your consumption of alcohol and caffeine.
  • Keep your head where your feet are. Projecting into the future is never a good idea. You know what they say about the “best laid plans”? You may experience anxiety due to unrealistic and unfounded fears of the future. Stay present and learn to deal with life as it happens, one day at a time.

Fear of success can limit your ability to reach and enjoy your full potential. Recognizing that you have this fear is the first step in addressing its causes and establishing a treatment plan to overcome it so you can live the life of your dreams.


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