What Is the Fear of Success?

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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The fear of success involves being afraid of achievement, often to the point that people will sabotage themselves. While success is generally viewed as desirable, there are reasons why people may be fearful of doing too well.

It is important to recognize that people often don't fear success itself. Instead, their fear is centered on the potential consequences of success. Because expectations of success are often based on the idea that achieving your goals means making sacrifices or enduring losses, it is perhaps not surprising that people may be wary of what success might ultimately cost them. 

This article discusses the signs, causes, and effects of the fear of success. It also explores strategies you can use to help you manage and overcome the fear that might be holding you back.

Characteristics of the Fear of Success

The fear of success isn't always easy to spot. Some signs that a person might have this fear include:

  • Lack of goals: By having very low expectations, people ensure that they never make any real headway toward success. 
  • Giving up: In many cases, people derail their own success by quitting right before it seems they are about to succeed. 
  • Procrastination: Putting things off until the last possible minute means that people aren't doing their best or most thoughtful work, which can seriously impair their chances of succeeding.
  • Self-handicapping: People who fear success may place obstacles in their own path that decrease their chances of doing well. These behaviors can range from minor acts of self-sabotage to more serious self-destructive behaviors.

It can be difficult to see these as actions motivated by a fear of success. In many cases, they may come off as laziness, lack of motivation, and poor discipline. No matter how this fear manifests, it seriously undermines people from living their lives to the fullest.

Identifying Fear of Success

If you suspect that you might be afraid of success, there are some things you can look for. These include:

  • Being afraid of what will happen if you were in the spotlight
  • Worrying about leaving people behind if you move forward because of your success
  • Feeling anxious about acquiring new responsibilities as the result of your success
  • Being worried that things will just get more complicated than what you can handle
  • Fearing comments from naysayers or worrying about experiencing other social problems

Sometimes people are aware of some of these worries, but many may lack insight into the true causes of their self-sabotaging behaviors. In other cases, working with a therapist can be an effective way to learn to identify and recognize some of the fear-based behaviors that are holding you back from being successful.

Identifying a fear of success often involves looking at patterns of behavior over time.

Causes of the Fear of Success

The fear of success can have a number of different causes. Some of these include:

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome can sometimes contribute to the fear of success. Sometimes people who experience success fear their achievements are undeserved or not as good as others in their field. People may fear that they won’t be able to live up to expectations or that other people will discover that they aren’t up for the challenge.

Misinterpreting Feelings Associated With Success

Excitement and anxiety share many of the same physical signals. Because of this, it is sometimes easy to misinterpret feelings of excitement as nervousness or anxiety. This can cause people to avoid situations that trigger such emotions.

Fear of Backlash

Sometimes people fear success because of the anticipated potential social or relationship repercussions. Researchers called this phenomenon backlash avoidance.

For example, women may avoid self-promotion because they fear it does not align with traditional gender roles. Researchers have found that women tend to associate success with more significant negative consequences.

People tend to conform to these expected norms because they fear social or economic backlash.

Negative Experiences

People who have experienced some negative outcome in the past after doing well—such as being derided for being a “show off” or enduring hardship because of this success—may also fear doing well again in the future.

Poor Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy refers to a person's beliefs and ability to achieve their goals. It plays a role in how you think about yourself, but it also influences your behaviors and motivation to go after your goals. 

Self-efficacy can also vary across different domains. For example, while you might be very confident in one area, you might doubt your skills and ability to succeed in another.

Research has found that people who fear success also tend to have low self-efficacy. They don't pursue opportunities for success because they doubt their abilities.

Shyness or Social Anxiety

People who are shy or socially anxious may fear succeeding because they do not want to be in the spotlight.

People who have social anxiety worry about being judged or embarrased in social situations. Because they experience intense physical symptoms of fear in these situations, they often avoid them altogether.

Impact of the Fear of Success

The fear of success can have a serious negative impact on a person's life. Some of the ways that it might hold you back from getting what you want in life include:

  • Lower life satisfaction: One study found that this fear significantly reduced satisfaction with life.
  • Difficulty pursuing goals: Research also found that a fear of achievement was correlated with difficulties initiating and maintaining behaviors. Because these first steps toward a goal are so difficult, people who fear success may struggle to get started. Or they may find that they start projects and then lack the motivation to finish them.
  • Reduced self-esteem: While achievement is normally associated with strong self-esteem, this may not be the case with those who fear being successful. This may be particularly true for people who also experience imposter syndrome because they don’t attribute their achievement to their skill, knowledge, or hard work.
  • Low expectations: Researchers have also found that people with a fear of success tend to adopt low academic and career goals compared to their abilities.

Recap

The fear of success causes people to miss out on opportunities, impairs personal development, and makes it more difficult to achieve goals in life.

Treatment for Fear of Success

Fortunately, therapy can be an effective treatment for the fear of success. Some approaches that may be used include:

Psychoanalytic Therapy

Psychoanalytic therapy is focused on understanding unconscious influences and childhood experiences and how they might contribute to a person's current problems.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people learn how to identify the automatic negative thoughts that contribute to maladaptive behaviors. By understanding these negative thought patterns, people can learn how to develop more positive ways of thinking that won’t hamper their ability to achieve their goals.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a form of CBT that involves gradual, progressive exposure to the source of your fear. It might involve visualizing yourself as successful or participating in activities that contribute to success. By exposing yourself to the thing that you fear, your anxiety will gradually fade with time.

Mindfulness-Based Therapy

Because fear of success often stems from poor self-esteem, mindfulness-based therapies that improve self-awareness and reduce stress can be helpful. Such approaches focus on helping people reduce stress and become more aware of their thoughts and feelings. 

In some cases, your doctor may also prescribe medications to treat associated conditions such as depression or anxiety.

Coping With the Fear of Success

There are also things that you can do on your own to help cope with and overcome a fear of success. This includes reflecting on the nature and source of your fear and learning to identify the behaviors that occur as a result. 

Once you have a better understanding of these patterns, you can focus your attention on combating these self-destructive tendencies.

Deal With Stress

Because stress can play a role in your fear, it is important to look for ways to relax and manage your stress and anxiety. Try stress management techniques such as:

Identify Negative Beliefs

Finding ways to reframe your thoughts about achievement can also be an effective coping strategy. Start paying attention to some of the negative beliefs that you might have surrounding achievement.

Do you associate success with negative outcomes? Are you worried about what other people might think? Once you become more aware of these negative thought patterns, you can start working to replace them with more positive ones.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares tips for reframing your self-limiting beliefs, featuring Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann

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Practice Tolerating Discomfort

Because fear of achievement can lead to avoidance behaviors, one way to cope is to improve your distress tolerance skills. When you experience uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions, work on gradually learning to sit with those feelings rather than run from them. 

What you may find is that over time your fear and discomfort become easier to deal with. You may also find that the source of your anxiety wasn’t as difficult or frightening as you thought it was going to be.

Recap

The fear of success can be difficult to cope with, but taking steps such as practicing relaxation strategies, challenging negative beliefs, and learning to tolerate distress can help.

A Word From Verywell

Fear of success can make it difficult to reach your goals and can be detrimental to your self-esteem and overall well-being. Fortunately, there are things you can do to overcome this fear. Strengthening your coping skills can help, but consider talking to a mental health professional if your fear is causing distress or interfering with your ability to function normally.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.