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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco


Are You (Subconsciously) Afraid of Success?

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. Presenting three classic versions of fear of success, and what to do about them.

Have you ever found yourself on the verge of a big success, and noticed things starting to go wrong? It begins with a feeling of agitation. The tiniest details irritate you. Reliable people start making alarming mistakes.“What’s up with them? Can’t they see how important this is? Why are they being so careless?”

It becomes hard to concentrate. You find yourself procrastinating over things you know will lead to success. You say something stupid in an important meeting. “What’s wrong with me today?” You get into arguments with your partner and friends, who wonder why you’re being so “touchy.” All of these are classic symptoms of fear of success – a condition that is all the more dangerous because it’s so unexpected. You want to be successful, right? You’ve sweated blood to get to this point, so why would you sabotage yourself? But in our success-oriented culture, we don’t give much thought to the fact that success can be downright scary. We’re used to seeing fear as the enemy, so we do our best to ignore it and soldier on. Which means the fear remains subconscious, expressing itself in the kind of “stupid” behaviors above. So what can you do about it? Sometimes all you need to do is “out” the fear by admitting to yourself that you are, in fact, afraid. Paradoxically, it can have the effect of helping you relax. “OK, I’m nervous, which is pretty normal considering what’s at stake.” (Deep breath) “Right, what’s next?” And sometime it helps to focus on exactly what you’re afraid of, and find a way to deal with the threat. Here are three classic versions of fear of success, and what to do about them.

1. Fear of Not Coping With Success

As Hugh MacLeod points out, success is more complex than failure. On some level, it’s more comfortable to stay in a familiar situation, even if it doesn’t feel great on the surface. But achieving success (however you define it) means you are entering uncharted territory. You are putting yourself out there to be scrutinized and criticized, and exposing yourself to new pressures and demands. It’s only human to wonder whether you’ll be up to the challenge. A small anxious part of you would rather not take the risk.

What to do about it:

Although the idea of success can be scary, the reality is generally easier to cope with than what you had before. If you’ve been resourceful enough to keep yourself going during the tough times, you’ll probably be able to do the same with the good times. Yes, you’ll have to make changes and learn new things, but you’re creative and adaptive enough to do that. If you experience doubts, remind yourself of all the extra resources success will bring you:

  • A boost to your confidence
  • A bigger, more powerful network
  • A healthier bank balance
  • A growing reputation that opens new doors

2. Fear of Selling Out

Creatives have a complicated relationship with success. On the one hand, you wouldn’t be reading 99U if you weren’t ambitious to succeed; on the other, you don’t want success at all costs – especially the loss of your artistic integrity. Whatever choices you make, if you achieve any kind of public success, it’s a sad fact that someone, somewhere will be thinking (and even saying) nasty things about you – including accusations of “selling out.”

What to do about it:

Firstly, accept that you’ll never please everyone. Backbiting is part of the price of success. Secondly, make sure you are comfortable with your choices. Make a list of all the things you would consider “selling out,” and which you’re not prepared to do. Then keep the list handy. As long as you don’t do the things on that list, you can look yourself in the mirror. Whatever anyone else says about you.

3. Fear of Becoming Someone Else

Because we habitually put successful people on pedestals, the idea of becoming “one of them” can feel daunting. You start to worry that you’ll turn into someone else, a person your friends and family won’t recognize—and won’t like. This fear has some foundation in reality. After all, if you were satisfied with the person you are now, why would you want to change? But it’s also founded on a false premise: that change is about leaving your old self behind and replacing it with a completely new one. Change is more complex than that. You are definitely more complex than that.

What to do about it:

Instead of thinking about change in terms of subtraction (losing your old self) think of it in terms of addition. You are about to discover and develop new facets to your personality — adding to who you are and what you bring to the world. Getting used to your new role will feel tingly and exciting. And you can still be the person you’ve always been to family and friends. Spending time with them will feel like slipping on your old comfy jeans after spending time in your trendy new clothes. More selves = more choices and a richer life. — Over to you Have you ever suffered from fear of success? Any tips for dealing with it?

Comments (120)
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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco
Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco