Fear of Success: Why, and How to Beat It

We all want success, but actually many of us fear it as well. Why do we do that, and how can we break it down? Here’s one universal approach that will help you deal with a major portion of your fear of success.

One of my current challenges is to stop staying up too late.

I know, it’s really not a huge problem — but nevertheless, it is on my list of habits to change. It’s unhealthy and potentially dangerous, as I can get sleepy when I’m driving.

The thing is, though, I’d have a few days of going to bed on time, and feeling rested. But after 3-4 days, my body starts craving the tiredness from sleep deprivation.

Can you believe it? I actually crave it!

So much so that I just feel too much energy at my bed time. And when I have the energy, I go “I’m not tired yet — I can go have some fun, or get something useful done.”

What I Am Used to

We’re all creatures of habits, and we all feel uncomfortable with unknowns.

These two qualities can play against our healing and growth.

What’s happening to me is that my body is so accustomed to the state of sleep deprivation that it feels normal.

Similarly, if you live a life that’s really not to your liking, you still get used to that being normal.

The other day, I took a day off from my work to spend a day doing what I love to do.

I was sitting in a local coffeehouse with my laptop, but for the first hour or so I was very distracted — I kept looking over my shoulder to see if someone (from my work, perhaps?) would just come in and discover me doing something I’m not supposed to be doing.

I took a very legitimate vacation day, with the blessing from my boss! My family was engaged elsewhere, so I wasn’t needed there either. The day was all mine — and what I chose to do with it was nobody else’s business.

Then why did I feel so uncomfortable?

Because normal, to me, is spending my day meeting someone else’s needs.

Once I got over this initial discomfort, I went on to have the time of my life. It was a great day.

Fear of Success — at least a Part of It

These experience informed me about what it is we’re up against in our pursuit of our success:

  1. Success is a foreign concept to our system, and
  2. Our system wants what’s familiar to it.

Together, these can create a very potent self-sabotage system. I’m not saying that’s all there is to fear of success, but it is at least a part of it.

If you’re used to processed, unhealthy food, healthy food may not taste good to you. Your healthier, leaner body may feel foreign to you. It takes your switching your default mode — what is “normal” to your system — for you to sustain that state.

If you’re used to being belittled by your family, friends and colleagues, you don’t have much faith in a situation where everybody praises and affirms you. You’d think there’s something wrong with that picture! The chances are, you’d think the situation wouldn’t last long — and when you’re back being belittled, you’d feel a strange sense of comfort, knowing that you landed back to the reality as you know it.

Strategies for Successful Change

I won’t go into specifics, as this applies to many cases, from habit change to career advancement to a broader sense of success in your life. But through them all, a few core principles do emerge:

  1. Reduce stress and boost your resources. Even if it’s a positive change, it’s still taxing to your systems. Get sleep, eat well, exercise, line up your friends to rally around you — so you can get over the initial discomfort.
  2. Experience success, in however small ways you can. My day of living the way I want was such an attempt — now that I worked over the initial hump, next time I will not have to deal with my fear of success as much. But it’s even better if it’s in small but regular dosages. This is why ideas like 30-day trials are so powerful. (Read about Hunter’s trial) The idea is to get your system used to your success.
  3. Do it in increments. Since succeeding is a stressful change, don’t necessarily go for big changes — take baby steps, get used to the change, and then go for a bigger one. If you do plan to go for a big one, be sure to do more of #1 & 2.

Here’s the bottom line: you can beat the fear of success by making success feel normal to you. I’m sure there are all kinds of tricks, hacks and techniques for producing that result.

What was your fear of success? And if you beat it, how did you do it?

Still need to learn more about fear of success?  Read the continuation: Are You Sabotaging Your Success?

25 Comments

  1. Ari, I had never really understood fear of success when people mentioned it. But I like your examples about being uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, like having a day to yourself, or eating healthy food for a change.

    I’ve actually been trying to get used to healthy food recently, and while I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of it, it doesn’t feel right, even though it should. But baby steps will get us to where we want to go. Thanks for the link.

    Hunter Nuttall´s last blog post..Why We’re Broke and How To Fix It

    1. Hi Hunter,

      Well, I now wonder if I should have worded it as “resistance to success” but deep down, I think there is a fear and discomfort for that unknown, for the “abnormal” way of living — when not being a success is normal, then success feels unbelievable and unrealistic.

      So the initial stage can feel rather uncomfortable. Here’s an early post of mine that I wrote on a thought that can help you get through that initial discomfort.

      http://ourbestversion.com/2008/06/starting-is-the-hardest-part/

      ari

  2. Awesome post Ari! What really stood out to me was your specific examples of how some things that many of us may experience in our lives (i.e. lack of sleep) can really be examples of “fear of success”. And it’s like a paradigm shift for me. I am now asking myself – what successes in my life do I fear? What’s holding me back from making positive change in my life? I don’t have answers to these questions right now, but I think the first step is identifying where I can make positive change – and why I’m not. I will work on this. Often we hear of “fear of failure” – when just as often it can be success we fear – which you’ve pointed out so eloquently. Wonderful, and very thought-provoking Ari!

    Lance´s last blog post..Guest Post: What’s Your Best Effort?

    1. Lance,

      Thanks! I hope it helps you really ask the question of “what do I want?” because a lot of times, we aren’t really honest when we think about what we want — well, at least I used to filter, shrink and diminish my desires thinking that they were “unrealistic.” When I was used to a state very far from my ideal, I just couldn’t believe that it was possible for life to be that good. Success seemed like a foreign concept, when life was so devoid of it.

      But through identifying little successes and getting used to them, succeeding became normal to me. My life is increasingly getting closer to worry-free and optimistic. It’s an evolution anyone will enjoy, but may feel unbelievable until you experience it. I hope you do.

      ari

  3. Hi Ari – I know what you mean about what seems “normal.” After I got divorced, it took a lot of time to get used to living in a peaceful home. When five o’clock rolled around, I wasn’t dreading anyone’s arrival, or worrying that someone hadn’t arrived. It was so quiet in my new home that it seemed very strange. Then one day, I realized this is really how it should be. A haven, not a battlefield.

    Betsy Wuebker´s last blog post..VOTE

    1. Hi Betsy,

      Thanks for sharing your personal story. Indeed, that’s exactly what I was talking about. When you’re used to hurt and discomfort, you have a hard time accepting even the things you want. That’s why so many people stay stuck, longing and yearning, but not really inching closer to their success. What’s normal and realistic to them is the act of longing and yearning, not realizing and fulfilling their needs and desires.

      But that can be changed, as you have. Thanks for a great example.

      ari

  4. I hope someone can help me here. I don’t mean to step on any toes if it comes out that way. I’m not 100% sure how to phrase my question, but I’ll give it a shot.

    I understand the “goal” portion of this article, but I’m having a difficult time understanding the “fears of the success” part of it. You listed a goal as going to bed earlier, getting more sleep. Without writing a whole new post 🙂 can you maybe list some examples of what types of fear might be associated with that particular goal. Maybe not that goal, maybe you have another example to use.

    I’m sure to most, this is elementary, but I’ve read the article several times over the day, and I’m just having a hard time grasping it. It’s right on the very edge of my reach I do believe.

    Scott´s last blog post..Motivationallessness

    1. Scott,

      Yes, like I said above, “fear” may have been a strong word considering the casual examples I gave. “Resistance” may be more appropriate. But I do believe that there is such a thing as fear of success.

      My point here was that it’s closely tied to our fear of unknowns, and fear of change.

      The logic goes like this: you’re used to not being a success -> Non-success is your “normal” state -> success is a foreign, uncomfortable state -> you unconsciously resist and fear it, simply because it doesn’t feel “normal” to you.

      Above, Betsy’s example is a great illustration. Something close may be if you’re constantly bullied in school or work. Getting bullied becomes normal to you, and when it all the sudden goes away, you go “this can’t be right. Life can’t be this good” because you’re so used to getting bullied. You have mistrust in your present state of being and you start looking for proof that you are “right” — that such a state can’t last. It may not be a conscious fear but your system is fearing this change, fearing to trust it.

      At its worst, such fear can drive you to self-sabotage your success.

      Does that make more sense to you? I’m sorry you had to read it several times! I’ll be happy to keep on discussing it if you’d like.

      ari

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  6. Great post Ari. This makes sense. The ole’ comfort zone – get’s so many people probably most of us in so many ways we don’t realize.

    Just like in SFT Awareness, many people choose not to go through the training or at least do the work because they can’t fathom there life being different from the way it is. They are used to the misery. It’s comfortable to them and while they want peace it is so foreign to them. Everything about their life will change. It will all be for the better, but it will be different. They may feel like they are losing control of people or things, when in reality they are gaining control of their lives. But it’s foreign.

    Baby steps… great point here. Sometimes I want to eat the whole elephant in one gulp. 😮

    I would like to also add something that helps me: visualization. Take time each day to visualize what you want. Make it very vivid. Then the thing of it being so foreign diminishes greatly. It starts to become reality in your mind.

    Jennifer´s last blog post..Have You Told Yourself this Lie?

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      Yeah, I get impatient, too. Like you said, I have no problem imagining/visualizing a better state — so I want to get going fast. But often I find that while my conscious self is eager, I have underlying fears that hold me back, keep me from really believing in the change. Visualization can really bring those up to the fore — even though you’re imagining a better state, part of you is going “yeah, right, it’ll never happen.”

      That’s the voice we need to quiet, and purge. And to me, the best way is to see something concrete and real, a real tangible success, on a regular basis.

      ari

    1. Hi Evita,

      Welcome to OBV! Thanks for your comment.

      Well, as they say (I forget the exact quote), a familiar evil is better than an unknown one — but is it, really? A familiar pain does not contain any potential for improvements. Like you said, change is what contains the chance to succeed.

      Keep in touch! I look forward to getting to know you.

      ari

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  9. I found this article by doing a google search on what does fear of success really mean? I never could fully understand it. Until now! Thank You so very much! The unknown = thoughts of fear, lack of control, failure and so much more. All the pieces fit together for me now – again Thank You! 🙂

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