The Hidden Barrier: Fear of Success


Admit to someone that you have a fear of failure and they nod their head in empathy. Speak of your fear of success, though, and you usually get a puzzled expression in return. It's a reaction I honestly don’t understand for when I look around - and within – me, I see fear of success everywhere.

It’s in the student who shows every sign of being a gifted musician yet chooses biology as his major.

It’s in the employee who hangs back in the workplace, convinced he's too inexperienced/busy/uncreative/overqualified/tired/out-of-the-loop to contribute more.

It's in the person who hides behind cynicism and sarcasm, drowning in thoughts like "work is just a paycheck" and "the life I'd once imagined for myself was a kid's fantasy."

It’s in the individual who dreams of having tens of thousands of people experience her writing who, after 5,000 people read one of her heartfelt articles, stops writing altogether.

That last one? That would be me.

My Personal Retreat From Desired Achievement

I’ve disappeared for the past few weeks, ever since my first publication in elephant journal not only hit my lofty goal of 1500 views but tripled it. Thankfully my vanishing act conveniently coincided with the holiday season and hopefully went unnoticed. (See what I did there? <wink> I’m wicked savvy at masking my fear of success.)

There's a back story to my predictable retreat from (rather small yet large to me) exposure:  When I started the blog that morphed into this website one year ago today (today!), I set it to “private” for the first three weeks. I couldn’t handle the idea of anyone reading my thoughts.

Once I finally “released” the blog to public status, I nearly had a coronary when my stats revealed that three people had visited – on a day that I hadn’t stopped by myself (and thus couldn’t provide myself with comforting self-delusions about my visits counting).

That was me a year ago. Utterly scared that if I put my heart’s work out there, it might actually <gasp> be well received.

Which is a bit silly because in my days writing as the Child Development Contributing Writer for I got tens of thousands of hits on my articles every single month. That was “success,” wasn’t it? And I withstood that without a blink.

Yet the experience felt removed from me. They weren’t “my” thoughts laid out in pixels. They weren’t “my” passions laid bare. They didn’t represent “my” dream being buoyed or crushed.

Those articles were assignments, plain and simple.

And herein lies the telltale characteristic of fear of success, a feature that masks its existence from its very owner:  the closer an activity lies to your core desires, the greater your likelihood of stepping back when even a whiff of success comes your way. 

Which means we can accept many accomplishments, making it seem to ourselves and to others like we have no fear of success.

All As? No problem. A nationally competitive graduate fellowship? No sweat. Glowing teaching evaluations? Pshaw.

But put my genuine words out there – words plucked from the ephemeral fog I created in the still, private mornings during the five years I journaled and wrote never-submitted essays and crafted a book proposal that only graced the pupils of select agents’ eyes? Then I back down. Full force.

So today I’m coming out and saying it:  doing well at the endeavor I care about most scares me five hundred times more than doing poorly.

And I believe I’m not alone.

Rare is the person who can look the full glare of desired accomplishment in the face and not flinch.

Why We Fear Success

There should be no shame in this admittance (yet there is…) for when you lay out the reasons for a fear of success, it’s enough to make someone (me…) say, “hey, who wouldn’t be afraid?!”

  • Anxiety and excitement feel physiologically similar, so many of us avoid the excited feeling of success. Psychologist Susanne Babbel claims this may be particularly true for people who have endured traumas. I’d suggest, though, that anyone who is tuned into their bodily reactions and internal states may become overwhelmed by the similarity, which puts introverts at risk.
  • We’re afraid of getting disappointed, which is related to the vulnerability issue of “foreboding joy” about which I recently wrote.
  • We’re privately uncomfortable with making others feel “lesser than.” We all claim we want to be king of the mountain, but many of us only want that if it means there's no one beneath us in the valley. Judith Shervan believes the “fear of being fabulous” comes from a commandment “to not break out beyond where you came from, to not really leave home.” She asserts that we have all been subjected to this, in some way, shape or form. I love the quotation by Marianne Williamson on this topic, which Nelson Mandela chose for his inaugural speech. It begins:  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
  • We secretly believe we don’t deserve success. The imposter syndrome is in full effect for many of us. Check out this dusty article from the Working Self vault for more on the topic.
  • We fear the flipside of success. In one of the few times that I shared my fear of success aloud, I told the listening friend that I feared that I would be swept to the top of a wave – and then be left to fall down its face. It's a valid fear:  artists and musicians often do experience the sophomore slump. The self-consciousness that comes with accomplishment blocks attempts at pure creation, resulting in work that is tepid, uninspired, and “safe.” A la countless second albums. 
  • We don’t want to be criticized. When did I know that this website was getting into a good number of people’s hands? When I received my first negative comment. (Given that there aren’t too many negative comments to be found on this site, you know that “a good number of people’s hands” still means “few relative to other websites.”) It’s generally true that the more eyes, the greater the possibility for criticism. Thus fear of success links closely with fear of failure, making it difficult to tease the two apart.
  • We don’t want to feel exposed. There is no more naked feeling than saying, “Hey world, this is what I genuinely care about. This is what I truly want. This is what I'd sacrifice most anything to have.” It’s basically announcing, “Here’s the A-prime, this-can-be-my-undoing, defenseless spot on my body! And I’m not even going to attempt to protect it!” Yikes. Easier to hide behind cynicism, skepticism, and/or a self-deceiving veneer of “I have no clue what I want” than do this. Note I said easier. Not better.

How We Combat Fear of Success

With all that working against us, what can we do?

We can battle fear of success by doing what we’re doing right here:  naming it, calling it out, recognizing it in ourselves.

For when fear of success remains hidden to ourselves, it acts as plexiglas barrier between us and the work we need to be doing.

And then, once spoken, we march on.

We accept Williamson’s pronouncement:  “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 admit our genuine desires aloud and find ways of dealing with the ripple (or crush) of anxiety that follows.

We ride the wave of achievement even though we know it will inevitability buck us at the end.

We create as if no one is watching.

We build, in sum, the very life we’re afraid of living. Because we know, deep down, that a life lived in fear trumps a life lived in denial.

Photo credit: ecstaticist