Fear of.....Success? How We Hold Ourselves Back

What is holding you back may surprise you.

Fear of failure is often what keeps us up at night. When it comes to our careers trying something new can be daunting. But what if that fear was not about failure, but about success and the change it will bring?

As strange as it may seem, many are stymied by the fear of success just as much as the fear of failure. Entrepreneurs, corporate executives, artists, and the self-employed are all subject to under-reaching or self-sabotage due to the fear of success. Why is this so?

According to Somatic Psychologist Susanne Babbel, PhD, feelings of excitement can be too similar to sensations experienced during a traumatic event, such as a thumping heart, rapid breathing or tingly palms (Psychology Today, Jan. 3 2011). As a result, some of us can literally feel uncomfortable when we think about or approach success.

On a psychological level, fear of success is connected to what I unscientifically refer to as The Four Fears: Fear of the Unknown, Loss of Time, Loss of Identity and the Impostor Syndrome. As you read each one, I welcome your thoughts about your own experiences, any ‘a-ha’ moments, and whether you feel these affect women and men equally or differently.

Fear of the Unknown

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Thich Nhat Hanh

What will success look like? Often times we hold ourselves back from success because the future is unknown and we make assumptions about it. A funny thing about assumptions – we almost always assume them to be negative. If we are comfortable enough with the present, why risk the unknown? Success might lead to something completely new and different – new possibilities, new responsibilities, new roles (that we may or may not feel prepared for), and new ways to be vulnerable or criticized. Fear is a natural instinct. Taking time to understand the root of this fear, delineate between the real and perceived risks, and visualize what success looks and feels like can take some of the power out of this fear and put it towards the future.

Loss of Time

“There is never enough time, unless you are serving it.” Malcolm Forbes

Another fear related to success is the time commitment required to start or grow a business, get a promotion, move into an executive role, go back to school or return to work. Our time is a limited resource and success, particularly in the beginning, may require more time away from family, friends and, importantly, self-care. We have children, families, pets, hobbies - and time is finite. The question to ask is whether we are okay with spending our time as things are (and that is completely okay) or, if not, how to get creative with time to make the investment in a successful endeavor. Can we carve out an extra hour of your day? Can someone else handle a task or responsibility? Is there another way to pool ‘time resources’ with others? Realize that the amount of time we “have” changes as we move through life. Time for a 20-something can look very different for someone in his or her early forties. What may not be possible today in terms of time may be possible in one, three or five years. If the time is not available now, how can we best use the interim years to prepare ourselves to meet that opportunity down the line? 

Loss of Identity

“I don’t know who I am anymore.”

Feelings of identity loss and alienation are very real, especially if success carries with it the possibility of leaving the familiar such as family, community or even social class. Thoughts such as, “If I am successful, what happens to my relationships?” can plague even the most determined among us. We are social beings and losing our identity – loyal spouse, good parent, dutiful child, caregiver, struggling artist – can be frightening. Success most likely will change relationships with those around us, as does moving away from home, getting married or becoming a parent. Recognizing that relationships are dynamic and change over time can help, as can working with a therapist or coach to ease the transition. As we move into and through success, we have to consider how we will strive to maintain our identities and follow the words of Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

The Impostor Syndrome

“I don’t belong here.”

Do you feel like a fraud? That you don’t measure up to or deserve your success? Or will someone discover you are more lucky than smart? Welcome to the phenomenon known as Impostor Syndrome – an inability to internalize accomplishments despite evidence of achievement and ability. Feelings of inadequacy can stymie the most talented or hard working among us. Melody Wilding, LSCW, in her January 2016 article for The Muse, highlights the work of Impostor Syndrome Expert Valerie Young, who described five types of The Impostor. You can find the article here – and decide if any of the five apply to you. Incidentally, this syndrome is particularly common in high-achieving women and minorities. Exploring the internalized feedback that causes us to feel that we do not deserve or are incapable of success is the first step to changing the inner dialogue. Stacey Lastoe of The Muse conveniently offers advice from various career coaches on how to work around and through feelings of inadequacy and lack of confidence. Dr. Robert Hicks, clinical professor of organization behavior and the founder of the Executive and Professional Coaching Program at UT Dallas, eloquently states that small steps in thought and action lead to big changes.

Moving Into Success

Understanding the Four Fears prepares us to counter self-sabotaging behaviors, allowing us to move through the fear of success and towards our goal. For some, this is enough; for others, professional development coaching or working with a trained therapist will help move past the limitations and towards a desired outcome or career.

Do I sometimes fear success? Absolutely. Do I occasionally feel like an Impostor? You bet. But I also recognize that both of these feelings do not serve my family, my colleagues, or myself. For me, it was waiting until family obligations were not as pressing, and then, deepening my coaching knowledge through study and coursework. Awareness and action go a long way in overcoming the fear of success. Dark chocolate, deep friendships and good wine helped me a lot as well!

What is YOUR experience with fear of success, and how have you decided to deal with it? I want to hear from you!