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Can Fear of Success Become an Obstacle?

One concept I always have difficulty wrapping my head around is fear of success. Why would people be afraid of success? Fear of failure makes a lot more sense, failure can be scary, but success? What’s so scary about success?

Success is a desirable outcome across all domains of life, including business, sports, career, academics, and personal life. We want to be successful. Others want us to be successful. But is there such a thing as too much success? Is there a level of success that we would rather not achieve out of fear?

Psychologists say yes. There is a very specific form of fear related to success. And like the fear of failure, this is a complex fear with multiple facets. Studied extensively in the context of athletic performance, the fear of success consists of five themes (Ogilvie, 1968): (a) social and emotional isolation; (b) guilty feelings about self-assertion; (c) fear of realizing one’s true potential; (d) worry about surpassing in performance an admired other; and (e) pressure to maintain good performance and continue to impress.

With success comes responsibility. And with more responsibility comes more pressure. Success also means more work. There are more demands, more expectations, more things to learn, more obstacles to deal with, and less time to enjoy other things in life. The risk of failure increases, and the consequences of failure may be more severe. Underperforming could be much more distressing to a valedictorian than to an average student. Being successful also means you are more visible, and therefore an easier target for scrutiny and criticism. More people care about how the gold medalist from last year will do this year than about the athlete who didn’t make it to the top. More attention is brought to the performance of a company’s CEO than to the performance of the hundreds or thousands of their employees.

While fear of success was first mentioned in the psychoanalytic literature, you don’t have to go to psychoanalysis to deal with it! There are many more options to leverage fear of success and prevent it from becoming an unnecessary obstacle to your growth and achievement. Here are a few ideas.

1. Welcome the responsibility that comes with success.

In many contexts, added responsibility is a sign of competence and good performance. At work, promotions invariably translate into more responsibility: managing more people, being in charge of bigger accounts, or assuming a more active role in the growth of the organization. Michael Port, author of Book Yourself Solid, says that often success, in all aspects of life, depends on how much responsibility we can handle at any given time. The added responsibilities are a token of your competence. They are affirmation that you have done the work and earned the trust. Instead of avoiding success, learning how to handle the increased responsibility can pave the way for more successes.


2. Remind yourself that it’s not that lonely at the top.

One of the themes that emerges in the fear of success literature is the social isolation that may follow success. You often hear people say that it’s lonely at the top. But this adage is neither an absolute truth, nor does it imply that you are safe from feeling lonely if you are at the bottom or in the middle. Successful people are surrounded by other people who want to learn from them, to be mentored by them, to help them with their mission, or to benefit from the relationship. Undoubtedly, the amount of work required to reach and maintain a certain level of success is considerable, but that doesn’t mean that your social life will become extinct. High achievers are as social and as popular as anyone else. All it takes to stay connected with the people in your life while working toward achieving your goals is discipline and good planning, qualities which are requisites for any kind of success anyway.


3. Prioritize your own priorities.

With success comes the pressure to continue to be successful. If you are a good student, for example, you are expected to get into a great school, to choose a highly respected profession, to build a successful career, to make a lot of money, to marry well, to have a trouble-free family life, and to never suffer from depression. What will people think if you break the chain? Reaching high levels of performance in any life domain does not obligate you to continue to outperform yourself, whether for self-validation or for continuous approval from others. Priorities in life change, and while you may have worked hard to achieve something, you are at liberty to rest in your laurels or even shift gears entirely. Many people, for example, forego a successful career choosing to be a stay-at-home parent, because this is what they prioritize at this point in their lives. Consider what your priorities are, instead of trying to fulfill an imaginary contract you signed with society to continue to beat your own record.

4. Stay focused on the benefits.

The long-term benefits of success outweigh the short-term costs. More responsibility could translate into more control, autonomy, freedom, recognition, and, joy, a higher salary, or even a better parking spot at work! Being able to reach your goals could also help build more confidence so that you can continue to pursue higher levels of performance. Think of success like an intense workout, which may seem painful just before you start working out, but you know that the long-term benefits for your health and fitness will outlast that brief moment of dread of having to go through with it each time. In fact, the emotional cost of not achieving your goals may be higher than the pressure of having to live up to your new reputation and having to work hard to maintain your new performance standards.


5. Remind yourself that progress is not linear.

Progress in life is not a perfectly linear process. There will be ups and downs in your performance. You most likely will not break your own record each time you run a race. You may not become a best-selling author with each book you write. You may not get as many views on your blog post as you did last time. Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow,refers to regression to the mean to explain why there are fluctuations in our performance. Our efforts and the results we obtain are not perfectly correlated, which is why our performance will be inconsistent from instance to instance, but will hover around the same level on average. Therefore, if you had a moment of great success, do not be discouraged if the next moment is not as stellar, because statistically it couldn’t be. Progress, on the other hand, means raising the mean little by little over time. Therefore, go for the big results, and don’t fret the small setbacks. They are inherent in the process.


6. Give credit where credit is due.

If you worry that your high achievements may outshine the people who had once been your teachers, your mentors, your coaches, or your idols, make it known to them how inspiring they have been and show them gratitude for what you have learned from them. Don’t shy away from making proper attributions and acknowledging the people who helped you along the way. In most cases, it will fill them with pride. And if there are a few who, despite your acknowledgments, feel resentful that your record of achievement is now more impressive than theirs, remind yourself that this is their problem to deal with, not yours.


7. Do not define yourself by the outcome.

Lastly, and most importantly, the pressure increases when we care more about the outcome than the effort. Sometimes, the drive for achievement can be so powerful that it becomes inseparable from our self-worth. In this case, the pressure to succeed is high, and success becomes self-defining. People who divide the world into winners and losers enjoy the victory more than the game, they may avoid taking on challenges without guarantees of success, and they become harsher critics of themselves and others. Success, however, is not a means to protect the ego. You do not need to win to be a good person. But if you want to be successful, you need to know how to play a good game, because effort determines the outcome. And as long as you focus on the effort, you can have more control over the outcome, learn more about yourself, and lessen the pressure that comes with the need to succeed.

Here is the question I want to leave you with. I mentioned in the beginning that I have a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of fear of success. What do you think is happening here? Are we afraid of success, or are we worried that we will be unable to sustain it, and that we will become one-hit wonders? In other words, do you think that fear of success is a real fear, or is it a masked version of fear of failure?


Originally published at Psychology Today

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Petr Pavel