Everyone has probably heard about the fear of failure. In fact, it has become such a popular explanation and excuse for not doing something that it often sounds almost trivial–even though it is a real psychological condition causing a lot of distress to those who suffer from it. At the same time, there is another, somewhat similar phobia which is often overlooked or neglected as insignificant: the fear of success.
At first glance, it might seem absurd: why would anyone be afraid of succeeding in his or her own life? Why would someone avoid–subconsciously or intentionally–accomplishing achievements, reaching goals, and fulfilling their dreams? The devil, as always, is in the details: the number of reasons for a person with the fear of success to worry is large. Unlike some people might think, many of these reasons are rational. Let us take a closer look at what may cause such a phobia and how it manifests itself.
To start with, let us figure out what success means. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines success as a favorable and/or desired outcome (Merriam-Webster). Expanding this definition, we may say that succeeding means achieving a desired result in a certain enterprise, activity, occupation, and so on. Each person has his or her criteria of success, but rather often they can be reduced to several categories: achieving a certain level of financial welfare; social recognition, fame, or popularity; professional growth and development; a happy marriage and parenthood, and so on. What is common for any form of success is that it can change a person’s life–and this is one of the main reasons why people can be so afraid of it.
All of us are familiar with the expression “to get out of one’s comfort zone.” Usually, it implies doing something unusual for us, something new, risky, etc. This is exactly what people with the fear of success are unlikely and unwilling to do. Success implies doing new things, being recognized in new ways, new workloads, new contacts, new demands and responsibilities–in other words, in case a person succeeds, there is too much novelty to deal with. Besides, getting into the spotlight implies being scrutinized, criticized, and discussed (99U). Public opinion can be harsh, even if “public” means ten people more than usual. Not everyone is prepared for such attention: even the fear of standing out, being a part of an ancient survival strategy, finds a way to manifest itself in such peculiar forms. It is much safer to stay on charted territory, going through the same routine over and over again, but keeping a habitual and comfortable lifestyle intact.
A part of this fear of novelty and change is related to personality. An individual who fears success might feel he or she is going to change beyond recognition upon becoming successful. To some extent, this is similar to the fear of death: seizing to exist as as the person who you are familiar with–and being “reborn” as a different individual, with a different set of values, habits, surrounding, occupations, and so on. This fear comes from a premise that the changes success brings require a person to completely abandon his or her older self (99U). In reality, change implies developing new qualities and habits atop of older ones. Your “older” personality does not disappear, you do not stop existing–you just acquire new traits, skills, and outlooks.
Sometimes the roots of the fear of success go deep into childhood traumas. If you were a talented child capable of writing poems or painting, for example, your peers might not accept you. Children can be cruel–not because they are evil, but because they have yet to learn compassion, empathy, and morals. So, they can attack those who stand out: because of fear, a lack of understanding, jealousy, or for other reasons. Anyways, a person who suffered from bullying in childhood may associate standing out, which success often implies, with being ostracized, and may try to avoid it by all means (LonerWolf). Self-doubt or feeling not worthy of success may also originate from childhood.
Whatever the reasons, there are several common symptoms shared by many of those suffering from the fear of success. You might have the fear of success if you ever noticed yourself do the following: 1) starting new projects without completing any of them, or struggling to finish at least one; 2) working on each of the projects occupies a lot of your time, but you never concentrate on any of them enough; 3) being rarely satisfied with your work, always managing to find what to criticize yourself for, or depreciating yourself in other ways; 4) talking about your plans or things you want to do instead of doing them (Lifehack.org). Along with these, there are several other factors that might also point at you suffering from the fear of success: being hesitant or reluctant about sharing your work with others; sabotaging your own progress (procrastinating, wasting your energy on doing numerous insignificant tasks instead of focusing on what is important to you); second-guessing yourself, being doubtful about your “worthiness” of success, and so on.
The fear of success is a cunning and stealthy enemy. People nowadays are aware of the fear of failure–but many underestimate its “twin.” Originating from childhood traumas, the fear of standing out, novelty, and being a subject of public attention, the fear of success manifests itself in a number of ways. Reminding yourself that you are worthy of success, or counselling a psychologist, might be an effective step to eliminate this fear.
“Success.” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/success.
“Are You (Subconsciously) Afraid of Success?” 99U, Behance, Inc., 9 Mar. 2016, 99u.adobe.com/articles/14347/are-you-subconsciously-afraid-of-success.
Luna, Aletheia. “12 Ways to Stop the Fear of Success From RUINING Your Life.” LonerWolf, 4 Dec. 2017, lonerwolf.com/fear-of-success/.
Chadwick, Kushla. “What to Do If You Have A Fear of Success.” Lifehack, Lifehack, 30 Aug. 2013, www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/what-you-have-fear-success.html.
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