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Conflict

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/jodie.mcguinness1 Jodie McGuinness

    What a relief to read this. I have been applying for permanent job roles today and was even down-grading the jobs I was applying for, just in case I’m not up to scratch. I’ve been a designer for years but the thought of working back for a company and thinking I might not be good enough scares me a lot – I was even thinking maybe I should just go for artworker roles for the time being. I’ve been focusing on the negative a bit too much I guess and yes, it is fear of success but I couldn’t make sense of it until I read this. On a different note, I’m the same as some of the comments on here. I finished a portrait commission 2 weeks ago and as soon as my brain knew I was getting paid, the creativity started to stifle. They loved it but I found it quite a struggle to do. Very strange how the brain works. Anyway, thanks a lot for this 🙂

  • Angelina Sereno

    “Getting used to your new role will feel tingly and exciting.” 🙂

    They say fear and excitement create the same physical responses in the body… Interesting to think about. Maybe what we fear most (particularly in our career advancement), we actually want most.

    Angelina Sereno, President
    Skybox Creative
    http://www.skyboxcreative.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/winter.ross.7 Winter Ross

    Sorry. No such thing! It’s ALWAYS the fear of failing; the fear of NOT living up to the “success”.

    • shopper

      not true i have the fear of success and not keeping up with it wich always pulls me down and so does so many other people

  • http://www.facebook.com/donhajicek Don Hajicek

    I see we’ve all been there… at least once. There is another insidious aspect to all of this, and I’m sad to say that I have discovered it in myself.

    When we “almost do something” but then some (we think) external thing trips us up, it can allow us to say “I once owned a high-tech company that developed this amazing thing, but [thing beyond my control] happened, and it ruined everything!” or “I could have had a solo show at this gallery, but [ironic circumstance] happened and I couldn’t.” or “I was invited to study under the mentor of my dreams, but [financial excuse] dictated that I refuse the position.”

    This does a few different things; it let’s us off the hook for being responsible for our own success while also showing people (we think) that we are CAPABLE of great things and maybe even getting a little sympathy to boot.

    I coulda been a contendah. Whatever.

    I could list dozens extremely impressive things that I failed at, and just as many dozens of plausible excuses for not QUITE making it. But the truth is, I undermined myself (PAST TENSE!!!! he screamed at himself) so that I wouldn’t have to bear the responsibility of success… and the responsibility of BEING HAPPY.

    I’ve still got some good years left in me, and I don’t know about you, but I refuse the allow myself to leave a legacy of “Wow, look at all the great things Don almost did!”

    F. That.

    Thank you so much for the post! I need reminders of this DAILY, but they come too few and far between. Feels good to hear it from all of these nice people.

    Don

    http://www.authenticdivineself.com

  • Mark Guay

    Zoinks! What an awful thing to think about and a humbling one to admit. It’s terrifying when one is thrust in the limelight of criticism. Thanks for the insightful look into this concept! It reminds me a lot of what I believe Goleman referred to as the fear of the unknown. After working so hard to make an idea come to life, it only makes sense to fear losing ownership or facing the criticism with success.

  • Server

    Clearly you are ‘uber’-enlightened. Thank you for stopping by to let us all know what losers we are. /sarcasm

  • http://twitter.com/WernerViln Werner Viln

    So true! Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonroosevelt Jon Martins

    I’ve been through a lot of this. Unfortunately I was defeated most of times. What I’ve learned is sometimes we need to try to achieve smaller goals and have some gradual growing. It helps us adapting with challenges

  • http://www.webbroi.com Casey Armstrong

    This is awesome! Perfect timing. Appreciate it a lot.

  • http://twitter.com/KevinClaiborne Kevin Claiborne

    I always say you should never let the fear of failure or the fear of success keep you from achieving your dreams. http://www.tinyurl.com/LeaveTheComfortZone

  • http://twitter.com/briancauley Brian Cauley

    OMG! I freaked out when I saw this headline. people have always given me the most quizzical looks when I say, “no, I don’t fear failure, I fear success.” I’m so happy that this is being talked about. I think this article opens the discussion but, as many have pointed out, the topic is a deeply psychological one that goes much deeper.
    for me, I think part of the fear stems from the idea that maintaing success is much more difficult that maintaining mediocrity. if you’re successful you have to deal with the personal and public expectations of “what’s next?” – the idea of constantly outdoing yourself.
    scary.

  • http://identitycrisisstudio.com/ Jared Ribic

    Very good article. Thanks so much!

  • http://www.facebook.com/xavi.perezarnal Xavi Perez Arnal

    Thanks Mark! It helped me to read your article… and the comments…

  • Kivi

    As many here, I also fear success. I am not afraid of the failure since I have failed so many times already on so many levels, so I am kind of used to it. But I have discovered why I fear success so much. First, I have terrible stage fright. It means that when it comes to public speaking, answering questions for press or anything similar that includes me standing in front of the auditorium having to say something, I freeze! I am suddenly so stupid that simple words don’t come to my mind. So I guess that the fear of public humiliation makes me want to stay in this, unsuccessful, comfort zone rather than coping with situations like those. The other thing is that, some 15-20 years ago, my mother ran a successful business which made her spend the whole day away from home, and even when she was there, she was a family CEO, not the MOTHER we needed. I clearly remember I said then that I will never, ever be successful if it will make me less of a mother or make me a person she became back then. I guess, what I did then, was unconsciously programming myself to not become successful, which came true and now I don’t know how to undo this.

    Thank You Mark for this article, it reminded me that the fear is still there and gave me comfort knowing that I am not alone in this.

    • Dennis Akervik Coelho

      I appreciate your honesty. You touch on a story so familiar one in which I am a member. But there comes a time where you get fed up and want to do something about it. Most of our decisions/reactions are from when we were being domesticated and programmed by the ones who raised us, although most of what was taught to us during that phase was wrong it became imprinted on our subconscious mind. I recently was asked by the Dale Carnegie foundation to write a book on a paper I authored which explains why so many people buy every self help program on the market and why none seem to work. It is not that they are not valid or even viable. It is not the program it is your subconscious which resists the program. What one need do is reprogram the subconscious and clean out all of the inaccurate information that became a part of your wiring, You need to start with affirmations and I Am statements. You remember learning your multiplication tables, and you can do them automatically. If someone were to ask you what 5×6 was you would know, same theory you will begin to change your subconscious reactions automatically in a more positive and self assured fashion. I will be consulting with people incorporating Art and designing a tailored system based on the level of negativity the individual operates on. We control our thoughts and like I tell everyone It’s your movie and you direct it, if you don’t like the scene than change it. Replace negativity with positives. We must focus on living in the here and now, this is key. I am practicing the same methods I teach. I hope this has been helpful, although it is brief and there is much more to it, this should be helpful.
      Good Luck!

  • http://www.facebook.com/sarah.hinds.330 Sarah Hinds

    A very well timed article thankyou Mark. i’m in the midst of working on a group show with fellow artists with its usual frustrations and irritations… and a certain amount of anxiety at having a go at curating for the first time… Off to analyse whether it is this or a great leap forward that is causing my to be less than my usual patient self!:D.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.mitchell.56863221 Daniel Mitchell

    The key to success in everything is to row like your life depends on your rowing and to pray like your life depends upon your praying. Row means to work & pray means to be open to fate. Your life is in your hands, and it is not, both at the same time. When you become comfortable with that paradox, things will begin to happen and you will be able to laugh and go on with a smile on your face. Life is a journey and not a destination. Everyone on this planet has a unique life, and it should not be compared or measured to any one else because much of your life will be shrouded in mystery forever. You will know and you will not know, and that is the way it is for every one, and any one who tells you different. Just laugh. They are actually deluded.

    • wawaaaaaaaaaaa

      very wise world view indeed , thank you

    • lp

      I keep rereading those first 4 lines…grateful I came across this message. Thank you for sharing this post.

    • Guest

      Boom

  • Mad

    I have always been afraid of what my other artist-friends might say. Because they are so close to me, they feel like they can be a bit more vocal when it comes to criticising. And for me it is a lot harder to take criticism from friends rather than from total strangers. That fear of ‘what will they think’ stops me from even exposing my work that often.

    • Sandra

      I’m the same way. Everyone tells me I should be an artist and/or writer, but I don’t do well with criticism. It didn’t help when my ex told me that it was pointless to become an artist, because no matter how good I am, “there will always be someone who’s better.” Of course there will always be someone better! No one is perfect, and everyone has their own opinion of what a great artist is! There are so many different ways to create artwork. Some people prefer realism and some people prefer things that are more abstract. So if your work is more abstract, someone who likes something more realistic might tell you that you’re not very good. But someone who likes abstract art might tell you that you’re the greatest artist they’ve seen! So I ignored my ex’s advice, and sold a few drawings. Do it! Show off your work! A true artist understands that everyone expresses their creativity in a different way, and a true friend will encourage you rather than tell you they think you suck.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RuthSWilson Ruth Wilson

    I have a terrible fear of success. it kept me from working toward a graphic design career. and now I have gone to school for IT and though I have professional certifications, I don’t trust my knowledge. the insecurity shows on my face at interviews and it is terrible. I have a job which i got through a friend but it is not in a field which I would like to be in. Somehow I am so afraid of being successful that I am allowing my education to slip from my mind. I don’t continue to study as I should and THAT is exactly what I would/should be doing if I wasn’t afraid of success. The only thing I am doing is allowing the universe to take control, trust in the fates, but I want to be ready for when the opportunity arrives. It doesn’t mean I am a bad person it just means I am unkind to myself.

  • Oleg Genshaft

    i was studding for my first university math course. its not much of a difficult subjects, actually I’ve studied harder topics in high school, and everything was surprisingly easy for the first 3 quarters of the course. but at this point i suddenly started to think i might not be good enough or smart enough to finish it with success.
    i asked for help from my dad (he has a 2nd degree in math and help my a lot through high school) and he only made me less sure of my ability to work! as a part of my spiritual work i begun to look for the reason. my i am just dealing with obstacles like odd or other study disorder, or maybe this is the hard part of the course, maybe I’m just being a procrastinator. and its going for a week or two that i just fall to a mini depression every time i sit and study.
    today as i went through all of this once again, i saw that i had the same issue with other (/many) areas in my life. first thing came to my head after the wards “fear of success” was that i’m not good, i’m a looser and other horrible things like that. as i was looking deeper into this problem i realized that the only thing i must do is to deal with this fear and success. i was willing to get help, and as a man of few means i came to the one and only that always answers and never asks anything back. Google.com there I’ve found this article and i am thankful for it as i feel ready for dealing with my fears, and i actually got a few useful tools here.

    Mark thank you man. regards, Oleg.

  • D'oh

    Writing that list really made me take a look in the mirror and see that I skipped the opportunity to pitch my animated series to a big network out of some of that “selling out” fear. Shame on me, who knows when the chance will pop up again. If I try again they’ll likely remember me as that guy who “never got back to us.”

    • Sasha

      It never hurts to reach back out and try again!

  • Mark R

    The most classy way I can convey my thoughts about this: *fuck* this fear of success! It is powerful and insidious.

    It is all too real, and in my case, I have never been able to consciously feel it or see it (hence insidious). I only know it is there when my rational brain looks back at an event / period of time and says “why did I do that? why did I self-sabotage like that? There was no reason for that NOT to work? How did that happen??”

    Usually, it happened through multiple little sabotaging things, each of which seems mundane, but, fear of success being the genius that it is, when put together, they very quietly sabotage success.

    This has frustratingly repeated itself over the years; although I fully am cognizant of this phenomenon of fear of success an understand it intellectually, I’ve yet to be able to see it as I’m going through it. It is invariably right after the fact that I see it.

    Sometimes I think that it’s that same creative brain that allows me to imagine great things (in all modesty) that uses that same creativity to subconsciously and subtly sabotage (does that make sense??).

    I came here while I’m in the middle of applying for a new role that — by all my objective and subjective measures — is a dream role for me. Oh Em Gee I would love to do this and am perfectly suited for it. You know that old axiom “Find a job you love and you will never again work a day in your life”? This role would be it.

    I’m terrified.

    • tinallama

      Is it Arbonne??? JK. ..but is it? 😀 oh EM geee!! 😀

  • http://www.EducationAtHome.ca/ Debbie Ruston

    Fear of success is definitely something that causes people to self sabotage. One of the biggest reasons is a feeling of being inadequate to fulfill the new responsibilities and perhaps a lack of confidence. A person may be concerned they don’t know how they will answer questions, lead others, or do the work that comes with the new found success. It is important to realize that you don’t have to have all the answers, just a willingness to learn. As with anything new, it can be scary, but fear is in the mind, and confidence builds by stepping through fear.

  • Kellen

    My brother was in a terrible accident when I was a baby and he spent the rest of his life stuck in a mangled body. He lived, but had about every handicap a human body can have after being hit by a truck. Around age 8, I started feeling guilty whenever anything good happened to me because I’d think about my brother.I’d think, “Well ‘Chap’ can’t even do this.” Instead of enjoying my talents, I just felt bad about his limits. The hurt for him outweighed the feel-good part of success.Eventually I quit trying to enjoy life and I figured I’d “stay back” with him. Anxiety kept me from trying new things. I’m in my 40s now and he died five years ago. I am just starting to sort all of this out.

  • Zach

    I am scared of success because at one time I was succesful and then took it for granite and lost everything. Now I am pulling pieces slowly but surely back together. trying to get over being SO discouraged all the time. I want to become a MMA fighter and a boxer. I know i have the skills and mind set to do it, I’ve been boxing since I was 12 years old and I’m 24 now. But I lost a lover, My car and my job all at once, Then was stabbed 6 times (all different occasions) Of me being a brawlic drunk. Now I am sober and trying to mend together shattered passions. I Want to push myself and just “sign up” for my old gym. But something..something as simple as Discouraged and anxious stop me from achieving my dreams and goals.

    • suri

      Lesson here, never take anything for granite.
      But seriously, if you did it once you can do it again, just try and be happy with who you are and set those little goals to work towards. Once you FORCE yourself to do things it can often help a lot and let you see how its not that hard to do them. Also, once you start to do things in a routine, like the gym, it becomes a part of you and it gives yourself evidence that you are the type of person who does these things. Much love Zach I hope you find a good way out of this.

      • http://basqu.es Jayce Basques

        What you’re saying… is nothing is set in stone, right Suri?

  • dsreyburn

    Insightful piece and as I read it, one additional barrier occurred to me because it’s something I’ve felt more than once when I sensed I was on the verge of something special. The fear isn’t so much that the finished product won’t live up to my expectations, but that the next one won’t live up to the expectations set by the one I’m about to finish. Twisted, right?

    • http://www.alexanderfilms.com/ Marc A Hutchins

      You are suggesting that each endeavor must top the previous one. Don’t fall into the trap of defining your success as if climbing a ladder — one rung higher than the next — instead, see each project from a “ground up” mentality. Does the project you are working on right NOW fail or achieve to meet its own expected success? The comparison trap will surely lead to ruin.

    • Ayesha Tariq

      Oh my god! Please watch the ted talk by Elizabeth Ghilbert! You will find it so apt for what you are saying!

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