Just about everywhere in the psychology, self-help, self-development and spiritual field, you will hear about the fear of success. Because of this, it is all too common to hear people say, “I think I’m just afraid of success.” The thing is, no one is actually afraid of success! And as long as we keep perpetuating this lie, we will not be able to identify what we are actually afraid of and we will fail to make any headway towards bringing about our desires.
To succeed is to accomplish an aim or a purpose. It is to achieve what you want. No one fears achieving what they want. Therefore, no one actually fears success. What they do fear is some unwanted thing that they think will happen if they accomplish the aim or purpose that they are looking to achieve. If you have formed an association between the success that you want and some unwanted thing, in order to avoid that unwanted thing, you will resist doing the things necessary to bring about your success.
Let’s imagine that you really love trees and you want to go sit under one. But you had an association with trees and snakes. And you are terrified of snakes. You would resist going and sitting under the tree. It would be ridiculous for someone to turn to you and say “I think you’re just afraid of trees!” It could also send you on a wild goose chase relative to solving your problem. After all, we would deal with someone’s fear of trees very differently than we would deal with someone’s fear of snakes because they are different problems entirely.
There are a lot of things people may be afraid of or resistant to when we say they have a fear of success. Here are just a few examples…
- The fear that once we achieve something, we may not be able to sustain it and so, we will suffer and cause other people to suffer as a result of not being able to sustain it. So, the real fear here is that we don’t have what it takes to keep our success instead of lose it.
- The terror of how other people will react to our triumph. So, the real fear is facing negative reaction.
- The fear that success will mean attention that we don’t want. So, the real fear is attention.
- The fear that we might lose connection with someone if we achieve what we want. So, the real fear is loss of connection.
- The fear of being seen and opening ourselves to scrutiny. So, the real fear is vulnerability regarding negative public opinion.
- The fear that we will lose something we don’t want to lose because success will bring change. So, the real fear is the loss of something we cherish.
- The fear of losing a sense of belonging with people we love if we become successful and even of being rejected or ostracized by them. So, the real fear is social separation.
- The fear that success will cause others to use us and take what is ours regardless of the impact on us. So, the real fear is parasitic dynamics in relationships.
- The fear that success will mean people’s expectations of us will increase. So, the real fear is of increased pressure and the fear of disappointing others or letting them down.
So that you can understand this pattern a little better, I’ll give you an example.
Nolan is on a partial scholarship for baseball at college. Nolan is a better baseball player than anyone else on the team. He’s good enough that he could turn professional. But when he had the chance to try to go professional, he chose to be practical and go to college instead. He also chose a college where he could guarantee that he would be the best player on a worse team. Quite frankly, this behavior and these choices he keeps making are infuriating to his coaches and his teammates and his girlfriend. Several times, Nolan’s coach has told Nolan that he has a fear of success. But what is really happening is this:
Nolan’s sister was born with a severe mental disability; severe enough that Nolan’s entire family revolves around her and her needs. It is something that caused Nolan a lot of pain. But Nolan was taught that the right way to feel towards his sister was pity and the right thing to do for his sister was to sacrifice himself for her wellbeing. When he played with her, he was always encouraged to do worse so that she could feel better and more confident about herself. Nolan learned that this was not only the only way to be a good person. It was also the right way to love his sister. He feels like becoming a professional sports star is unfair to her. He feels like she would be living a life in the gutter and he would be living his best life, leaving her in the dust. As a result, he feels he would be increasing her suffering and therefore be an evil person. Nolan does not fear success. He fears being a bad person. He fears harming his sister and thereby losing closeness with her and the rest of his family. As a result, he is sabotaging his own success in order to avoid that experience.
If Nolan got hooked on the idea that he feared success, he would not get anywhere because he would not be focused on the actual problem. He might attend seminars where he is instructed to visualize his own success. Or read motivational books about how to discipline himself through the self-defeating thoughts that tell you that you are not good enough. And nothing would change. In order to succeed and progress, Nolan has to face the actual problem, which is his early experiences with his sister and his family and the beliefs he has adopted from those experiences regarding what he must do to maintain closeness with them and be a good person.
If we keep perpetuating the lie that it is possible to fear success, success will continue to be the smokescreen or scapegoat that keeps us from seeing what the real problem is. It will prevent us from seeing what we are really afraid of.
If we seem to be sabotaging our own success, we will only ever get anywhere if we identify the unwanted thing that we are really afraid of experiencing as a result of achieving what we want. To do this, close your eyes and imagine achieving what you want. Let yourself play it out. See how that achievement changes or doesn’t change each different sector of your life and your relationship with each different person and thing and place in your life. See what your mind tells you is the reality of what will happen as a result of achieving what you want. Then, answer the question: If I achieve what I want, what bad thing would it mean or what bad thing would happen?
Once you have that answer, the real work is about addressing that fear or that unwanted thing directly because that is the real problem, not the getting of what you do want.