Most of us want to set goals for ourselves, so that we can feel a sense of accomplishment when we achieve them. Having life goals also gives us something to work towards and creates meaning and purpose in our lives.
While many people do want to experience successes in life, some may have an underlying fear of success. For some people, anxiety surrounding personal achievement can begin to interfere with life functioning, and it may even hinder them from achieving their goals.
Here, learn about some reasons behind the fear of success, as well as ways of overcoming this fear so that you can reach your full potential.
What is fear of success?
The first step toward overcoming fear of success is being able to identify it. Experts in psychology have described a fear of success as occurring when people associate success with negative consequences. Linking success with negative outcomes can understandably lead to anxiety and fear.
It turns out that the fear of success is a concept that has existed for decades. In fact, in 1976, psychology researchers created the Fear of Success Scale, which uses 27 questions to measure this phenomenon. These original researchers described a fear of success as the motivation to avoid achievements, and more recently, researchers have defined fear of success as being a form of anxiety.
There seems to be agreement that negative beliefs about success can lead people to develop anxiety, which ultimately causes them to avoid success. In essence, a fear of success can actually lead people to shy away from achievement, because they have underlying apprehension and doubts.
Causes of the fear of success
So, there is a belief that a fear of success comes from underlying anxiety, but what is the reason for this anxiety? Experts in the field of mental health and psychology have proposed several explanations:
Lack of control
Early research with the Fear of Success Scale found that those who scored high on this instrument were likely to attribute success to external factors. This means that people who feel they have no control over their own success may tend to have anxiety surrounding achievement.
When people believe they have limited influence on their ability to be successful, they may feel defeated, as if they should not even try to meet their goals. Ultimately, they might end up engaging in self-sabotage through a lack of effort, when they could have otherwise been successful.
Fear of rejection
Sometimes, people may demonstrate a fear of success because they are worried they will be rejected for “putting themselves out there.” A recent study found there was a strong link between rejection sensitivity and fear of success, so some people who are hesitant about reaching their full potential may be holding back because they have a difficult time coping with the idea that some people may not like them or agree with them.
For those who fear rejection, it can be easier to hide in the background and remain mediocre, because it is less risky than setting lofty goals and facing the possibility that others may judge them negatively.
Another one of the causes of fear of success is a paradox called imposter syndrome, in which high-achieving individuals perceive that they are not deserving of success, because they feel that they are frauds and not truly as capable as others perceive them to be. There is also research supporting a link between imposter syndrome and fear of success, so if you experience feelings of guilt and worry that you are not deserving of your achievements, imposter syndrome could, in fact, be the reason behind your fear of success.
For women, fear of success may be linked to the desire to be modest. Psychology theorists have provided a great deal of evidence that women, when compared to men, feel they are supposed to behave modestly and avoid self-promotion.
Studies have suggested that women fear that there will be negative consequences associated with stepping outside of their gender roles, so they may avoid success, in order to comply with what they perceive to be expected of them.
Since wealth and high achievement may be associated with masculinity, rising to the top of the career ladder, or achieving some other form of success, can be perceived as deviant for women.
In some cases, people are simply worried about the increased responsibilities and demands that come with success. Certainly, receiving a promotion or obtaining a new degree or certification are worthwhile achievements, but they can come with additional duties, which can create stress.
A promotion may mean more stress at work, longer hours, or higher stakes. If you fear success, you may have underlying anxiety that you will not be able to handle increased responsibilities or demands of your time and energy.
Decades old research on the topic of fear of success in athletes suggests that many who have achievement-related anxiety have an underlying sense of guilt. In this sense, fear of success can come from the belief that reaching your full potential may make others feel bad or somehow inferior. Surpassing others with your achievements can create feelings of guiltiness, which ultimately leads you to avoid success to spare others’ feelings and keep your own guilt at bay.
If you’re experiencing anxiety surrounding success and achievement, one or more of the factors above may be contributing to your fears. At the very least, you may be struggling with underlying self-doubt or lack of self-esteem.
Consequences of the fear of success
Regardless of the reason behind it, the reality is that a fear of success can come with negative consequences. You may miss out on life-changing opportunities if you’re afraid to take risks or try new things.
Fear of success can also begin to negatively affect your mental health, as you may isolate yourself from others or build resentments if you are afraid to give in to others’ expectations that you become successful.
Among women, fear of success has been linked to lower earnings, as women who are afraid to step outside of stereotypical gender roles may accept lower paying jobs or demand less money for their work when compared to men. This can be detrimental for career advancement, as well as household finances. In general, fear of success can stand in the way of goals, as you may self-sabotage in order to avoid facing your fears.
Finally, fear of success is associated with lower self-esteem. Feeling as if you cannot control your own success, or as if you are not deserving of high achievements, can erode your confidence and lead you to judge yourself harshly.
Strategies for overcoming the fear of success
If you recognize that you struggle with signs of the fear of success, there are ways that you can cope and move past your anxiety, so you can achieve your full potential. If your fear of success has roots in imposter syndrome, try to practice some self-compassion.
Perhaps you’re a perfectionist, and you think you are undeserving of success because you have fallen short at times, but we all make mistakes. Chances are you wouldn’t look down upon a friend for honest mistakes; try to treat yourself with the same level of grace.
In some instances, it may be beneficial to work with a therapist to help you overcome your fear of success, especially if it is interfering with your goals. In one-on-one therapy sessions, a mental health provider can help you to process your emotions and identify the underlying anxieties contributing to your fear of success.
Therapy can also help you to reframe negative thoughts to reduce some of your apprehension related to personal achievement. For example, maybe you’ve convinced yourself that you’re not allowed to be more successful than other people. In therapy, you can alter this thinking process to become more accepting of your own success.
Coping with a fear of success can be difficult, and you may feel lonely. Rest assured that this is a phenomenon that mental health professionals have encountered repeatedly, and they are prepared to help you develop strategies for addressing any underlying fears or anxieties you may have.
If you’re living with fear of success, remember to practice self-care. Follow a nutritious diet, take time for rest and relaxation, and don’t feel guilty about making time for exercise and hobbies. When you care for yourself, you’ll be fully prepared to handle all that life throws your way, including the increased responsibilities that come with high achievement.
Jenni Jacobsen is a freelance copywriter with a master's degree in social work. She is licensed as a social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, and Marriage and Family Therapy Board. Jenni is all but dissertation (ABD) for her doctorate in psychology, and she teaches counseling and human behavior courses at the college level. Jenni aims to produce content that reduces the stigma surrounding seeking help for mental and emotional health problems.Read more