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Dealing With Failure

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 (121)
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000169522811 Daniel Dogeanu

    I’m definitely suffering from this. Thanks for pointing it out, I really needed this.

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      My pleasure! Glad it hit the spot. 🙂

  • Soitgoes4

    As a very verbal person, I find that admitting fear or anxiety out loud “frees” it from my mind, and then I can progress and move ahead cautiously knowing that it knows I know it’s there – robbing it of its power.

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Right. It’s the half-formed thought at the back of your mind that can trip you up. But by verbalising it, you can see it for what it is.

  • http://twitter.com/cristinasario Cristina Maria

    This article is right on time. Yes, success is scary! 😦 Thanks for posting this! Tells me am not alone… 😉

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Indeed you are not. 🙂

  • http://twitter.com/Adxlexx Alex Brown

    I never realized how serious self-sabotage and the fear of success was until last summer. I had been writing for a music blog for a year out of pure love but when I received the good news that I’d be paid for my writing moving forward, I stopped writing. I started creating all types of excuses one being I had to focus on getting a real job and the other excuse of my writing wasn’t good enough. I’ve come to find that responsibility is what scares me. Since then, I’ve worked on managing my time and of course I spend a lot of time taking stock of my beliefs. I’m not quite sure if I’ll ever be able to repair that connection, but I will continue writing.

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      That’s a classic response – creativity thrives when you do something for love. So getting paid brings a sense of responsibility/pressure that can inhibit your creativity.

      Fortunately there are ways round this problem – see my previous piece ‘Why you can’t buy creativity’: http://99u.com/articles/7053/why-you-cant-buy-creativity

    • http://twitter.com/Artistsownmusic ArtistsOwnMusic

      Well, I’ll be setting up a music site very soon, and would be interested to read your writings …

    • Mark R

      Sounds like a familiar scenario. I wish you well in overcoming this and being able to get paid to do something you love.

  • PJ Swan

    I believe there may be other reasons to fear success: Typically success leads to a more public life in which people scrutinize your work and “think” they know all about you, which is disconcerting. There’s also the very real fear that the public will dig too deep and discover things that you’d prefer to keep private. As an intensively private person, that fear has held me back many times. I am not afraid to put myself out there using a persona – but I am afraid that my privacy will be violated.

  • HarshRao

    Timely, there is always an answer. I got one from here. Thanks

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Glad to hear it!

  • http://twitter.com/michalchitos Mikhail Priemyshev

    really useful article! it explained many things happend with me )

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      🙂

  • SarahofAfrica

    2 days ago i was talking to my mum about this – on the verge of success I feel scared, and needed to understand why? the responsibility that follow post success – the commitment to the process, what needs to be done to sustain the success. how do you ready yourself? i was then also reminded by a beautiful quote by Marianne Williamson but made more famous by Nelson Mandela “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Thanks for reminding me of that quote, it’s fabulous.

      It sounds like you feel overwhelmed when you think of the big picture of success – all the things that will come with it.

      So maybe it would help if you focus on the small picture – the next small steps on the road. When you do that, everything looks much more manageable. 🙂

    • http://www.facebook.com/AmyPfaffman Amy Pfaffman

      Thanks for the article, Mark, and thanks for the quote above. I’ve read it before, and was definitely overdue to read it again. I have a fear of being seen and judged and seen as an impostor, and it’s showing up in my struggles taking some small next steps to let in lots more clients. I sit at my desk and see it happening, feeling the resistance. I have to cut the steps down into tiny mini-steps to cajole myself into getting these important things done, and as a result, it’s taking far longer than it needs to. I think I’m going to enlist some helpers too. They’d really just be cheerleaders to stand over my shoulder and prod me to continue.

  • nicferguson

    This is a helpful and timely post Mark.

    Having had a measure of ‘success’ (as defined by me of course!) in the past I can relate to all 3 points, and can also see where I’ve battled with each. I’m excited by the opportunity of implementing my new learning, which you’ve summarised so well.

    Now, that’s not to say it’s still not SCARY…

    Thanks for sharing!

    • http://lateralaction.com/ Mark McGuinness

      Well, if it’s not a bit scary, it’s probably not worth doing. 😉

      Fear is a way of telling you you’re entering new territory and you need to wake up and perform at your best. No fear = staying in your comfort zone, which isn’t nearly so exciting…

      • http://nicholasferguson.org/ Nicholas Ferguson

        Definitely not as exciting!

  • idmahoney

    Thank you Mark, this was a really needed, I love spending time reading on 99U and I love it even more with the new design. Lovely insight into the fear of success.

  • http://twitter.com/AlaJAmeen Alaa' Ameen

    I had the same symptoms! whenever an investor is about to approve on my ideas I get really lazy I don’t even reply to their emails! although I have been working on it for months! Thank you very much for this article but I think I’m gonna need way more than this! God bless you

  • Yana Nesterenko

    Mark, connection that you made between suppressing/ignoring our fears and our subcontinuous mind. How are both connected? Is there something specific pointing out direct correlation?

    “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.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/michaelvaughan.vegas Michael Vaughan

    Thanks! This article was very helpful (or at least I hope it will be.)

  • http://twitter.com/richartedigital Richard Arte Digital

    They say the first step is to admit you got a problem. Hi! I’m Richard and I’m afraid of success. No joke about it. I’m pretty serious when I’m saying we need more articles such as this one on internet. Thank you very much and keep it up!

  • Karen Carcamo

    funny… i randomly came across this article while procrastinating when i should be working on the design for my new creative agency…. thnaks so much, made feel a bit better haha…

    • Kary Lee

      Ditto!

    • http://www.facebook.com/dakervikcoelho Dennis Akervik Coelho

      It always amazes me that when we need to see just the right thing it somehow finds us. Now I am not sure who can relate to what I am about to say but hopefully at least someone or a few someones. I had a tough upcomming, I was misdiagnosed for many years, Landed in all kinds of sh–, Today I am considered one of the top contemporary Artists. I have been featured in several Art Magazines, compared to VanGogh etc… However I am a very private person. I stay home and concentrate on the adolescents that I take off the streets, and try to steer them in a more successive way. This has been a challenge but, I managed to graduate three of them; I will say that my methods are not conventional, but they do work. I find that I have avoided my studio for months at a time or just go in and so a few small things. Now what has changed is that I am one of those people that has a hard time saying no. this has caused me many problems including getting scammed for over a million dollars in the last three years, having my business embezzled; I have been ripped off by the people i have entrusted to run my businesses while I work. The creative process(At least for me) is one where I can’t jump in and out of,once I am creating. i don’t want “Petty” interruptions, I just want to fly with what I am doing. One of the most trying and difficult things to find is an honest Broker/Agent. I had one Gallery owner beg me for two months to get my works in her galery, ,”Things are flying off the walls” “Better get your works here” One day I got tired of the barrage of texts,emails,..I took my assistant with me brought like 14 paintings to her. Not one person was in the place, things were’nt flying anywhere. A couple days later, she starts calling me complaining she can’t sell my works, she had a bunch of excuses, now mind you I just had dropped the works off. I suggested she take smaller works, she flipped out..To make a long story short. I sent my lawyer to pick up my works, she claimed they were not there, to come back another day…(I think you may know where this is going) She closed her doors..Never to be seen again. I have been ripped off by web designers, with supposed excellent references.

      I also have a company I have been trying to get funded, spent tens of thousands to develop with a legal team. I got really tired of hearing about people working for thirty forty years loosing fortunes on the stock market. I created a Fine Art and Tangible asset portfolio concept. http://www.providenceartinvestment.{This is not an ad. If you google me you can read more about me, my works. I also design limited edition Furniture that is high quality and made in a small factory in Nicaragua.Also Museum quality frames.If you wish to connect with me on Facebook Yo can link with me from google. I am on Linked in. I have a form of Autism, and have a form of agoraphobia. Would like to meet soome serious friends, I was labeled “Gifted at about age 8 and went to a special school. I encourage everyone to get in touch with their creative side; I am always hearing, I am not talented, I could never do that, I am not artistic.Actually we were all born inherently artisti, you just need develop it, or be exposed to it enough to inspire you to get motivated. If there is anyway I can offer assistance, please email me @coelhoden@yahoo.com. Currently I am working day, and night, sometimes around the clock to raise money to keep my programs running. To also raise awareness that there are other ways to get exposure for your art. As for procrastinating, I am finding the best way to handle this is to get all distractions away from you, people who are around you just for what you can give to them, or what your name can offer them. Keep those people at bay. You will know when you have met a tru friend, they won’t expect anything from you but your friendship. Get selfish for you. Don’t let self sabotaging thoughts rent space in your head. Change the picture and get occupied. Please write to me I will gladly answer your questions or point you in the right direction. Always give back. and pray not only for yourself but for everyone. We are all connected.

      Learn to appreciate yourself.
      Dennis Akervik Coelho
      American Artist (Diplomat)

  • http://www.theconfidencelounge.com/ Aaron Morton

    This is very much the story people can tell themselves when they experience a different feedback from the world. The journey to success can be a long one with a lot of setbacks along the way. It is understandable to think that when success comes it can feel unfamiliar and may take time to get used to the new stage that brings about new expectations and responsibilities. Yet what I find is more important than labelling it is to spend times figuring out what to do from here because as the executive coach Marshall Goldsmith wrote what got you here, wont get you there.

    Aaron Morton

  • Yellow

    This stuff is very helpful for everyone. I got more pleasure from
    this website. Thanks for this good stuff.

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  • CodeLambo

    I believe there are many reason to be scared of success, but I think you’ve pointed out some good one, and just reading your post make you think twice, but instead of focusing on being scared, I am focusing on what I will gain with success, starting with a Boost of Confidence…

  • http://www.freestock.ca/ Nicolas Raymond

    Thank you for your insight and inspiration. It’s a good thing this article was featured in an e-mail newsletter because I would have never searched for a topic like this in the first place as I thought it was more of a subconscious fear than anything else.

    But you’re right, sometimes I think I might be guilty of a little self-sabotaging, especially when I see one of my images becoming particularly popular and the feedback comes pouring in from everywhere. I can deal with the feedback itself, good or bad, it’s just that I feel overwhelmed knowing that I cannot reply to all of it. But hopefully it’s still a good measure of progress & success 🙂

  • http://twitter.com/aLightEdit Michele Chelsea

    I just started a new job (higher pay, greater responsibilities, great company) and was experiencing much of the anxieties described here. I’m glad it’s common to feel like assuming a new role will change the person you are. It isn’t just the pressure to perform, it’s the pressure to behave as a successful person would.

  • Darius Vi

    I think I’ve got this problem too. I’ve been working on a coupe of web designs past week from an early morning to almost another morning and I didn’t do anything good enough or anything that I’d really like…and few days ago my programmer buddy asked me to do a business card design for him, anything fancy, just a simple design with some info about his new t-shirt shop. And I came up with probably one of the best ideas in my career as a designer. Even though I knew that I’m not going to be paid for that (and those designs that I’m doing now are for double the price I was charging most of the time).

  • eponymoushero

    coping with change was something i was really concerned about. Thanks !

  • http://twitter.com/manuelcamino Manuel Camino

    Very nice article, thanks a lot for it. That said, I believe sucess is to be happy yourself with whatever you are doing or being, no matter what others may think or admire. I tend to believe that a fully recognized creative who hardly has time to enjoy life, but with gold lions and many awards, for me, its not a sucessful person. And I met many of those who think they truly are a good example of sucess and glory. Many time I feel tempted to believe that my work is a failure because it wasnt selected in Behance or others, right when I remember the satisfaction of my clients and how I helped to solve a hard communication problem they had. And then I feel satisfied and truly sucessful, even if my work may not be consider a good example of sucess by the “sucessful critics”, 🙂 We spend too much time thinking on what others believe because is in “others eyes” the key for sucess. And I think its really in ours. Thanks again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sonicpop Bill Fricke

    Awareness trumps all. All of these points are valid. But our subconscious feels that disengaging us from things that need attention is somehow a valiant thing. A protective space that we can huddle. You can run and run and still you catches up with you. So you can’t circumvent your issues but if you are aware you are not empowering them either and you can utilize them to see the next peak regardless of where you are in your journey. We are all here to “Know Ourselves.” That is only accomplished through trial and error. Simply put by making choices and learning from them. The antithesis of change is stasis. The illusion of doing the same thing to feel in control is like a sleight of hand. It is illusion of movement by adhering to an old pattern. Life can be difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. I have found personally that I have beat things like manic depression by becoming ‘Life Activated.’ Iam not a zealot just someone who has a renewed passion. I can’t lie. I do have a fear of the new. But I have been to the nadir of emotional upset right before what should have been a time of great elation. That no longer is the case. I have moved on. If you are spirit curious or just want to move on from wherever you have been nesting please do check this out: knowthyselftoday.com You can read about things like Life Activations, Lineage and it’s importance and so much more. But to re-iterate, ” It’s a CHOICE.” Love LIght Joy and Peace for all~ Bill 5onic ~Guide modern mystery school+
    creative visual alchemist~

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