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The Fear of Success Can Sabotage Your Life Goals

How to Overcome this Source of Anxiety to Achieve Your Goals

Key points

  • Not only does fear of failure keep people from reaching their goals; so does fear of success.
  • One step toward overcoming fear of success is to keep a record of its costs to self and others.

As a psychiatrist, I have the privilege of sitting in the front row as people share with me their deepest aspirations. Unfortunately, I have witnessed countless dreams fall to ashes due to a number of fears.

I have previously written about the fear of failure and how it prevents us from achieving our goals. However, there is an additional source of anxiety that derails our dreams. Even though it is discussed less often than the fear of failure, it is an equally formidable foe. This is the fear of success.

In our highly competitive society, where success has become synonymous with happiness, the fear of success may sound like a paradox. Our society glamorizes the accumulation of wealth, fame and power that may accompany achievement. Only when we peel back the façade of success can we better understand why many shy away from it.

With success comes change. This fuels anxiety because we are creatures of habit who find comfort in our routines. We hesitate to enter uncharted waters even if this is our best course of action. I have professionally encountered numerous people who resisted letting go of unhealthy habits or toxic partners because they were afraid to change their lives. They preferred the certainty of the present rather than the uncertainty that accompanies change.

Many also fear success because it can come with great responsibility. People in positions of authority are held at a higher standard. When things go wrong, it can be easier to deflect the responsibility and potential consequences that may come with it.

When I was a physician-in-training, I found comfort in having a supervising attending physician monitor the quality of my work and cosign my notes. After I completed my studies, this safety net was taken away. It took some time to develop confidence in having the responsibility of caring for a patient fall solely on my shoulders.

Finally, success makes us more visible. The brighter spotlight can make many people uncomfortable. They prefer to stay out of the public eye and live quieter lives.

For the longest time, I was reluctant to join social media or share my writing for fear of having the spotlight pointed at me. I did not join until I realized that my reluctance came at a cost. Through my writing, I am able to share nuggets of information that may help people better cope with anxiety.

The fear of success is such a formidable foe that it can sabotage the very achievements you worked so hard to earn. In a psychological phenomenon known as imposter syndrome, one may attribute their level of success to luck rather than talent and qualification. Imposter syndrome represents a final attempt to relinquish agency by attributing our achievements to external circumstances beyond our control.

The fear of success can prevent you from reaching your goals. The first step to overcome this fear is to develop self-awareness and understand how it presents in your life. Detecting this fear may be subtle if it takes on the form of procrastination. You may wish to apply for your dream job, earn a degree or write a book but never take any action towards these goals. Worst yet, you may waste an eternity sabotaging your progress towards these goals. You may apply yourself half-heartedly and find endless distractions that drift you away from your desired destination.

Many people are too embarrassed to admit they fear success. When you identify this fear, be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion. Adding shame only makes it harder to address the problem at hand.

In addition, recognize how flawed thought patterns are fueling your fear of success. When we are anxious, we zoom in on our fears. We fixate on the worst-case scenario even if it has a low probability of occurring. We treat our worries as inevitable and imminent even if they are only hypothetical scenarios that live in our minds.

Anxiety can have a paralyzing effect when it prevents us from taking any action towards our goals. This leads to avoidance behavior such as procrastination. To combat anxiety, you need to zoom out and look at the big picture. Visualize the potential benefits that can come with achieving your goals such as personal growth and making positive contributions in the life of others. Also, keep a list of how your fear of success comes at a cost to you and others. Looking at the big picture provides a healthy counterbalance to the anxiety-provoking thoughts that may keep you frozen in your tracks.

Finally, we need to take action to overcome the fear of success. Avoidance behavior may momentarily reduce anxiety. However, it only perpetuates anxiety in the long-term because it does not address the root of the problem. It only trains our brains to be afraid and avoid anxiety-inducing triggers.

Face your fear in a step-wise approach by starting with the least fearful situation and progressing gradually to more challenging situations. For example, if your goal is to give a public speech, start by imagining yourself giving the talk. You may then share your idea with a trustworthy confidant and even present the entire talk to them at the comfort of your home. This could be followed by giving the talk to a few family members and friends at the same location. When you have mastered this step, you may present your talk to a small group of people in a different location. Through this approach, you experience a number of small victories that build your confidence towards your ultimate goal.

The pursuit of achievement can be anxiety-provoking because success can come with an increase in responsibility and scrutiny. However, the fear of success also comes at a great cost. It can prevent you from reaching your fullest potential and making positive contributions in the life of others. Challenging anxiety-provoking thoughts and facing your fear in a step-wise approach can help you achieve your goals.

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