The fear of success is real. Although, you probably don’t even realize it’s happening.
Have you ever started something you were excited about, only to get stuck and drop it a few days later? Or procrastinated so badly that you have to scramble at the last minute to complete something and then hate yourself for doing subpar work?
Then it happens a few times and becomes a pattern, a negative feedback loop. “I know I can do better than this, but why can’t I just do it? Why am I always frantically trying to complete my projects at the last minute when I’ve had plenty of time and know exactly what I need to do to get it done?”
I can’t tell you how many times in the past that I’ve asked myself those same questions.
I’m sure everyone understands and has dealt with the fear of failure. But what we don’t think about is the subconscious fear of success. It’s real, and you’re not alone.
Success is much more complex than failure. It doesn’t take much work to fail, but it takes multiple things going right to be successful. Success also requires change, and change can bring both positive and negative with it.
Many times, the fear of success is the fear of being out of control, or being in control and not knowing how to handle it. It’s also about the fear of the side-effects of success. “If I accomplish my goal, what then?”
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. – Marianne Williamson
Starting a new project feels great, but putting in the work is scary. Or once you do achieve the success you’re looking for, you feel extremely vulnerable and only then does the fear begin to manifest itself.
Early in my career, I was tasked with putting together a large bid package for one of our major customers. It involved working with multiple departments, multiple offices in different time zones, and was on a pretty tight schedule. Winning this work was a big goal for the office and a big deal for my career.
I started off with a bang; organizing meetings with the key players, setting up tasks and a schedule, etc. But after a while, I was having trouble keeping anything on track, and deadlines started slipping. I was checking out mentally. I almost completely shut down. What was going on? Why wasn’t I still laser focused on the massively important project?
Looking back, I realize that I was afraid of what would happen if I was successful. How would I top this after leading this effort successfully? Are they going to want me to lead the subsequent project? And how am I going to do that when I don’t have much experience?
There are plenty of other examples. Have you ever started a workout schedule only to fall off after about a week or two? I can’t count how many times I have. Many people fear success at losing weight because they don’t know how they’ll handle becoming more attractive to others, having to buy new clothes, or having to deal with the perceived stress of maintaining the newfound weight-loss and lifestyle.
Or maybe it’s rooted in your perfectionism. Nothing is ever going to be good enough, so you never finish anything. You spend months tweaking the design of your website and not launching because deep down you’re afraid of putting yourself out there.
No matter how it manifests itself, fear of success is more common than you think. Over a century ago, in his 1916 essay, “Those Wrecked By Success,” Sigmund Freud remarked at how “surprising, and indeed bewildering, must it appear when, as a doctor, one makes the discovery that people occasionally fall ill precisely when a deeply-rooted and long-cherished wish has come to fulfillment. It seems then as though they were not able to tolerate their happiness.”
What you can do about it
First, you need to remember that ultimately, success is easier to deal with than failure (or where you are now). It takes work and some new skills, and in the end, it will bring you the things that you want. But you won’t get there by standing still.
To create success, you first must face and eliminate the fear. Fear that’s left unchecked will grow stronger, and create a negative feedback loop that will create more fear.
In his book, The Winner Effect, Ian H. Robertson describes what he calls “conditioned stimuli,” anxieties that are triggered by other activities linked to the thing you fear. If you’re afraid of public speaking, the fear can be triggered by seeing your slide deck or just walking into a lecture hall. When you avoid something you fear, whether consciously or subconsciously, you automatically reinforce the avoidance behavior. So whenever you avoid working on something because of a subconscious fear of success, you actually reinforce the habit of procrastination. As time goes by, a vicious cycle forms and it becomes harder and harder to get yourself to act.
Start by looking at your inner dialogue. What are you really afraid of? What’s behind your fear? Is there something in your past that’s causing you to hold back? You need to find the source of your anxiety and rid yourself of this negative self-sabotage and stop it before it settles in your mind.
Did you have a teacher, parent, coach, or someone else always telling you that you weren’t good enough, or that you’d never make it? Or they were never satisfied no matter what you accomplished?
Think back to when you were a child. You dreamed big and never gave a second thought about it not coming true, or not being able to accomplish the goal. Dig deep and understand where that internal dialogue is coming from. Understanding where it comes from will allow you to discard this subconscious negativity.
Or maybe it’s the side-effects of success that are holding you back. In the weight loss example, maybe after looking at it, you don’t think you’ll be able to afford new clothes. This is a real consequence that you’ll need to plan for. Take the time to identify any potential negatives and plan for the ones most likely to come up. Once you have a way to deal with the problem, you can let your subconscious mind relax about that part of the problem.
For me, sometimes it takes tough love. My mind is always trying to make excuses to not work out or to give in and eat an extra slice or two of pizza (or the entire pizza). Sometimes I just have to buck up and not let myself give in to my self-sabotaging behavior. I often remind myself of a quote from Jocko Willink on Tim Ferris’s podcast: “If you want to be tougher, be tougher.” I know even if I don’t want to work out at that moment, once I get started, I’ll enjoy it. Once you start down the path, it’s easier to keep going.
And no matter what, enjoy the process. Be mindful of your day to day and not just your vision of the finish line. Celebrate your wins along the way (both big and small), and continue to build on them. Be thankful for how far you’ve come in your journey.
What’s holding you back from your goals? What strategies have you used to overcome your fear of success?