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Is Fear of Success Holding You Back?

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Thumbs Up!Often, we talk about how fear of failure can hold us back. However, in recent years we’ve heard a lot about how failure can precipitate growing experiences. In our careers, and especially in entrepreneurship, failure is an accepted part of getting ahead.

A bigger problem might actually be your fear of success.

As crazy as it may seem, there are those who are afraid of the consequences of success. The Chronicle of Higher Education (P. Monaghan, “Nothing to Do with Brightness,” 1989) pointed out at one time that half of those who went in for Ph.D.s didn’t finish. Instead, they stopped at “all but dissertation” (A.B.D.) status.

This fear of success might affect you more than just not finishing a degree. It could hold you back in your career, or keep you from achieving the success you want with your business.

Are You Afraid of Succeeding?

Sometimes, the fear of succeeding is tied to concerns about the consequences of success. Perhaps you are worried that you will have to go on to do bigger and better things. Often, once you have achieved a certain level of success, you are expected to continue along those lines? What if you can’t measure up?

Another concern is that success often comes with competition. When you are successful, that can put you in contact — and competition — with other successful people. Many people find themselves stressed out by such competition. It makes sense, then, that it can be easier to simply stay the course, keep your head down, and not worry about standing out too much.

Finally, fear of owning your success can hold you back. In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg points out that many women are afraid of looking arrogant when they own their success. But this is something that can affect members of both genders. The fear of owning your success can play down your abilities, and lead you to lose ground to those who are more confident.

If you let your fear of success, or your fear of owning your success, get in the way, you could find your career stalling.

Overcome Your Fear of Success

Susanne Babbel, a psychologist who specializes in depression and PTSD, offers some great tips for overcoming your fear of success in Psychology Today:

  • Think about a time when you were successful and excited when you were younger. Remember the good feelings, and hold on to them.
  • Think about a time more recently when you were excited about a success, and hold on to the feelings you remembers.
  • Consider an event (not traumatic) that was overwhelming.
  • Compare the differences between the success event and the other event, and notice how you prefer the success event.

You will need to recognize the feelings that are keeping you from success if you want to overcome them. Be honest with yourself, and pinpoint the reasons that you are holding yourself back.

Then, look forward. Do you want to achieve success? Think about how you define success, and then take the steps to make it happen. When you start feeling the fear, think about positive outcomes of your success, and how your life will improve.

Have you ever felt afraid of success? How did you move beyond it?

(Photo: n2linux)

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9 Responses to “Is Fear of Success Holding You Back?”

  1. I don’t really see how a fear of success is a factor in the ABD phenomenon. Most people who fail do so because they are unable to keep themselves focused and motivated on a project of that scale without substantial hand-holding for the first time in their lives. It’s more about discipline than fear.

    • Steph says:

      There are many reasons why one ends ABD. I’ve seen some quit due to mental breakdowns, and others who have accepted offers from their dream job before finishing their degrees. Many of the latter claim to be working on their document, but most fail to complete this final hurdle, usually due to a lack of time from a highly demanding job.

      So, while I agree with you in that it’s not so much the fear of success holding these people back, I disagree with what causes a student to end ABD.

  2. I can see how fear of success might be a problem. That’s a good plan for dealing with it. NLP strategies, right? I do think my problem is that I have such a gradual learning curve. I need to do things many many times before I can do them consistently and effectively.

  3. I was always nervous about joining a Toastmasters group because I felt I wouldn’t be good enough when doing presentations. It took me quite a while before I finally visited a meeting and once I did it was worth it. For me the easiest way to move forward is to ask myself “What is the worst that could happen?” and not let my imagination run wild:)

  4. admiral58 says:

    Lack of confidence certainly holds back many people.

  5. Scott says:

    I think this is a problem for many successful organizations and businesses that reach that critical moment in their history where they have been chasing their competition for a long time and finally break through and find themselves on top. They celebrate for a day and then go “crap, now what?”.

    Success sometimes is viewed as being an end-goal, the top of the mountain and the end of the road. People may fear success because they associate it with the end of a journey and are uncertain what the next journey is or where it will go.

  6. I think a lot of it boils down to a lack of confidence for many. I know it can for me at times, especially in terms of public speaking. Beyond that, I really do not have an issue with it.

  7. My fear of success revolves mainly around public speaking. I feel confident I could do a lot of jobs but the ones with a good salary also deal with presentations. I prefer to be a person behind the scenes and let someone else take the spotlight.

  8. Shirley says:

    A fear of public speaking is not at all uncommon and the cure is simply to know and understand what you are talking about and believe that it is true. The very best “hey, I-actually-can-do-it” speech will be about something that you actually experienced. The confidence level shoots up immediately!


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