Is Fear of Success Real?
It doesn’t seem intuitive to fear exactly what you want. But I assure you the fear of success is real, and there is a good chance it is holding you back right now.
You know the fear of failure, don’t you? Those of you who have suffered a major setback or flop in one or more areas of your life probably know this one pretty well. That fear of disappointment, embarrassment, shame, or even public humility can hold you up.
However, the fear of failure isn’t the only thing that holds people tight. Spoiler alert, it’s not a lack of willpower or motivation either. As with many challenges in life, the subject is rarely what you think it is.
What is fear of success anyway?
It is not the success itself that you are afraid of, but the potential price that you will have to pay for it. I see that very much in my health coaching clients. Their fears often manifest as concerns about the changes and consequences that may arise if they throw their target out of the park. Even before we even start our sessions, they’re obsessed with the regular workouts, the awkward conversations about why they’re not eating bread, the glare they get from jealous friends who no longer want to associate with them for making each other have “changed”.
Sure, there are many obvious reasons to succeed, but depending on your surroundings, self-efficacy, and internal self-talk, your fears can override your actions
Fear of success and self-sabotage
People love routine. So much so that you may be concerned about anything that’s out of your comfort zone – or your ability to control it. Because of this, you may actually be opposing opportunities and sabotaging your own success for fear of what will be different when you succeed.
Self-sabotage can look like:
- Stop. Make time for breakfast, then gradually return to your old toast-and-OJ methods.
- perfectionism. Share your big plans to start with an hour of meditation each day and then never really act on it.
- Hesitate. Prioritize low-demand tasks before high-priority tasks (i.e. don’t exercise because the plants need watering today).
- excuses. Justify your third glass of wine because you had a tough day.
It’s scary to think that it is possible to have anything you could want in life, especially when self-doubt is a recurring part of your psyche. But let me be the first to tell you that you can have it. In fact, you deserve it and you can fully cope with any changes that arise.
Why should I be afraid of success?
As I mentioned earlier, the fear of change is one of the most common reasons you might be consciously or unconsciously sabotaging your own success. The brain loves predictability – and that unpredictability is enough to derail anyone’s well-intentioned plans from the start. Other reasons you may fear success include:
- Not feeling good enough or worthy enough
- Reminders of being told you don’t deserve success
- I worry about being judged or losing friends
- You are in a situation that you cannot handle
- Being noticed more (feeling uncomfortable with attention)
- Having to work harder and feel more pressure
- Worrying about other people’s expectations of you
- I don’t want to raise your hopes if you don’t succeed
- Afraid that the grass won’t really get greener
- Thinking that others can’t be successful when you are (the “not enough for everyone” mindset)
- Afraid of disappointing other people if you can’t get through
- All limiting beliefs in general
Maybe it’s the way your family talks harshly about people who don’t eat “normal food.” Perhaps it is your internal dialogue that tells you that you are always a “snacker” or uncoordinated. Or maybe you got your health kicked up at some point, but had a terrible experience – and it would be too painful to do it all over again.
The original theory about fear of success came from a PhD thesis by MS Horner, specifically on women and success, in which she examined the relationships between the motive to be good and the need to perform. In her research, Horner used a modified thematic apperception test that relied on verbal prompts instead of visual cues and then rated their participants’ responses to the results.
She found that 65% of women responded negatively to the rating because of their perceived negative impact on success. She reported that “Women in general learn early on that success in certain areas is a deviation from the prescribed social norms and leads to social criticism. “
Keep in mind that this study was conducted in the 1970s and we have come a long way since then, but the fear of success one way or another is widespread among both men and women. And really, I would argue that it has held us back for far too long.
Ready to face your fears?
If you want to overcome your fear of success you need to be clear about what is causing it. Perhaps you already know the source or haven’t even realized that you are sabotaging yourself. Either way, these steps will help you figure out what is holding you back so you can move forward.
Step 1: ask what could happen if you succeed.
Really think about it – the positives, the negatives, and everything in between (there is no wrong answer here). The key to moving forward is realizing where you are. So take 20 minutes to write down possible consequences of losing weight, strengthening, or whatever you’re aiming for. Things feel a lot more overwhelming when they are circling in your head and this is a great way to pin them down and see what limiting beliefs are holding you back.
Step 2: remove the doubt that you can handle it.
Depending on your goal, you can add more to-do items to your already full plate. Or you could get more attention. Or maybe you make some people jealous. Self-doubts play a big role here. So remember to have your friendly health coach reminding you that you have what it takes to deal with the consequences that come your way. You have already dealt with changes and you can absolutely deal with them again.
Step 3: Know that change is the only constant.
People spend so much time worrying about what if. But what if we only have Instead of trying to control every outcome, trust the process and find peace in the fact that there will always be changes in life, whether you sabotage yourself or not.
Step 4: Channel the Qualities of a Successful Person.
Describe the characteristics of someone excited to get up 15 minutes early to make themselves an epic protein-forward meal. Or loving high fives in the mirror. Or prioritize walking because it makes them feel amazing. Keep a rolling list of these traits, check them daily, and start to feel what it would be like if these traits were yours. And if self-doubt creeps in again, read step 2.
Step 5: be okay with setbacks.
Damn it, be okay if you fail. Take this quote from inspiring author Anthony J. D’Angelo who said, “To be successful, you have to fail so you know what not to do next time.” Or this one from Thomas Edison: “I have not fail. I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work. “Adopt a philosophy of growth when it comes to your goals, and know that setbacks and failures are only opportunities to learn how to get better at everything you do.
Step 6: focus on the journey (not the destination).
Right now you are establishing new habits that will bring you closer to your goal. Be a little proud of these new habits and remember that even if you take small steps, you will completely surpass anyone else who is stuck on their old ways. Listen, if your goal is to stop drinking soda, the idea of being coke-free all day probably sounds scary. So start slowly by decreasing one habit (soda) and increasing another (water). One day you will look back and be amazed at how far you have come.
6 Ways To Overcome Fear Of Success
Depending on where you are, the path to success may be paved with a lot of self-reflection, but it’s 100% worth it if you want to end the self-sabotage and finally start living. Follow all six of these steps or try some on for size and see what happens. Let me know in the comments what works for you!
- Ask what could happen if you succeed
- Eliminate the doubt that you can handle it
- Know that change is the only constant
- Channel the qualities of a successful person
- Be okay with setbacks
- Focus on the journey (not the destination)
About the author
Erin Power is the coaching and curriculum director of the Primal Health Coach Institute. She also helps her clients reestablish a loving and trusting relationship with their bodies – while restoring their metabolic health so they can lose fat and gain energy – through her own private health coaching practice, eat.simple.
If you are passionate about health and wellness and want to help people like Erin for their clients every day, you should consider becoming a certified health coach yourself. In this special information session hosted by PHCI Co-Founder Mark Sisson, you will learn the three simple steps to building a successful health coaching business in a maximum of 6 months.
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