When I was in elementary school, I played in a tetherball competition with the girls in my 5th-grade class.
After beating several other girls, I was paired with the most popular girl in the class. All of the kids were standing around us watching our match, and I was ahead for most of the game.
It was thrilling to be kicking the butt of the most popular girl, especially since I wasn’t much of an athlete.
But as the match went on, all of our classmates started cheering for my opponent. Every time she scored, there was wild enthusiasm. When I scored, there was silence.
So I threw the game — I purposely messed up to allow her to score the winning point.
At the time, I wasn’t conscious of my reasons for purposely losing. It was a quick decision, but a decision triggered by an accumulation of experiences and beliefs about myself.
I was afraid of succeeding because . . .
- I would have undermined the social hierarchy in our class — the popular girl is supposed to win.
- I wasn’t a natural athlete, so if I won, I’d be challenging the perceptions of all of my classmates.
- Maybe I was more athletic than I believed, and by winning, I’d have to challenge my own beliefs about myself.
These things didn’t run through my brain in the moment, but in retrospect, I see how my fear of success was fueled by a fear of rejection, shame, and discomfort.
I didn’t want to tinker with the status quo.
Have you ever had an experience where you sabotaged your own success, even when you longed to be successful?
It’s a strange and disconcerting situation in which to find yourself. On the one hand you dream of accomplishment and glory. On the other, you overtly or passively subvert your every effort.
Why do we have a fear of success? Here are a few of the reasons:
You’re afraid of how success might impact you and your relationships.
People might reject you, become jealous, or see you as trying to be better than they are.
Others might demand more of your time or money or expect more from you than you want to give.
Potential for failure
You recognize the more you achieve, the greater the possibility for failure.
You fear climbing too high on the ladder of success because the fall will be much more painful.
Discomfort with change
When we’re successful, change is inevitable. We become different people in the eyes of others and in our own eyes.
Change can be deeply uncomfortable, as it requires a kind of death of the old self.
We fear this new person, and we fear how others will respond to our successful new selves.
Resistance to challenge
Success sets the bar higher than before. Now we are expected to perform at a higher level, which might mean harder work, more hours, and continued challenges.
We may have to give up more of our time and energy, and we aren’t sure we want that.
Matina Horner, a psychologist and former president of Radcliffe College, pioneered the concept of fear of success, particularly in relation to women and success.
In 1964, she conducted a research study asking men and women to complete a story about the future of a struggling medical student.The imaginary student was a man for the male participants and a woman for the female participants.
Horner determined the women in the study had high anxiety levels about allowing their imaginary medical student to succeed. They couldn’t reconcile their desire to excel with the 1960’s view that women who were ambitious and intelligent were unfeminine.
Although fear of success is more common in women, especially in the workplace, men are not immune from this fear and also undermine their potential in response to the possible consequences of success.
As author and spiritual thinker Marianne Williamson reminds, “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.”
If you suspect you might fear your own potential for achievement, these are some of the signs to watch out for:
- You feel guilty about successes and worry about those around you who haven’t experienced the same success.
- You neglect to share your accomplishments with others.
- You feel you aren’t really deserving of success.
- You procrastinate on projects that have the potential of bringing you recognition.
- You compromise yourself, your ideas, or your goals in order not to offend or undermine others.
- You believe success is temporary, and you won’t be able to sustain it.
It is true success can have negative repercussions. People might perceive you differently or even dislike you because you’re successful.
You might have to work harder to maintain your level of achievement. You will experience internal and external changes as a result of success.
However, the consequences of holding yourself back from success are far more profound and painful. You will experience a loss of self-respect and integrity.
You’ll likely feel resentment and anger toward those who impact your decision to hold back. And you might even jeopardize your professional and financial future.
You don’t have to accept your fear of success and live a compromised life.
With a few mind shifts, you can learn to embrace your greatness and pursue accomplishments without guilt, shame, or discomfort.
1. Reclaim authenticity.
If you desire success and have the potential for it, then choosing to avoid it is a choice to be someone you are not. Recognize that you can’t be happy and fulfilled by compromising your values, goals, or integrity.
2. Accept discomfort.
All change, even change for the better, involves some level of discomfort and uncertainty. We fear this discomfort will be unbearable or worse than it actually is.
By accepting the inevitability of discomfort, you minimize the effects of it. And the joys of success often make the discomfort far more bearable.
3. Release “shoulds.”
One of the success traps is the belief we should be someone or do something because others around us (or society) tell us so.
This goes back to being authentic and living within our integrity. Accept and embrace that you know best what is right for you.
4. Enjoy challenge.
We often fear challenges because we think we’ll fail or anticipate hard work or drudgery. However, challenges can be positive and enjoyable.
They stretch us, keep us focused, and put us in the state of flow where our minds are so engaged we lose track of time. Shift your thoughts about challenges to see them as positive rather than negative.
5. Reframe failure.
The fear of success is often a disguise for the fear of failure. To attempt success, you put yourself at risk of falling on your face.
However, if you view failure as a stepping stone to success, then there’s nothing to fear. Failure is evidence you’ve taken action and attempted a challenge.
It also provides opportunity for learning and growing, providing information you can use for your next success.
6. Don’t think, just act.
You might be sabotaging your success unconsciously. But on the other hand, you could be overthinking it.
Overthinking leads to confusion, “analysis paralysis,” and unnecessary procrastination. Yes you do have to think to analyze decisions and choose your best actions, but set a thinking deadline after which you must take action.
Don’t allow rumination to continue indefinitely.
7. Find your tribe.
Align yourself with people who aren’t afraid of success and who joyfully go after it, knowing they are fully deserving of everything success provides them.
Whatever you do, minimize your time with people who try to hold you back or who see life through a negative lens.
8. Celebrate every milestone.
Rather than diminishing your abilities and achievements, celebrate them.
Sharing your successful milestones and giving yourself a pat of the back isn’t a bad thing. It’s a motivator and an acknowledgment of your hard work and tenacity.
The people who want the best for you will celebrate with you.
9. Have a vision.
When you create a vision for the life you want and set goals to make that vision a reality, you have something specific to work toward.
In this way, you can see every success along the way as a stepping stone to realizing your vision. You have a passion for what you are doing, and nothing will hold you back.
Even if success feels uncomfortable to you, knowing your successes are part of a bigger plan can help minimize your discomfort.
10. Enjoy the journey.
Big successful benchmarks happen a few times a year, or maybe a few times a decade. They arrive and depart quickly.
Although it feels great to reach those benchmarks, the real, lasting fun is in the journey.
Take the pressure off of yourself related to success. Try to view every day as an opportunity for small wins and amazing experiences.
Savor the process as much as the potential outcomes. When you focus your time and energy on the present moment, you don’t worry about future success so much.
The choice to succeed or to hold yourself back from success both have consequences.
By holding yourself back, you diminish your true self and allow fear to control your life.
When you claim success, you’re creating your life on your own terms and sending the message to those around you that you won’t compromise who you are or the passionate life you desire.
Begin to change your thoughts about success and your reaction to it, and you’ll find the courage and enthusiasm to embrace the amazing person you are meant to be.