It seems counterintuitive to fear the very thing you want. But let me assure you, fear of success is real and there’s a good chance it’s what’s holding you back right now.
You’re familiar with the fear of failure, right?1 Those of you who’ve had a major setback or flop in one or more areas of your life probably know this one pretty well. That fear of feeling disappointed, embarrassment, shame, or even public humility can stop you in your tracks.
Fear of failing isn’t the only thing that keeps people stuck though. Spoiler alert, it’s not a lack of willpower or motivation either.2 Like a lot of challenges in life, the issue is rarely the thing you think it is.
What is Fear of Success Anyway?
It’s not success itself you’re afraid of, but the potential price you’ll have to pay for it. I see this a lot in my health coaching clients. Their fears often manifest as anxiety around the changes and consequences that may occur if they were to knock their goal out of the park. Even before we really get started in our sessions, they’re obsessing over the regular workouts, the uncomfortable conversations they’ll be having about why they don’t eat bread, the glaring they’ll get from envious friends who no longer want to associate with them because they’ve “changed.”
Sure, there are a lot of obvious reasons to want success, but depending on your environment, your level of self-efficacy, and your internal self-talk, your fears around it may overrule your actions 3
Fear of Success and Self-Sabotage
Humans love routine. So much so, that you might be apprehensive about anything that’s outside your comfort zone — or your ability to control it. Because of that, you might actually be resisting opportunities and sabotaging your own success because you’re scared of what will be different if you succeed.
Self-sabotage can look like:
Quitting. Setting aside time for a sit-down breakfast, then gradually reverting back to your old toast-and-OJ ways.
Perfectionism. Sharing your big plans to start every day with an hour of meditation, then never actually acting on it.
Procrastinating. Putting low-demand tasks ahead of high-priority ones (i.e., not exercising because the plants need to be watered today).
Excuses. Justifying your third glass of wine because you had a rough day.
It’s a scary proposition to believe that it’s possible to have everything you want in life, especially if self-doubt plays a recurring role in your psyche. But let me be the first to tell you, that you can have it. In fact, you deserve to have it and you can totally handle whatever changes come up.
Why Would I Be Afraid of Success?
As I mentioned, one of the most common reasons you could be consciously or subconsciously sabotaging your own success is the fear of change. The brain loves predictability — and that unpredictability is enough to derail anyone’s well-intentioned plans from the get-go.4 Other reasons you could be fearing success are:
Not feeling good enough or worthy enough
Memories of being told you don’t deserve success
Feeling worried about being judged or losing friends
Finding yourself in a situation you don’t know how to handle
Getting noticed more (being uncomfortable with attention)
Having to work harder and feeling more pressure
Worrying about others’ expectations of you
Not wanting to get your hopes up in case you don’t succeed
Being afraid that the grass won’t actually be greener
Thinking others can’t be successful if you are (the “not enough for everyone” mindset)
Fearing other people’s disappointment if you don’t come through
Any limiting beliefs in general
Maybe it’s the way your family talks harshly about people who don’t eat “regular food.” Maybe it’s your internal dialogue that tells you that you’ll always be a “snacker” or uncoordinated. Or maybe you did get your health on track at one point but had an awful experience — and doing it again would be too painful to do again.
The original theory about Fear of Success came from a doctoral dissertation by M.S. Horner, specifically around women and success, in which she studied the relationships between the motive to do well and need for achievement. In her research, Horner used a modified Thematic Apperception Test that relied on verbal prompts, instead of visual cues, then assessed her participants’ reactions to the scores.5
She found that 65% of the women responded negatively to placing high on the test due to their perceived negative consequences associated with success, reporting that “women, in general, learn early on that success in certain areas represents deviance from the prescribed social norms and results in social criticism.”
Keep in mind this study was conducted in the 1970’s and we’ve come a long way since then, but fearing success in one way or another is common in both men and women. And really, I’d argue that it’s been holding us back for way too long.
Ready to Face Your Fears?
If you want to get past your fear of success, you’ve got to get clear on what’s causing it. You might already know the source, or perhaps you didn’t even realize you were self-sabotaging. Either way, these steps will help you work through what’s stopping you so you can start moving forward.
Step 1: Ask what could happen if you succeed.
Really think about it — the positives, the negatives, and everything in between (there’s no wrong answer here). The key to moving ahead is to acknowledge where you are, so take 20 minutes to jot down any possible consequences of losing the weight, getting stronger, or whatever it is that you’re working toward. Things feel a lot more overwhelming when they’re circling around in your head and this is a great way to nail them down and see what limiting beliefs are holding you back.
Step 2: Clear the doubt that you can handle it.
Depending on your goal, you might be adding more tasks to your already full plate. Or you might get more attention. Or maybe you’ll make some people jealous. Self-doubt plays a huge role here, so consider this your friendly health coach reminder that you have what it takes to handle any of the consequences that come your way. You’ve handled change before, and you can absolutely handle it again.
Step 3: Know that change is the only constant.
People spend so much time worrying about the “what ifs.” But what ifs are all we’ve got. Instead of trying to control every outcome, have faith in the process and find peace in the fact that there will always be changes in life, whether you self-sabotage or not.
Step 4: Channel the qualities of a successful person.
Describe the characteristics of someone who’s excited to get up 15 minutes early to make themselves an epic protein-forward meal. Or lovingly high-fives themselves in the mirror. Or prioritizes walking because it makes them feel amazing. Keep a running list of these characteristics, review them daily, and begin to feel what it would be like if those characteristics belonged to you. And if self-doubt starts to creep back in, review step 2.
Step 5: Be okay with setbacks.
Heck, be okay with flat out failing. Take this quote from inspirational author, Anthony J. D’Angelo who said, “In order to succeed you must fail, so that you know what not to do the next time.” Or this one from Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Adopt a growth mindset when it comes to your goals, knowing that setbacks and failures are just opportunities to learn how to get better at whatever it is you’re doing.
Step 6: Focus on the journey (not the destination).
Right now, you’re establishing new habits that will bring you closer to your goal. Take a little pride in those new habits and remember that even if you’re taking baby steps, you’re totally lapping everyone else who’s stuck in their old ways. Listen, if your goal is to stop drinking soda, the idea of going Coke-free all day probably sounds scary, so start slow, decreasing one habit (soda) and increasing another (water). One day you’ll look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come.
6 Ways to Overcome Fear of Success
Depending on where you’re at, the road to success might be paved with a lot of self-reflection, but it’s 100% worth it if you want to stop self-sabotaging and finally start living. Follow all six of these steps or try a few on for size and see what happens. Let me know in the comments what works for you!
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.