Are you trapped in the maddening cycle of fearing failure … but also fearing success?
Most of us are familiar with the feeling of lurking dread that accompanies fearing failure. The feeling of rejection and inadequacy that comes with being turned down or losing an opportunity is understandably extremely nerve-wracking.
But what about the fear of success? Why do we fear our own power? And how can we stop unconsciously sabotaging ourselves?
What is the Fear of Success?
The fear of success is a psychological phobia that stems from a combination of childhood conditioning, trauma, certain personality traits, mistaken core beliefs, and low self-worth. People who fear success are afraid of what success represents, i.e. excessive attention from others, judgment, fear of the unknown, social pressure, and change of one’s self-image.
Ultimately though, fear of success stems from low self-worth and the absence of self-trust.
Famous psychologist Abraham Maslow nicknamed the fear of success the “Jonah Complex,” which is named after the biblical character Jonah who tried to evade the decree of God. In other words, like Jonah, fearing success comes down to avoiding one’s destiny.
10 Signs You Have a Fear of Success
Here are some signs to look out for:
- Refusal/dislike of setting goals
- Conveniently “forgetting deadlines”
- Laziness and lack of motivation to complete projects
- Constantly second-guessing yourself
- Addiction to procrastination
- Avoidance of responsibility
- Turning down good opportunities without a good reason
- Limiting yourself to jobs, projects, and relationships you’ve long outgrown
- Sabotaging yourself when you’re on the brink of success (e.g. making excuses, calling in a “sick” day, excessive alcohol or drug use, closing down, negative self-talk, creating dramas, etc.)
How many of these points can you relate to?
Why We Fear Our Own Power
Spiritual author Marianne Williamson has a beautiful quote which perfectly elucidates the fear of success:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine …
Fearing success is basically fearing our own power. And although it’s rare to ever hear someone say “I’m scared of success,” I’ve observed this fear play out in people (including myself) countless times. Usually, fear of success looks a lot like garden-variety procrastination and insecurity. But it’s so much more than that, especially when it becomes a habit of behavior.
So why do we fear our own power? Here are some common reasons why:
- We feel like we’re not worthy of success. Our inner critic makes us feel like we shouldn’t even try to begin with. And even if we do “win,” we still don’t feel worthy or appreciate the experience … so what’s the point?
- We’re scared of the limelight. Introverted people in particular dislike being the center of attention, which is why success can seem so unappealing. If you’re socially anxious or shy, you probably also prefer to stay in the shadows.
- Self-doubt. We don’t trust in our strengths and abilities, and therefore don’t have enough confidence to move forward.
- Loss of identity. Many people fear who they will become when they achieve success. Attaching to a mediocre self-image is much more safe and appealing than jumping into the unknown. Many people who achieve what they’ve always wanted are often confronted with the question “who am I?”
- Traumatic childhood experiences. As a child, we may have been bullied, teased or punished for being at the top of the class or succeeding in some way. These traumatic memories connected to success make us phobic and afraid of achieving our full potential as adults.
- Fear of stirring the pot. What happens when we get ahead of our partner, family members, friends or colleagues? The dynamics of our relationships change. Sometimes our success triggers jealousy, anger or even revenge in other people. These changes in our social lives can feel intimidating and threatening, particularly if we don’t want to cut ties with people.
- Fear of being “unspiritual.” Many people seem to believe that being “spiritual” is about laying low, being timid, self-effacing, and soft-spoken. For example, how many times did you hear biblical proverbs such as “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and “It is better to give than to receive” growing up? While these proverbs carry some truth, they can easily be taken out of context and used as a way to deny our need to actualize ourselves as spiritual beings. In the new age and self-help communities, there is also a massively complicated relationship with money and spiritual growth. People who strive for personal success are often thought of as “sell-outs,” “overly-ambitious,” and “selfish.” But while being ruled only by success and achievement may be a misguided way to live, there is nothing wrong with wanting to experience self-fulfillment.
It’s also worth noting that our parents, teachers, and societies play a big role in how repelled by or driven towards success we are.
How to Stop Fearing Success
The fear of success is often something that develops without our conscious awareness. So don’t beat yourself up: it’s not your fault. However, now that you’re aware of these unconscious self-sabotaging tendencies, you can work to intentionally bring about change.
Here are some simple but dynamic ways to overcome the fear of success:
1. Explore and counteract negative beliefs
Fear of success is almost always linked to low self-worth, and low self-worth is always driven by a mistaken belief that we carry inside. Spend some time exploring your core beliefs and cognitive distortions. Try to narrow down these beliefs to a single sentence that summarizes how you feel about yourself, e.g. “I can never do anything right,” “I don’t have what it takes,” “I’m not worth it,” “Change is bad,” and so forth.
Once you have identified your hidden beliefs, spend some time counteracting them. You might like to make a list of signs that prove your belief isn’t true. Just think back to the past and recall situations or experiences that disprove what you believe. You might also like to use affirmations that feel authentic to you such as, “I am reclaiming my power every day,” “It’s OK for me to succeed,” “It’s safe for me to win,” “I respect myself and honor my desires,” “I can do this,” “I accept myself no matter what” etc.
2. Vomit out all of those thoughts and feelings
Journalling is a great form of catharsis that can help you gain a clearer perspective. Record how you feel in a journal: explore questions such as “what is holding me back?” and “what can I do to move past this fear?” By making a regular practice out of this you will unburden your mind which will help you to feel more calm and relaxed.
3. Fast-forward time
Fast-forward to your deathbed. Will you regret not taking chances and avoiding opportunities to fulfill your potential? Remember that life is unpredictable. For all we know, you could die tomorrow. I know this sounds morbid, but it’s true. Life is precious and the time we have on this earth is finite and uncertain. So use your time wisely. You don’t need to throw yourself into the deep end, but you do need to take small and manageable steps towards whatever is calling you.
4. Think about past successes
Sometimes simply recalling small (or big) achievements that we’ve had is enough to remind us that we have what it takes. You could even make a list of every past success that you were proud of, and use this list to motivate you.
5. Make small daily changes
If the root of your fear of success is change, try to incorporate small changes into your life each day. For example, eat something new for lunch, watch a new program you’ve never showed interest in before, change the topic of your conversations, drive a new way to work, go out eating someplace different. By accustoming yourself to change, you’ll find it easier to acclimatize to success.
6. Accept the inevitability of discomfort
Standing out in the limelight can be extremely uncomfortable, especially if you’re a self-conscious person. But also realize that discomfort is inevitable at the beginning, and it won’t last forever! Yes, you’ll feel awkward or embarrassed at first, but you’ll quickly learn to adapt to this feeling and it will go away. Think of success as exposure therapy: there’s no gain without a little pain. And even that pain is fleeting.
7. Success isn’t a destination
Many people who have the fear of success mistakenly believe that success is some final point, some absolute “destination.” But it isn’t. Success is a journey; a path that we walk each day. Sometimes we have good days, sometimes we have bad days, but ultimately there is no final destination. Realizing this, in and of itself, can help reduce the anxiety surrounding success.
8. You have the right to say “no”
Sometimes the idea of success is accompanied by the fear of taking on too many responsibilities or being inundated by others. Remember, you have the right to say “no.” It is within your power and capability to drawn boundaries and create a balanced life. Success isn’t the cause of burnout, people’s mindsets are.
9. Notice ways that you sabotage yourself
Start paying attention to all the different ways you try to avoid success. You might like to journal about these forms of self-sabotage or creatively express them through art or another medium. The more aware you are of these self-sabotaging patterns, the more easily you will be able to interrupt them with more constructive activities.
10. What is the root of your fear?
Go back to the previous section “Why we fear our own power.” Think very carefully about which of the points you resonate with. You might even connect to numerous points (which is also normal). Spend some time exploring the root of your fear. Ask yourself questions such as “when did this fear start?” “who or what triggered this phobia?” “how has this limited my life?” “how am I playing out this fear in my current life?” and “what can I do to overcome this fear/belief?” By familiarizing yourself with the root of your fear, you’ll be able to consciously work towards change. I recommend finding books, youtube videos, counselors or workshops that can help you work through your specific issue.
11. Stay away from negative people
Judgemental and snarky people have a way of weighing us down and fuelling our self-doubt. Wherever possible, reduce your contact with negative people or even remove them from your life. There is a big difference between friends who critique and “friends” who are unnecessarily critical. Surround yourself with supportive people who encourage you to fulfill your dreams. If you can’t do this, reduce your contact with them as much as possible.
12. You are part of something bigger
Sometimes it helps to take the focus off yourself and realize that you are part of something much bigger: you are on this earth to further the development of humankind both physically/materially and spiritually. By reframing your perspective, it’s often much easier to embrace success because it’s no longer just about you, it’s about We.
I hope this guidance helps and inspires you. Remember to take this path one step at a time. And don’t forget that success is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the little moments of success along the way, because they are ultimately what makes us happy.
Any stories or advice to share about this topic? Comment below.